Why Are Similar Languages Often Known by Different Names?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

It’s quite normal to think that each country in the world has a different language. But the ground reality isn’t that simple. Why are similar languages considered to be different from each other, even though the commonalities are apparent?

Photograph of Nyhavn, a famous port in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Denmark used to rule Sweden and Norway, and in terms of linguistics, this was one region with one people, with no such thing as a Swedish language until Sweden became independent in 1526, and Norway became independent in 1814. (Image: Nikolay Antonov/Shutterstock)

If one were to think about the globe, he or she would be able to visualise the many countries of the world. They can think about the languages spoken in all of those countries. There are about 6,000 languages in the world. Most of these languages are bundles of dialects. They are ‘bundles of dialects that are all more like each other than they are like anything else’.

Though one would like to think that each county has a language, it does not work that way. There are various reasons for that.

Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian Are Essentially the Same Language

Often there are varieties of a language where looking at them on paper or hearing them, one would think those are dialects. They are akin in a way that would suggest that they are part of the same bundle. But often, world happenings determine that those are considered different languages.

For example, people know that Denmark has the Danish language; Sweden has the Swedish language; and Norway has the Norwegian language.

They have a right to call them languages, but the main reason that they do is because these are different nations, with different identities. The fact is that a Dane, a Norwegian, and a Swede can have a conversation.

For example, the word for big or large in Swedish is stora. In Danish, it’s stora. In Norwegian, which is a whole different language entirely, the word is stora. Similarly, in Swedish, the word for goose is gos. Then in Danish, it’s gos, and in Norwegian, it’s gos.

Of course, the languages differ in many words, and sometimes in tricky ways. But as can be seen, these are hardly as far apart as, say, Russian and Japanese. They are basically the same language in different varieties.

Once upon a time, the Danes ruled Sweden and Norway. So all of this region was, as the linguistic situation led one to think, one region with one people. There was no such thing as a Swedish language, so to speak, until Sweden became independent in 1526, and there was no Norwegian language until Norway became independent in 1814.

So until the independence of those countries, the language varieties of Sweden and Norway were just considered to be dialects of Danish—which, essentially, they are. Or one could say that Danish is a dialect of Swedish. All three of them are variations on the same theme. They are considered three different languages because they happen to be spoken in what has happened to become three different countries.

Learn more about dialects—two tongues in one mouth.

Moldovan and Romanian Are the Same Language

Moldova is a kind of dowager’s hump that sits on Romania. Moldovan was once considered just one way of speaking Romanian. However, after Moldova became a part of the Soviet Union, the speech of Moldova started to be considered a separate language.

Photograph of a large, intricately designed Triumphal Arch, similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with the flag of Moldova hanging in the passage.
Moldovan was once considered just a way in which the people of Moldova spoke Romanian, but after Moldova became a part of the Soviet Union, the speech of Moldova started to be considered a separate language. (Image: Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock)

At that time, the Soviet scientists had decided that the speech of Moldova had to be considered a separate language from Romanian. So Moldovan grammarians were assigned to write grammar descriptions for Moldovan, the idea being that it wasn’t Romanian, but something different.

So grammar descriptions, which was basically grammar of Romanian, were written for Moldovan, but in the Cyrillic alphabet and in Russian. However, it was the exact same language. There were practically no significant differences between them, but Moldovan became a language because it was considered to be separate from Romania.

Learn more about how the meaning of a word changes over time.

Differences Between Hindi and Urdu Are More Cultural Than Linguistic

Culture can make people speak different languages as well. For example, Hindi and Urdu are basically the same language.

Hindi has a lot of words that are borrowed from Sanskrit, and Urdu has a lot of words borrowed from Arabic. However, none of this really impedes communication in any manner.

Obviously, there are some cultural issues, as far as Hinduism and Islam go. This means that to speak Hindi is to identify with, for example, India and a particular religion. To speak Urdu is to identify usually with Pakistan and being a Muslim.

A green coloured road sign on the right of the frame with 'Ugrasen Ki Baoli' written in Hindi, English, and Urdu.
Hindi and Urdu, though having different scripts, are the same language. However, due to cultural issues, they are considered separate languages.
(Image: PhotographerIncognito/Shutterstock)

Additionally, Hindi is written in the Devanagari script while Urdu is written in the Arabic script. So, while one senses that these are somehow different languages, they are actually the same language, and communication is not a problem.

The sense that there is something called Urdu which should be taught with different books than something called Hindi is based on vicissitudes of history and culture, rather than anything inherent to the language itself.

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

Perceived Differences

In New York, one might meet a person who speaks a language called Bambara. That’s what Africans speak in regions such as Senegal, Mali, and Guinea. Or he might say that he speaks something called Malinke or Dyula. Interestingly, people who speak Bambara can also understand Malinke and Dyula.

This is because Bambara, Malinke, and Dyula are all along a continuum. They are all basically one language. None of these languages are written down a whole lot, and they do not have literature.

So, while particular geopolitical boundaries and presence of literature might be responsible for the differences, it may just be language on the ground, as it is. What a language is and what a dialect is, is kind of beside the point to the people who are speaking these different varieties of a language.

In New Britain, off of New Guinea, there are two supposed languages, called Tourai and Aria. If a linguist looks at Tourai and Aria on the page, they look like variations of the same thing.

What’s interesting is that even if you are from the area but you don’t speak Tourai or Aria, then you learn the same thing to speak to both. The Tourai think of the Aria as speaking a different language, based on some vocabulary differences and difference in accent. However, though the Tourai have reasons for thinking that there is some sort of difference between them and Aria, they are not based on the language itself.

So very often, what one might reasonably think of as variations on a theme are thought of as separate languages for various reasons, which are quite external to anything about speaking or the languages themselves. The personal interferes with the empirical here, as is so common in life.

Common Questions about Similar Languages Considered Different

Q: Are the Scandinavian languages similar?

Yes, the Scandinavian languages are very similar. The main reason that they are considered separate languages is because these are different nations, with different identities.

Q: Are Moldovan and Romanian the same language?

Moldovan was once considered just one way of speaking Romanian, but after Moldova became a part of the Soviet Union, Moldovan started to be considered a separate language from Romanian. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Moldovan and Romanian are the exact same language, with practically no significant differences between them.

Q: Are Hindi and Urdu the same language?

Hindi and Urdu are basically the same language. However, they are officially considered something separate, because of issues beyond what the languages actually entail.

Q: Can Hindi speakers understand Urdu?

Hindi has a lot of words that are borrowed from Sanskrit, and Urdu has a lot of words borrowed from Arabic. Moreover, Hindi is written in the Devanagari script, while Urdu is written in the Arabic script. However, none of this really impedes communication between a Hindi speaker and a Urdu speaker, just like the differences between American and British English doesn’t impede communication between speakers of those respective versions of English.

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