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Thread: Language vs Dialect

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    Language vs Dialect

    My question is closely tied to a previous thread, but I would like to stick to the linguistic field. Let's suppose we are searching for classifying an unknown or poorly known language that shares many features, but not all with the language A which has been cleared up. Can we decide whether this is an A dialect or a B language ?
    In many cases studying phonological, grammatical, lexical similarities and discrepancies are more than enough to make up his mind. Undoubtedly Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish (or vice-versa ) and Occitan is'nt either a dialect of Catalan. But in case data is poor, native speakers are few, is it possible to settle the question ? Where does the linguistic boundary goes through ( I don't mean a geographical one ) ?
    We can perhaps hang on to the mutual intelligibility ; people who understand each other , whatever the dialectal forms, use the same language. If we are in agreement with this definition, we can say, for example, that Moroccan, Egyptian and so on are really different languages, by the fact that an Egyptian speaker cannot make out the Moroccans' language ( Common, written Arabic is rightly called M.S.A, Modern Standard Arabic ).
    Last edited by Frank06; 8th February 2009 at 12:28 PM. Reason: Link added :-)

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    This is very difficult question to answer, this link may help:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialect....22language.22

    I think in the case of dead or "poorly recorded" languages one needs to be cautious and perhaps classify them as related languages, simply because we don't dispose of sufficient information. Of course, historical facts can always be helpful!

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    This is almost impossible to answer fully and I think it also exceeds the purpose of this forum. It is a very broad linguistic question/problem often additionally plagued by political issues. However, we do have some professional linguists on this forum and it could be interesting to get some input from them as long as we all manage to keep politics out and stick to pure linguistic arguments.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by J.F. de TROYES View Post
    My question is closely tied to a previous thread, but I would like to stick to the linguistic field. Let's suppose we are searching for classifying an unknown or poorly known language that shares many features, but not all with the language A which has been cleared up. Can we decide whether this is an A dialect or a B language ?
    You might this Wikipedia article interesting:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ausbausprache

    It describes different ways of defining a "language" in a systematic way. Each of them is fuzzy in its own way, of course, but in my opinion, this approach clarifies a lot of common confusion.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    In my opinion there is no way of "objectively" defining the border between language and dialect.

    From a linguistic point of view each and every dialect which has its own grammar is a linguistic code, and thus a language, in its own right - that's one extreme - while in real life, and from a philological point of view, there is an accepted canon of "languages" and dialects who aren't "accepted" are "dialects" - here the other extreme.
    Reality lies between both.

    To elaborate, Nordic languages: Norvegians, Swedes and Danes usually claim they can understand each other quite well even when each of them speaks his or her own native language (see this thread here for opinions).
    Still they are considered different languages, and Norwegian even has two standard languages.

    On the other hand, Chinese regional languages many times are considered dialects even though they are not mutually intelligible.

    And half-between these two, take German: if German native speakers from distant regions speak their dialects they cannot communicate at all, or they can only communicate partially - it depends on region and speakers. Also Letzebuergisch - Luxemburg language was considered a "German dialect" about 200 years ago and over time has developped into a language even though it isn't more different from standard German than plenty of other German dialects. There's even a Wiki site in this language; but there's also a Bavarian Wiki site, and even more "dialect" sites (dialects not considered "languages" so far, by majority agreement so to speak).

    All in all, your question is pretty unanswerable: it depends on political points of view what to consider a language and what not.
    By the way, even linguists might disagree here, that is: where a dialect begins, and when a dialect becomes a language.

    Or in other words, with the words attributed to Max Weinreich:
    A language is a dialect with an army and navy.
    This describes our "social" reality.

    Linguistic reality would split German into hundreds if not thousands of dialects if you take the most radical point of view; but as I said the controversy also exists with linguists: some indeed defend the philological concept of a "standard language categorisation", that is: a standard language "covering", so to speak, several "dialects" for them is enough of an argument for defining language and dialect.
    If you'd like to follow this reasoning you would describe German as "one language" even though there are a great many "dialects" so to speak "covered" by this language while Hindi and Urdu would be considered separate languages because two different standard languages cover different dialects.

