March 1, 2018

The Dilemma

One of the most intricate theoretical issues in linguistics is how to make the distinction between language and dialect. Languages differ from each other in a myriad of ways, some only by a little, and others by a lot. As a result, the amount of variation needed between two languages to classify them as dialects of a single language versus different languages is difficult to establish. Numerous scholars tried to distinguish the terms, but their efforts culminated into utter dilemma. Thus the confusion has become a matter of ongoing debate among linguists, dialectologists, and policy makers.

The Origination of the Quandary

The confusion reverts back to antiquity. It stemmed from the Greek usage of the terms. In Ancient Greek language there were a number of clearly discrete local varieties, each associated with a different vicinity and used for a different form of literature: Ionic for history, Doric for choral and lyric, and Attic for tragedy. Besides, there was another spoken variety known as koinē or “common” language, which was used in the court and commerce throughout the Hellenistic empires. According to modern dialectology all these Greek varieties are distinct languages, not dialects. But with a sharp contrast to modern concepts, the Greeks referred them to as dialects. Thus, when the Greek terms were translated as “language” and “dialect”, their meanings appeared quite distinct and different than the meanings these words have in English. In short, the Greek situation has provided the model for all later usages of the terms and the ensuing ambiguity.

The French increased the confusion further by making a division between the terms un dialecte and un patois. Dialecte refers only to regional varieties which are written and have a literary tradition, patois, on the other hand, refers to regional varieties that are not written and lacks such literary tradition.  Hence patois is considered inferior and subordinate to dialecte since it lacks any written form and literary tradition. The French speaking word never considers standard French as a dialect of French language. On the contrary, in English speaking world such consideration is not uncommon. English never considered the term patois for describing language seriously, but it has used both language and dialect in numerous confusing senses.  Dialect is used both for local varieties of English, for instance, New England  dialect, and for various types of informal, lower class, or rural speech. Sometimes it is not even considered as a part of language since it lacks proper prestige to be the language of a polite society. That means in English the term dialect is often equivalent to nonstandard or even substandard variety of the standard language. And application of such terms is a clear indication of social distinction.

Dialects or Languages?

Linguists have a saying: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." What this means is that the language versus dialogue question is as much a political as a linguistic one. There is nothing inherently better, more systematic or more logical in a language than in a dialect, or vice versa. Both are linguistic systems with grammar and vocabulary and are or can be learnt natively by their speakers.  However, a close observation reveals that there is a clear notion of a difference between language and dialect. A dialect is a sub-ordinate variety of a language. That is, it refers to only one particular variety of a given language. In contrast, when it is a separate language, it can be a combination of a lot of varieties of that particular language.

The association of language with a "country" or "nation" and of "dialect" with an inferior or nonstandard variety of speech is very strong. This is what is meant by "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." We can see from this that what are called languages are often standard languages, which are associated with nationhood, with centralised power, with statehood. Nonstandard varieties of language are often termed dialects, implying that they have less status and prestige. But historically, standard languages are just dialects which have acquired a special status, and nonstandard dialects were just language varieties which lay far from the centres of power. Looked at as linguistic systems, languages and dialects have the same characteristics; but looked at from a social point of view, we can say that a language has higher status than a dialect.

Criteria for Distinguishing the Terms

The definition of "language" as opposed to "dialect" presents some difficulties. So, to distinguish the terms we must first decide how to determine, when two similar forms of a language are merely dialects of the same language and when are they separate languages.  But in linguistics there are no systematic criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects. Even though a number of archetypes exist, they often contradict one another. The precise distinction is therefore a subjective one. It is essentially dependent on the user's frame of reference. A language variety is sometimes called a dialect instead of a language only because:
  • it is used only orally and not in literature or other written documents,
  • it is not an official version of a state or country,
  • it is insignificant in size, or
  • it lacks prestige.
Linguists usually cite mutual intelligibility as the major criterion to decide the question in scientific terms: if community A and community B speak two speech varieties that are not mutually intelligible, then the speech varieties are different languages; if they are mutually intelligible but differ systematically from one another, then they are dialects of the same language.

Mutual Intelligibility: adapted from Crystal (1987)

There are problems with this definition, however, because many levels of mutual intelligibility exist, and linguists must decide at what level speech varieties should no longer be considered mutually intelligible:
  • Sometimes speakers of form A claim to understand form B, but speakers of form B deny that they understand form A. Dialects of the same language aren't mutually intelligible, even though there is no linguistic basis for that. The two groups insist that they speak separate tongues, even though they don't.
  • Popular usage of the term "dialect" often suggests that the speakers of that language variety are "lower class" or lack sophistication, and that the variety lacks prestige, is "substandard", or even that it is "not a real language".
  • There is a speech continuum, and there may be a dialect continuum, that is, a chain of mutually intelligible varieties where there is never any clear break in mutual intelligibility, but speakers of dialects at one end don't understand speakers of varieties at the other end.
  • Body of literature may unify some speech communities who are educated to read those works but elsewhere lack of a body of literature may divide communities that can understand each other orally.
  • For various political, social, or historical reasons, people may loathe their neighbors and not wish to admit they have any connection with them, and don't wish to try to understand each other.
  • Use of a particular variety of a language for religious purposes gives it special status.
  • Socio-Political boundaries may allow closely-related dialects to become standardized, used for religion, schools, etcetera even though there is mutual intelligibility. In this case the phrase “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” is largely true.
  • A particular language may lack a phonetic writing system, so many speakers of mutually unintelligible varieties may understand the written form of that language, and consider themselves to be speakers of that language, not just dialect speakers.
  • People may speak a language that is severely diglossic, that is, the written form is very different from the spoken. Many spoken dialects may be mutually unintelligible, but the literary dialect unites them, and they all learn it as the language of education.
Therefore, in practice, the idea of mutual intelligibility is not free from ambiguities. Whether or not two varieties are considered dialects of the same language or distinct languages is usually a socio-political issue. That is, sometimes the use of the terms "language" or "dialect" is motivated by geographic, social, political, or economic barriers between groups of people who speak the same language. Thus, the difference between dialect and language is partly a linguistic and partly a matter of opinion based on extra-linguistic considerations. Mutual intelligibility serves to distinguish language and dialect for some situations, such as: Hungarian, Romanian, and Basque. But there are many situations where it becomes absolutely insignificant.  Let us consider a number of case studies to justify this view:


