Dialect and Language: Are they similar? Are they majorly different?

What makes a language a language? Is a dialect a lesser form of a language? A dialect is essentially a language that has not been awarded the prestigious title of a language. What’s the difference between a dialect and language?

Languages are afforded more prestige than a dialect because they are given a title, a nation and a canon of literature that give it its elite status as a language. But is a dialect not a language?

A ‘code’ is a linguistic system used for communication. Languages and dialects are codes. Linguists tend to define a language as the standardized code used in spoken and written form, whereas dialects are spoken vernacular codes without a standardized written system. Despite the different varieties of English spoken throughout the English-speaking world, there is a standardized written form of the language that can be understood by all who are literate in the language.

Dialects can be defined as different varieties of the same language that have evolved over time and in different geographical locations. For example, Italian, French and Spanish were once dialects of Latin, but over centuries have evolved into their own languages and in turn, have spawned their own dialects, some of which have become languages.

Dialect and Language: Origin of European languages
A lot of European languages have their origin from Latin

Is the crowning of a dialect as ruler over all others an accident of history? A dialect may be elevated to the status of language for political or national purposes. For example, newly formed nation-states may elevate a dialect to the status of language by making it the official language of the newly formed country to create a sense of national cohesion and identity. This can be seen in the case of Italy. What we now think of as the Italian language is actually evolved from a dialect that was spoken in Florence. As this was the literary centre of Italy at the time, its dialect was adopted by the elites as the language of a unified Italy, which up until 1861, was a collection of independent city-states with their own dialects, still regionally spoken today.

Similarly, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are considered different languages because they are the national languages of different countries (which they share a name with). However, a Swede, Dane and Norwegian could converse with each other in their own languages and understand one another. So, are they each speaking a dialect of the same language or a different language? Well, it depends on how you look at language. In the case of Scandinavia, languages are delineated along national lines, not in terms of mutual intelligibility.

In the case of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the five countries that emerged out of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, variants of Serbo-Croatian, the language of Yugoslavia, became distinct national languages that the newly born nations identified themselves under. Some linguists assert that the difference between these dialects-cum-languages is less than the differences between variations of English. However, such cases, the elevation of dialects to languages are less about intelligibility are more about the politics of national identity. A good example of the latter scenario was the public outcry over Cantonese being a dialect of Chinese but not recognised by Hong Kong as an official language. 

So, what’s the difference between a dialect and language? Generally, a language is written as well as spoken, while a dialect is just spoken until it is promoted to the status of language usually for political purposes. When a dialect becomes a national language, it then becomes codified into that nation’s literary tradition and acts as an identifier or national identity.

In the end, all linguistic codes are essentially beautifully complex dialects, some of which have been better polished and chosen to occupy a particular role and thus becomes standardized and recognized as a language.

Written by Jamal

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