    So even linguistic definitions are very problematic here. Choosing any definition - whichever you prefer - really is a political choice already. Except if you stick to the extreme linguistic definition - if you define each (relatively homogenuous) subset of grammatical rules*) (which includes everything from phonetics and phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax and semantics, even lexicon) as a code, a language.

    *) Obviously you always have to leave room for some variation, else you would have to define each person's competence as "one (single) language": which would be nonsense. Or put in other words: the language of an individuum is an idiolekt - everyone of us has some idiosyncrasises, right? - but a language even in this "minimal" sense should not be defined as idiolect, but as a "relatively homogenuous" grammatical subset.
    "An esoteric may claim more nonsense in 5 minutes than a scientist may be able to disprove in his entire life." Vince Ebert, about fighting sciolism.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by J.F. de TROYES View Post
    My question is closely tied to a previous thread, but I would like to stick to the linguistic field. Let's suppose we are searching for classifying an unknown or poorly known language that shares many features, but not all with the language A which has been cleared up. Can we decide whether this is an A dialect or a B language ?<...>
    The word "dialect" in linguistics is like the word "weed" in botany. It is not a valid concept. It is meaningless.

    "Dialect" is a term used in popular non-scientific political and social discourse, generally without any defined meaning. It is often used to denigrate some specific speech variety, impying that it has less value than some other variety.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Hi,

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr.Slade View Post
    The word "dialect" in linguistics is like the word "weed" in botany. It is not a valid concept. It is meaningless.
    I would agree if you'd have written: "The word "dialect" outside linguistics is like the word "weed" in botany.
    Alas, and here is where I agree with Mr.Slade, it's indeed most often used like the word "weed" and hence meaningless, in most non-specialist dicussions, and, equally alas, it's indeed most often found back on non-specialist language boards or in other discussions.

    So, I also agree that most often, when used by non-linguists,
    Quote Originally Posted by Mr.Slade View Post
    "Dialect" is a term used in popular non-scientific political and social discourse, generally without any defined meaning. It is often used to denigrate some specific speech variety, impying that it has less value than some other variety.
    Agreed, sadly enough.
    Just to give one extreme example, triggered by J.F. de Troyes reference to Morocco: most Moroccans I know will refer to Arabic as a language, while Berber (or rather, one of the three big Berber groups in that country) "is just a dialect". I think it's clear that we're dealing here with a "popular non-scientific political and social discourse".

    But... how can I say: it's not because we eat that we're specialists in metabolism. It's not because we speak that we're specialists in linguistics. If you want to know something on metabolism, you take a scientific book written by a specialist (or even better, several books by different specialists). The same goes for linguistics.

    Where I beg to differ with Mr.Slade is that within linguistics, the term dialect is used. Linguists like Walt Wolfram do use the term 'dialect' meaning "any variety of a language which is shared by a group of speakers. In the book American English he goes on to say that "[l]anguages are invariably manifested through their dialects, and to speak a language is to speak some dialect of that language". There's no escape. The only way not to speak a dialect is to not speak at all :-).

    The term dialect is an incredibly neutral label (there aren't "bad or good dialects", dialect is not bad (standard) language), and it's not limited to regional aspects: regiolects, sociolects and (what's considered to be) standard language are all dialects.

    See also Trask's A dictionary of grammatical terms in linguistics: "Dialect: A distinctive variety of a language used by speakers [1] in a particular geographical region or [2] in a particular social group."

    [1] is what we remember from secondary school, [2] is what hardly made the secondary school handbooks (at least in my case, 28 years ago) and hence largely ignored or unknown by the public.

    What is utterly nonsensical and meaningless are statements like "I don't speak a dialect, I speak a language". We all speak a dialect.

    So, back to the original question.
    Quote Originally Posted by J.F. de Troyes
    Let's suppose we are searching for classifying an unknown or poorly known language that shares many features, but not all with the language A which has been cleared up. Can we decide whether this is an A dialect or a B language ?
    I don't see an opposition between language versus dialect. I mean, the "versus", the opposition or (how do you call it, juxtaposition??) here doesn't have a real linguistic meaning. At least, as far as I can see.