Chinese: Mutually Unintelligible
Spoken Chinese comprises many regional varieties. Although they employ a common written form, they are mutually unintelligible, and for this reason controversy exists over whether they can legitimately be called dialects or whether they should be classified as separate languages. Generally, these variants are referred to as dialects rather than separate languages. And it is also supposed that Chinese is a single language with combination of different dialects. This traditional characterization of Chinese as a single language is largely motivated by socio-cultural factors in China. The Chinese believe that they a have a common writing system and tradition that unite their languages. Both Mandarin and Cantonese, for instance, are mutually unintelligible, but still the Chinese referred them to as dialects, not separate languages.

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Hindi-Urdu: Mutually intelligible
Although considered a distinct language from Hindi, Urdu is intelligible to speakers of Hindi. The key properties in distinguishing Urdu and Hindi are their vocabularies and orthographies. The Urdu vocabulary borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian, unlike Hindi, which borrows considerably from Sanskrit. Orthographically, Urdu is written in a modified Persian-Arabic script, while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script. Urdu and Hindi are considered different languages in a socio-cultural sense. Though linguists consider Urdu and Hindi two registers of a single language, speakers often disagree. The two registers are usually mutually intelligible, but a great deal of nationalism is involved in which register one speaks. Urdu and Hindi are not simply a register to its speakers, but a symbol of national, religious, and sometimes political identity. However, at a linguistic level, the two are virtually identical. Although there are major differences in orthography and loan vocabulary as previously mentioned, there are minor differences in usage and pronunciation of foreign words. As a result, the grammars of the two languages are virtually indistinguishable, such that apart from written forms of the language, it is not immediately obvious whether Hindi or Urdu is being used.


German-Dutch: Mutually Unintelligible
German forms together with Dutch, its closest relative, a coherent and well-defined language area that is separated from its neighbors by language borders. These neighbors are: in the north Frisian and Danish; in the east Polish, Sorbian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian; in the south Slovenian, Italian, Friulian, Ladin, and Romansh; in the west French. Except for Frisian, none of these languages are West Germanic, and so they are clearly distinct from German and Dutch. While Frisian is closely related to German and Dutch, it is generally considered not to be mutually intelligible with them.

The situation is more complex with respect to the distinction between German and Dutch. Until recently, there has been a dialect continuum throughout the whole German-Dutch language area, with no language borders. In such a dialect continuum, dialects are always mutually intelligible with their neighbors, but dialects that are further apart from each other are often not. The German-Dutch continuum lent itself to a classification of dialects into Low German and High German based on their participation in the High German consonant shift; Dutch is part of the Low German group. However, because of the political separation between Germany and the Netherlands, Low German dialects in the Netherlands and Low German dialects in Germany have started to diverge during the 20th century. Additionally, both in northern Germany and in the Netherlands, many dialects are close to extinction and are being replaced by the German and Dutch standard languages. In this way, a language border between Dutch and German is currently forming.

While German is grammatically similar in many ways to Dutch, it is very different in speech. A speaker of one may require some practice to effectively understand a speaker of the other.

Dutch speakers are generally able to read German, and German speakers who can speak Low German or English are generally able to read Dutch, but have problems understanding the spoken language, although Germans who speak High German, or, even better, Low German, can cope with Dutch much better than people from Southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria who have grown up with the Alemannic dialects.


Bangla: Mutually intelligible
Dialectal differences in Bangla manifest themselves in three forms: standardized dialect vs. regional dialect, literary language vs. colloquial language and lexical variations. The name of the dialects generally originates from the district where the language is spoken. Sylheti, Chittagonian, Rongpurian, and Dhakaiya are some of the many varieties that are often considered dialects of Bangla.  All these varieties are mutually intelligible. However, like Mandarin and many other languages spoken over a wide geographical area, Bengali dialects span a dialect continuum. This means that though speakers of one dialect are likely to be able to understand their neighbours , and even their neighbours'  neighbours,  as the distance grows, it becomes likely that the speakers will be unable to understand anything but a few words of other dialects.

The Verdict

Strange as it may seem, there is no really good way to distinguish the terms "language" and "dialect." It is because they are neither objective nor scientific terms. People use the words "dialect" and "language" to mean different ideas. Sometimes the suggested meanings connote confusing and contradictory concepts. As a result, the distinction between language and dialect remains a great dilemma for the linguists still now.


Wardhaugh, Ronald . An Introduction Sociolinguistics Oxford: Blackwell, 1992

Hudson, Richard Anthony. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: CUP, 1990

Yule, George. The Study of Language.  Cambridge: Cup, 1996

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language Cambridge, Cambridge: CUP, 1987

“Dialect.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 September 2008


“Language.” Microsoft Encarta. DVD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft, 2005.

“Dialect.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 2 September 2008

NB: This article was originally written in the year 2008.

Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


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