Some Dialects Are Actually Distinct Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Often, what one would quite reasonably see as separate languages, are thought of as variations on the same thing. Are Chinese and Arabic dialects different versions of the same language, or are they different languages in their own right? And why does this confusion exist to begin with?

Image of Chinese letters being written by someone on a blackboard.
Mandarin and Cantonese are as different from each other as French and Spanish, so calling them dialects of Chinese is a misnomer. (Image: Juan Ci/Shutterstock)

Very often, what one would quite reasonably see as languages—as separate languages, really are thought of as variations on the same thing. This is so for various reasons, which are quite external to anything about speaking or the languages themselves.

For example, one often hears about the Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese. However, that is a misnomer because Mandarin and Cantonese are every bit as different as French and Spanish. So if a Mandarin person has to learn Cantonese, or vice-versa, it is not a matter of wrapping the ear around some new words. He would in fact be learning a new tongue, most probably needing to attend classes even.

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Chinese Dialects Are Actually Different Chinese Languages

There are seven main dialects in China, and they are all very different. So, for example, if someone speaks Taiwanese, that is utterly and completely different from both Mandarin and Cantonese. Similarly, Shanghainese is completely different again. Then there are three other varieties that are not encountered very much by Westerners, but they are all just as different again from the other four.

Even beyond that, when you talk about Taiwanese, Taiwanese and the version of that spoken inland, which is often called Hokkien or Fujianese, are technically the same thing. They are all one of these ‘dialects’. But especially in the mainland, Fujianese can differ so much from village to village that people have trouble understanding each other.

So there really are are many Chinese languages that are spoken in China. In Mandarin, for example, I is wǒ. In Cantonese, it is ngóh, which is a completely different word. In Mandarin, the word for car is chēzi. In Cantonese, it is ga chē. These are all completely different languages.

Picture of a male teacher and a boy student standing in front of a chalkboard, with the student writing something in Chinese on the board.
Chinese languages are considered dialects partly because they share the same writing system, which is not based on the alphabet like English is, but rather based on pictures of concepts. (Image: Michaeljung/Shutterstock)

However, because they are related languages, just like the Romance languages, they have similar grammars. The words tend to come in similar order, although not the exact same order.

Chinese languages are considered dialects partly because they happen to be written with the same writing system. The Chinese writing system is not based on the alphabet like English is, but it is based on pictures of concepts. Not completely, but that is the heart of the system.

As a result, if in language A, you say bu chi da buh (which is a meaningless sentence), and then in language B, you say ga pi the weh, and if they both mean the same thing, if both of those are ways of saying “Dog jump off table”, then even if the people can’t understand each other, if what the language writing system depicts is “Dog…jump…off…table”, then everybody who speaks these different languages can read and write in the same way.

So there is a single Chinese writing system. That, plus the fact that China has a certain sense of cultural identity, creates the idea that all of these people are speaking the Chinese language. But in fact, these are not dialects of a single Chinese language, but a whole bunch of different Chinese languages.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Distinct Arabic Languages

Arabic is another example of different languages being considered same.

Standard Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran or the modern standard Arabic that you would get taught in a college Arabic course, is essentially like Latin to the Romance languages. That is the version of the language the Arab world writes in. The Arabic that is actually spoken on the ground is not usually written.

That language is completely different from the Arabic that anybody learns at home. There are many, many regional Arabic languages, which are as different from this Latin Arabic (so to speak) as French, Spanish, and Italian are from Latin.

For example, let us consider the word nothing. In Algerian Arabic, it is ši; in Tunisian Arabic, it is šay; in Nigerian Arabic, it is še; in Morocco, it is wálu; in Saudi Arabian Arabic or Gulf Arabic, it is walašay; in Egyptian Arabic, supposedly the same language, it is dilwa’ti; and then in Libya, it is kān lbarka.

Obviously, these are very different tongues. That is what one would expect of different languages. But again, all of these varieties are united by a writing system. Most people who speak all of these different languages only encounter anything like their language in this one special archaic variety, which is written in the Arabic script.

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Impact of Cultural Unity on Languages

These languages share a cultural unity—Arab plus Islam. So the people often think of themselves as all speaking one language, despite the fact that, face-to-face, indeed the Moroccan and the Egyptian might as well be speaking Spanish and Italian.

They can make out some bits here and there. But when you see these on the page, it is quite clear that they are not a single language in any sense. This makes it very difficult to deal diplomatically with the Arabic language.

If someone today is trained in Arabic, he can speak modern standard Arabic. However, if the person goes to, for example, Iraq, and interacts with people there, particularly with those people who do not have much access to education, such as women and children, he would be at a complete linguistic handicap.

If the person has to deal with a sheltered female person or a child, speaking modern standard Arabic would be like being in early Gaul or France speaking Latin. Only a certain class of people are going to get it. Iraqi Arabic is a completely different language.

Then, of course, Arabic is, depending on how you count it, a couple of dozen languages. Then there is just that one writing system, that is not what anybody actually lives in. So it can be a problem, but Arabic is very much a matter of various languages, which are called dialects because of this conception of cultural unity.

Common Questions about Chinese and Arabic Dialects and Languages

Q: Is Mandarin and Cantonese the same?

Mandarin and Cantonese are known as dialects of Chinese language. However, that’s a misnomer because Mandarin and Cantonese are two different languages, as different as French and Spanish.

Q: What are the main Chinese dialects?

There are seven main dialects in China, and they are all completely different. The most well-known of the seven are Mandarin and Cantonese. Then, there’s Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and three other varieties that are not encountered very much by Westerners.

Q: How does the Chinese writing system work?

The Chinese writing system is not based on the alphabet like English is, but it is based on pictures of concepts. Chinese languages are considered dialects partly because they happen to be written with the same writing system.

Q: Is it worth learning Modern Standard Arabic?

Modern Standard Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran, is essentially like Latin to the Romance languages. That is the version of the language the Arab world writes in. The Arabic that is actually spoken on the ground is not usually written, and that language is completely different from the Arabic that anybody learns at home.

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