    But I wear glasses...

    Groetjes,

    Frank
    Last edited by Frank06; 8th February 2009 at 12:30 PM.
    If you open your mind too much, your brain might fall out.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by sokol View Post
    ... take German: if German native speakers from distant regions speak their dialects they cannot communicate at all, or they can only communicate partially - it depends on region and speakers.
    Do you mean that their pronunciation is so different that they cannot communicate, or do you mean that their syntax and vocabulary are too different, or is it a combination of both? I'm only asking because it doesn't seem unique to German the fact that people from different regions have trouble communicating if their dialects are different enough, even if they speak, essentially, the same language.

    /Wilma

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank06 View Post
    What is utterly nonsensical and meaningless are statements like "I don't speak a dialect, I speak a language". We all speak a dialect.

    So, back to the original question.

    I don't see an opposition between language versus dialect. I mean, the "versus", the opposition or (how do you call it, juxtaposition??) here doesn't have a real linguistic meaning. At least, as far as I can see.
    Quite so. The word makes much more sense from a sociolinguistic aspect.

    We all speak dialects. The question of how "dialects" are grouped depends on historical context.

    This is not to say that the winners in history are the ones who get to decide what is called a "dialect" and what is not. Basically all complex societies have had to develop some concept of what constitutes accepted intelligent communication over a large area. Earlier societies often developed some linguistic edifice, a semi-artificial form of language. Hence Sanskrit, literary Chinese, classical Arabic and medieval Latin - all of which were, incidentally, largely written means of communication, with their spoken forms frequently subject to a wide variation of acceptable pronunciation, with some exceptions in specific situations, like Vedic Sanskrit. Sometimes one spoken dialect became associated with the literary form, but this was largely incidental and tended to change over time.

    With the development of modern nation states it gradually became common for one dialect to become the "prestige" dialect on the spoken level as well, although this is a relatively recent concept, and not incidentally influenced by the increase in forms of communication in the modern world. In turn, this is also subject to change over time; none of us pronounce our languages exactly the same way that they were pronounced 100 years ago - it's just that with the development of recording capabilities we are more aware of that now than our ancestors were.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilma_Sweden View Post
    Do you mean that their pronunciation is so different that they cannot communicate, or do you mean that their syntax and vocabulary are too different, or is it a combination of both?
    Definitely both; but mutual intelligibility of course gets better quickly with full exposure to a different dialect - and of course some dialects (dialect groups) are closer and allow better mutual intelligibility.

    To give an example: let's consider Swiss German being an "accepted" standard language (it really is already, but that's not the point here ). Austrians (especially Easterners) claim they do not understand Swiss German dialect at all (any of them): so "no mutual intelligibility".
    But I know from own experience that what you need is just some willingness to understand, and some exposure to Swiss German, and you will learn to understand quite a lot of it within a few weeks even if your native dialect is Bavarian/Austrian (and not Swabian/Alemannic).

    Thus technically the situation of Austrian vs. Swiss dialect probably is not too different from the one between Norwegian vs. Swedish language.
    But obviously I know far too little about Scandinavian languages to be sure about the degree of intelligibility between them, so this is more of a guess.

    Quote Originally Posted by palomnik View Post
    With the development of modern nation states it gradually became common for one dialect to become the "prestige" dialect (...)
    Exactly.
    "An esoteric may claim more nonsense in 5 minutes than a scientist may be able to disprove in his entire life." Vince Ebert, about fighting sciolism.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by palomnik View Post

    We all speak dialects.
    I would better say : we all speak a language.
    To me "dialect" means a variant of a language. "dialect" alone has no meaning. a dialect of a language has a meaning.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank06 View Post
    Hi,


    So, back to the original question.

    I don't see an opposition between language versus dialect. I mean, the "versus", the opposition or (how do you call it, juxtaposition??) here doesn't have a real linguistic meaning. At least, as far as I can see.

    But I wear glasses...

