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Language is a dialect with an army and a navy…

This colourful expression was reportedly heard by the Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich, from a member of the audience at one of his lectures. It draws attention to the often political factors which decide whether a dialect can be classed as a language. In fact, even though dialects are generally viewed as sub-languages, belonging to a larger language family, dialects and languages can be defined in such similar ways that the boundaries between them are not always clear. Take the two following definitions, for example:

Dialect: a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group

Language: a system of communication used by a particular country or community

The two definitions are basically paraphrased versions of one another, except “a particular form of a language” appearing in the definition of ‘dialect.’ This seems to uphold the view that dialects are variations on a main language. There are many regions in which different groups of people all speak a common dialect, even though they have their own separate languages. But who decides which are dialects and which are languages? For example, why is it that one language is classed as a language, and another is classed a dialect? Some dialects have hundreds of thousands of speakers, whereas some languages have less than one thousand.

Deciding what to class as a dialect is a major headache – some people, including many linguists, even believe that British regional accents count as dialects. I can see why – some regional accents are barely mutually intelligible. It’s not just that the accent differs – each region often has their own words for things (for example the Scottish ‘neeps,’ which to anyone further south would be ‘swede’). I’d love to be able to say that these are just superficial differences, and that the grammatical structures beneath them were the same (and I fully intended to, but the more I think about it, the less I believe it). But some regions even seem to have their own grammatical preferences. Take the Geordie habit of using ‘us’ in place of ‘me.’ This would confuse most English speakers, and each regional accent/dialect has its own peculiarities. One that never fails to confuse English people is the Welsh phrase “where to are you?” and its redundant preposition.

So, what do you think? Is this something that’s ever crossed your mind?


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