Dialects With Armies and Navies

While I was taking an introductory linguistics course in the early 1990s, I was fascinated by a theory presented in our textbook (and probably put forth elsewhere) that stated that eventually the various major dialects of English would develop into their own distinct languages as the gaps between each dialect widen. For instance, at some point in the future, the world would have an "American" language, a "British" language, a "Canadian" language, an "Australian" language, and so on.

Presumably the inspiration for this theory is what has happened to other languages in the past. Today's Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan, etc.) were once dialects of Latin that gradually developed into independent languages due to varying historical, linguistic, and cultural influences. Similarly, what was once 'Gaelic' is now Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic, considered to be three separate languages. However, it remains to be seen whether the same will hold true for English since our world is far smaller, globalized, and media-infused. These days most dialects in the English-speaking world are developing in less isolation. In the virtual global marketplace, media broadcasts in a number of dialects compete for the attention of viewers and listeners. It could perhaps be argued that, instead of diverging into entirely separate languages, these dialects will become increasingly similar as they borrow from each other.

This begs the question, "when do dialects become full-fledged languages of their own?" Linguist Max Weinreich once states that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy." To some degree, there is an element of politics involved. The language known prior to 1990 as Serbo-Croat is no longer classified as such, as the languages of Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are now recognized as separate languages. Of course, this does not imply that the features of these three dialects have changed radically in the past 20 years, but rather that the political and social changes in the former Yugoslavia have affected language and dialect classifications. Yet, in many ways, these three languages are mutually understandable, and a monolingual Serbo-Croat speaker in 1988 could perhaps consider him/herself trilingual today!

Similarly, while Flemish is spoken in Belgium, and Dutch is spoken in the Netherlands, many linguists claim that the two "languages" are actually dialects of the same language. Afrikaans, for that matter, was once an offshoot of 17th-century Dutch in South Africa but is now considered an independent language even though quite a few elements of Afrikaans, Dutch, and Flemish are mutually understandable. Malay and Indonesian are very similar, despite divergent spelling systems due to different colonial influences, yet are labelled as separate languages. I even had a linguistics professor who used to refer to Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish as a single "Scandinavian" language because of the high degree of common features and mutual intelligibility, yet the three languages are usually regarded as separate.

In contrast, a number of English dialects may not be mutually comprehensible. How easy would it be for a native English speaker from rural Appalachia, USA to be readily understood by a native English speaker from Yorkshire, UK? Within Canada, native English speakers from Ontario sometimes have trouble understanding native English speakers from Newfoundland. Yet these dialects, despite any trouble in comprehension, are all considered English. By the same token, French-speaking Canadians and speakers of European varieties of French occasionally have comprehension difficulties, and similar issues may arise between speakers of various dialects of Spanish in Europe and Latin America, yet relatively few linguists are calling for a reclassification of these dialects as separate languages.

Indeed, it seems that the fine line between dialect and language, although real, is often very subjective. Are Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of "Chinese" or separate languages?

If you're interested in listening to a variety of individuals from around the world (categorized by nationality, age, and gender) speaking a wide range of dialects and accents of English, I advise you to check out the International Dialects of English Archive at web.ku.edu/idea/index.htm. It's very interesting!

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


The Arabic Student said...

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Arabic which has many "dialects" from Morocco all the way to Iraq that vary as much as Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese do from each other, but that are all considered to be Arabic. This stems from the fact that all these people are tied to Islam and consider themselves Arab.

Silas said...

Thank you for posting. Excellent point. That is, of course, very true and further illustrates that what constitutes a "language" is not purely linguistic, but also ideological.

Anna said...






Terry said...

You're very welcome, Kevin! Thanks a lot for reading and for the kind words. They're very much appreciated. Take care, Silas