    Groetjes,

    Frank
    I have opposed the words dialect and language in the title of my post just to sum up the question I have raised in the passage you are pointing out. Undoubtedly it's a fact that every language is made up of various geografic, social dialects. The point is to wonder whether there are criteria to decide if a speaking pattern close to a language is a variant of this language or another one and if the mutual intelligibility is relevant or not to classify it.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing them [= languages and dialects, sokol], and the difference is often a matter of degree rather than of kind. The Dictionary of Linguistics defines dialect as a variety of a language used by people from a particular geographic area.
    (National Science Foundation)

    "Dialect" is defined by sociolinguistics as a variety "according to region" - a linguistic code which is defined as used in a certain region, or certain social group (the latter also may be called "sociolect").
    But there exist also plenty of other definitions - both terms, those of language and those of dialect, unfortunately are used inconsistently even by scientists.
    Basically, as already argued, there is no difference between "language" and "dialect" - both describe a linguistic variety. A codified standard language is a dialect - linguists even use the term "standard dialect" -, and a dialect is a language in its own right.
    The distinction is rather "political" than "scientific" really.

    Still, to get back to your original question, JF de Troyes: let's say that ethnologists discover tribes A and B who speak so far unknown languages (or) dialects which are obviously related but not identical: how would we decide if A and B were "dialects" of one "language" or "two separate languages"?

    But again, the question doesn't really make sense.
    A linguist would have to describe the linguistic variety of tribe A as dialect A and that of B as dialect B, simple as that.
    It is up to the tribes themselves to claim that either they speak "the same language" or "different" ones: so again, in a way, a "political" decision. Only if both dialect A and B were close enough to be practically identical it would be different - but then it wouldn't be correct to speak of dialect A and B, it would be rather one single dialect AB.

    The conclusion being - language and dialect is the same thing. The distinction we make between both is social and political, but not scientific.
    "An esoteric may claim more nonsense in 5 minutes than a scientist may be able to disprove in his entire life." Vince Ebert, about fighting sciolism.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    In many cases, the distinctions between "languages" are political rather than linguistic. I have read about two examples in Europe.

    (1) Supposedly, if one begin on the coast of Spain, say in Grenada, and travels along the coast all the way around the Tyrrhenian sea and down the Italian coast past Naples, in any pair of adjacent towns or villages, the people can understand each other: Village A can understand B; B can understand A and C; C can understand B and D; etc. But of course the Neapolitan can not understand the Cartagenan and there is no question that they speak different languages which we call "Italian" and "Spanish." But in between "Italian" and "Spanish" there is "French," and according to most of the people around Barcelona and beyond, a separate language called in English "Catalan." Where are the boundaries between Spanish, Catalan, French, and Italian? Conventionally, they lie at the political borders; but Rivierans on opposite sides of the French-Italian border (say, Nice and Imperia; certainly, I believe, in Menton and Ventimiglia) can understand each other as long as they speak their local dialects and not their "national standards," Parisian and Florentine.
    (2) Farther north, if one starts on the coast of Holland and proceeds due east, the same phenomenon prevails. So residents of Ootmarsum (in eastern Overijssel province of the Netherlands) and Nordhorn (in far western Niedersachsen state of Germany, near the Dutch border) can understand each other as long as the Nordhorners don't speak High German and the Ootmarsumers don't speak the Dutch standard (Amsterdam?). But of course people from opposite ends of the line, say Amsterdamers and Berliners, can not understand each other: the first speak "Dutch," the second speak "German" or "Low German." Where is the boundary between "German" and "Dutch"? At the political border.

    Of course, what is used in schools is the national standard, so children in Menton are taught Parisian French, children in Ventimiglia are taught Florentine Italian, children in Ootmarsum are taught the same grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation as children in the rest of the Netherlands, and the children of Nordhorn are taught High German.

