Where Do You Draw the Line between Language and Dialect?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

There are regions in the world where dialect changes from one village to another—words change and sound different—but these dialects are all considered part of the same language. Then there are other places where dialects are almost identical, words are almost identical, yet each so-called dialect is considered a completely separate language. So, what exactly is a language and what exactly is a dialect, and how do we distinguish between the two?

A close-up view of the map of Ethiopia.
The Gurage language, spoken in Ethiopia, is primarily an oral language. It’s a great example of dialect continuum because there are seven varieties of this language that change from one village to the next, with complete different words, yet at no point one can make out that a new language is being used for communication. (Image: Tudoran Andrei/Shutterstock)

Dialects Can Sound Different And Still Belong to the Same Language Group

If there is a definite thing called language and a definite thing called dialect, then something that becomes a hindrance is the fact that there are times when as you go from region to region, the language keeps changing a little bit. These slightly changed forms of the language are called dialects. This reaches a point where you lose the ability to understand what people in a particular region are saying, but they are understood well by the people of their neighbouring region.

For example, there is a group of languages in Ethiopia. The main language in Ethiopia is Amharic, but there are other, related languages that are less known. There is one language that is known as Gurage. It is spoken by villagers, and it is not written in any serious way. It is a dialect continuum.

For example, if you want to say he thatched a roof, there are seven different varieties that you can look at. One of them is called Soddo. The way you say he thatched a roof is one word, kәddәnәm. If you go to the region next door, then there’s the Gogot variety. There the word is still kәddәnәm. But if you go next door to Gogot, you have Muher. There, instead of saying kәddәnәm, you say khәddәnәm. Obviously, nobody is going to have trouble understanding what khәddәnәm means if you grew up with kәddәnәm.

But then, next door to the Muher, are the Ezha. The way they say that word is not khәddәnәm but khәddәrәm. So they have this little r stuck in. Then, if you’re speaking Chaha, then instead of khәddәrәm, it is khәdәrәm. The difference between the short and the extended d is very important in these languages. So there is a big difference between khәddәrәm and khәdәrәm if you speak Gurage.

Then in Gyeto, instead of khәdәrәm, it is khәtәrә. So the m at the end has been lost, and the d has become t. Then, in Endegen, way over at the end, instead of khәtәrә, it is hәttәrә.

All of these changes happen step by step. Anyone you meet who speaks any of these varieties would say that he speaks Gurage. However, these dialects of the language are very different from each other.

Another example to be considered is for the word mouth in French and Spanish. In French, it is bouche. In Spanish, it is boca.

If your language is just an oral language, as most languages are, you’re just dealing with it through the ear. So bouche and boca—those are two different languages when the words are heard. However, if the two words are looked at in written form, a relationship can be seen. One can then see how the words are alike. Yet, they are two different languages. In the same way, kәddәnәm and hәttәrә are completely different words. But at no point can one say that a new language is being used for communication. It is just a kind of a continuum.

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

Some Dialects Can Be Almost Identical Yet Considered Different Languages

Turkey and Turkic languages are similar in this manner. For example, Turkish is one of the litter. There is a litter of languages that stretch eastward across the new -stan countries into western China. There’s Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

The languages of many of these countries look like dialects of one another to the untrained eye. For example, in Turkish, eight is sekiz; in Azerbaijani, it is sәkkiz; in Turkmen, it is sekiz; in Uzbek, it is sakkiz; in Kazakh, it is segiz; in Kirghiz, itis segiz; and in Uighur, it is säkkiz.

They are all very much akin. They all seem like basically the same word. But they are all considered separate languages. The reason for that is that each one of them is spoken in what is a separate political entity.

Map of Central Asia with different 
-stan countries highlighted in different colors.
The languages of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan look like dialects of one another to the untrained eye, and they are all varieties of Turkic language, yet they are all considered separate languages because of geopolitics. (Image: Rainer Lesniewski/Shutterstock)

There is no such thing when it comes to Gurage as Chahaland and Muherland. They are all spoken in the same land. So those are all seen as the same thing. It is the Gurage language, even though they get very different. Whereas all of these Turkic varieties seem kind of like dialects in a way, but they’re considered different languages because there are these geopolitical lines between them.

Learn more about dialects—where do you draw the line.

The Language and Dialect Issue

Even Scottish has this kind of thing. So Auld Lang Syne actually means, old long since. As English speakers, one might not be able to understand that, but on the other hand, Scottish doesn’t seem like a completely different language. An English speaker can relate to it.

If somebody says something like gie me the faa-share o your haudin at I hae a richt til, it means give me what I have a right to. Gie for give, richt for right, and til for to are not so difficult. Actually those are things that a Scandinavian would recognize as a heavier Scandinavian influence in Scottish/Scots.

If they say atweesh for between, twa for two, and kintra for country, it is different, but it does not seem like it is a separate language. So is it a separate language or is it a dialect? It is the latter. It’s a continuum concept. One can not draw this line, because one is dealing with a continuum concept.

Learn more about dialectsspoken style, written style.

Written Languages and Oral Languages

So what one sees is that when we are talking about what a language is and what a dialect is, firstly, it is a continuum concept. Secondly, it does not correspond with the boundaries of countries. Thirdly, it is not about one variety being somehow better or more coherent than the other.

Another thing that it is not about is that, in terms of looking at how languages are spoken, there is no logic in something that is often taught in school, which is that a language is a variety of speech that has a literature and is written down, and everything else is a dialect.

Moreover, there is no truth in the notion that because certain languages are not written down and there aren’t enormous dictionaries dedicated to it, that somehow they are primitive.

For example, Quechua has got endings to show how a noun fits into a sentence that is often very reminiscent of Latin. Spanish does not have that. In fact, the languages spoken by indigenous peoples in South America tend to be massively complicated, much more so than the Spanish.

In general, one might want to have some sort of designation for a language that is written versus a language that isn’t. But it isn’t clear if using the terms language and dialect will really help, because those two terms come loaded with a notion of ranking that doesn’t make any logical sense when you look at these things.

Generally, a linguist says that there are written languages (only about 200 out of the 6,000 in the world), and there are languages that are used orally. They might be called oral languages. So there’s less baggage in that kind of designation, and it seems to correspond with what the reality happens to be.

Common Questions about Language, Dialect, and Dialect Continuum

Q: What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

There’s an incorrect assumption that a language is a variety of speech that has a literature and is written down, and everything else is a dialect. It’s important to have some sort of designation for a language that is written versus a language that isn’t, but it isn’t clear if using the terms language and dialect can really help because those two terms come loaded with a notion of ranking that doesn’t make any logical sense when you look at these things.

Q: What are the characteristics of dialect?

When we talk about what a language is and what a dialect is, it’s important to understand that it’s a continuum concept. Secondly, it doesn’t correspond with the boundaries of countries. And thirdly, it’s not about one variety being somehow better or more coherent than the other.

Q: Are Turkic languages similar?

Turkic languages are one of the litter. It stretches eastward from Turkey across Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and into western China. The languages of many of these countries look like dialects of one another to the untrained eye. But they are all considered separate languages because there are geopolitical lines between them.

Q: What language family is Turkish a part of?

Turkish is part of the Turkic language family.

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