    There appears to be a different phenomenon with Arabic. Perhaps because there is a standard in the Koran, or children in the Islamic world have long been taught the Arabic of Mohammed so that they can read the Koran, what people speak all the way from Morocco to Iraq and south to Yemen is called "Arabic" even though Moroccans, Iraqis, and Yemenis can not talk to each other unless they use some common standard, and even though there are many political borders that would make it possible to define "Moroccan," "Algerian," "Tunisian," "Libyan," etc. I know an sociologist who was born in Palestine and grew up in Lebanon. When she did a study of the Arab-American community in the Detroit area, she was able to interview all of the adults in Arabic except for the Yemenis; to talk to them, she needed an interpreter. But nominally, Yemenis also speak "Arabic."

    Of course, language boundaries are not only political; to English-speaking Canadians, French really is a foreign language that has to be learned, and vice versa for French Canadians, and so on in Belgium, Switzerland, and other multilingual countries. But there is a large political element to the determination of whether "related" languages like Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian or Macedonian and Bulgarian are "dialects" or distinct "languages."

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by Æsop View Post

    Of course, what is used in schools is the national standard, so children in Menton are taught Parisian French, children in Ventimiglia are taught Florentine Italian, children in Ootmarsum are taught the same grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation as children in the rest of the Netherlands, and the children of Nordhorn are taught High German.

    There appears to be a different phenomenon with Arabic.
    It's different, but the same. The national standard for all the Arab countries is standard Arabic so that is what is taught in schools. As for the spoken varieties, you can move along towns of the North African coast from Tangiers to Benghazi to Alexandria, and each speech form will morph into the next.

    The "dialects" don't have official forms (for historical, political, and religious reasons), so when linguists write Arabic dialect dictionaries, they usually choose the local prestige form of the dialect, normally the variety spoken in the capital. A "Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic" will present the speech of Baghdad. A "Dictionary of Gulf Arabic" will either be based on a specific variety and will say so up front, or it will be full of little italic notations indicating the various areas of use.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Political Considerations:
    When establishing the sovereignity of a country, the ruler or the founding people must, not necessarily in this order:
    1- Define the frontiers of the territory either by military means, diplomacy, treaties with neighbor countries
    2- Define the symbols of the country, it's flag, anthem, coat of arms, allegories, which give a "singular personality" to the unity it intends to stand for.
    3- Define a common language to all the population, either by assimilating the inhabitants and it's culture, by establishing a common religion, creating a new alphabet, forcing new grammars to the school system. All this in order to create a "cultural border".

    Social considerations :
    1- People are always constrained to their social background. It's from birth we acquire the vocal skills that will later enable us to speak our native language, that is particular sounds (diphthong , triphthong, etc, unique conjugation of sounds).
    2- The graphic representation of sound (alphabet/writing) and the actual production of the sound (vocalization/phonetics). There is always a hiatus between the two, creating all forms of phonetic variations of the same symbol (from language to language/within the language).
    3- While physical barriers separating similar human populations (mountains, rivers, oceans) results in divergences of sounds, it's use, intercourse, and finally it's representation, the closeness of other populations tend to the establishment of common grounds usually of attribution of names to things (trade is the main mean of name exchange) adding new sounds and new symbolism.

    In conclusion :
    Dialects are the result of cultural background, exchange, and even of the deterioration of the language imposed to a particular population. The variances are more or less marked due to geography, population mobility, exogenous influences, and not to say the least the ability to properly vocalize specific sounds/symbols.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    There are obviously lots of different definitions to the terms "language" and "dialect" that may all be OK in their different contexts.

    So maybe it would make sense to step back from the theories for a moment and have a look at how you decide if it is a dialect or a language when you hear somebody speaking: Could you mix it up with the standard language without sounding totally ridiculous? Example: I know a guy who moved to Vancouver, BC. when he was a child after spending some of his childhood in Scotland. He still uses a few Scottish words pronounces a lot of words in a rather Scottish way but you can still tell he spent most of his life in Vancouver. People notice but find it OK - are we talking about dialects here?

    Or somebody moves from Denmark to Sweden - basically he speaks Danish, picks up Swedish words pronounces them more or less in Swedish, still uses Danish grammar, because he still has not noticed where the significant differences are. He is usually understood - in fact the Swedes believe that he is speaking a dialect that is more easy to them to understand than the Danish they usually get to hear. So are Danish and Swedish different dialects or different languages?
    Is it regarded socially acceptable to mix the two and still be taken 100% seriously?

    I think most people could answer that.

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Quote Originally Posted by Sepia View Post
    There are obviously lots of different definitions to the terms "language" and "dialect" that may all be OK in their different contexts.

    So maybe it would make sense to step back from the theories for a moment and have a look at how you decide if it is a dialect or a language when you hear somebody speaking: Could you mix it up with the standard language without sounding totally ridiculous? Example: I know a guy who moved to Vancouver, BC. when he was a child after spending some of his childhood in Scotland. He still uses a few Scottish words pronounces a lot of words in a rather Scottish way but you can still tell he spent most of his life in Vancouver. People notice but find it OK - are we talking about dialects here?
    I think not ! This is a constrain of vocalization abilities.
    I have a nice exercise to try this: Speak French with an English accent (You will find all your handicaps, as one open the mouth and rolls the tongue, the other join teeth, do not (almost) touches the palate. Some expire more ("colder tongues" as a result of colder weather).
    "Hot languages" are a result of hot weather were you can open your mouth more.
    Now, this is to say there are geographical constrains (cold/hot weather) between many others.
    If a bunch of people start a "perverting" () the ancestor root of the common language, then it may become a dialect.
    The example are:
    - the French-French and the Canadian-French (people talking french with an apparent english accent).
    - Portuguese, Spanish and Galician (from Galicia), Catalan, and other Iberian languages (as in official)/dialects all of this a have common ancestral languages (local dialects + latin + country of influence). You will find common root within the Portuguese and Catalan languages ... and the country and the "country"(lol) are far apart.
    To have a dialect you must have a lot of people making the same "mistakes"!

    Quote Originally Posted by Sepia View Post
    Or somebody moves from Denmark to Sweden - basically he speaks Danish, picks up Swedish words pronounces them more or less in Swedish, still uses Danish grammar, because he still has not noticed where the significant differences are. He is usually understood - in fact the Swedes believe that he is speaking a dialect that is more easy to them to understand than the Danish they usually get to hear. So are Danish and Swedish different dialects or different languages?
    Is it regarded socially acceptable to mix the two and still be taken 100% seriously?

    I think most people could answer that.
    Also Portuguese and Spannish have something similar.
    Wording : Just like you say ""tomato" and i say "tomato"".
    There are so many cognates that sometimes is irritating.
    For exemple: Cookie. Portuguese say "bolacha" and Spannish say "galleta"."Galheta" (same sound, different graphism(?)) in Portuguese means "to slap someone" while the other does not even exist in Spannish.

    Phrasing : usully the placement of adjectives (meaning vs what you really mean), the way you question someone (power vs need), etc

    Language is a mean of building identity. Kingdoms thrive on this while democratic societies thrive on building bridges, closing gaps, so that all you get, on the end, is that you neighbour is not so different after all.

    See Yugoslavia (jugoslavia (pt)), Germany, France, Spain ... they all are multi-dialect countries that thrive on diversity, yet some always try to bring them apart to get (local) power.

    Just see the "baby language" thread and see WE ALL say "mama" (no mater accentuation, tone, or meaning).

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    galleta f also equals slap in Spanish.
    Last edited by MarcB; 16th March 2009 at 6:10 AM. Reason: add s

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    Re: Language vs Dialect

    Moderator note:

    Please try and concentrate on the definitions of language and dialect; it makes of course sense to give examples, but to discuss particular examples in too much detail (and political implications with it) just puts us off track.

    If you want to discuss a question emerging out of this discussion then please open a new thread in the appropriate forum.

    (For example,
    MarcB's mentioning of "galleta" is relevant concerning almufadado's previous post, but the discussion of the meanings of "galleta" is not an EHL topic.)

    Thank you very much!
    sokol
    Moderator EHL
    "An esoteric may claim more nonsense in 5 minutes than a scientist may be able to disprove in his entire life." Vince Ebert, about fighting sciolism.

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