Dialects and languages

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by germanbz, May 15, 2013.

  1. germanbz Senior Member

    Benicàssim - Castelló - Spain
    Spanish-Spain/Catalan (Val)
    I was reading the webpage of Institut d'Estudis Occitans dau Lemosin and I've realised that I just can understand all of it.
    I am from a region that speaks officialy one dialect of Catalan, a same family but different "language" of occitan. Even being for centuries evolutioning separadtely this occitan from Limoges from Catalan from Valencia and being the first one strongly influenced by French and Catalan from Valencia by Spanish. And in addition of that considering that both of them have not had any official grammar or official status for centuries, today I can read Lemousin not dificulty.

    So I wonder... When is it considered that a language (or two languages) are the same, are dialects or different languages?. I mean. Appart from nacionalistic, politic and historic reasons, Is there in romanistic objective criteria in order to considering when one thing is a language or dialect?
  2. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I don't think there is any criterion that is not "nationalistic, politic or historic". Most linguists refuse to make the distinction at all (a language is a dialect with an army and a navy).
  3. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    If they're obviously different languages (Catalan and Japanese), or obviously mere dialects of one language (Yorkshire and Lancashire English), the question is easy. If it's genuinely hard to decide (the cases most people are interested in), then linguists would say there are no objective reasons for deciding one way or the other.
  4. Triginta Septem Member

    Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
    English - America
    Really, a language should be considered any kind of speech that is mutually understandable, but even that is hard to determine accurately. Catalan and Occitan are mutually intelligible "languages", but there are places in China and Japan where the "dialect" a mile away is so unfamiliar it may as well be of a different family all together. And I know anyone who speaks one Polynesian language could probably understand a fair amount of almost all of them. Mainly for political reasons, that's just how it is..
  5. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Outside of political and cultural discussions we really don't need the concept of language vs dialect. The difference between Yorkshire and Lancashire English and Catalan and Japanese is just that the two respective languages are simply further apart in the classification tree.
  6. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    There exists a quite lengthy thread on this matter at this forum (initiated by berndf). Unfortunately I don't know how to find it.
  7. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    It came up a few months ago in a thread about Yiddish. Here http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2572572&page=2&p=13040821#post13040821 As that goes I'm still of the option of which I wrote. But while I am on the side that Catalan and Occitan are the same tongue. It's really not that simple because northern Occitan dialects are going to naturally transition in to langues d'oil and you'll find a similar situation as the one on the Spanish boarder but between Occitan and d'oil, where do you want to draw the line?
    Last edited: May 16, 2013
  8. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    The difference between language and dialect is:
    But not linguistic.
  9. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    I would say, it is a different language when there are significant differences in the grammar.
    However, much too often it is more a question of politics.
  10. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    Can we go that far? Is it not tantamount to saying that you cannot distinguish between languages at all. Whilst a linguist may say that if history had been different Spanish and Portuguese might be regarded as dialects of one language, I doubt any linguist would go so far as to say that if history had been different Spanish and Quechua would be regarded as dialects of one language.

    Most branches of linguistics cannot be totally self-contained and need to take cultural and other factors into account, but some fuzzy or provisional definitions must be possible, or at least be left unspoken according to context.

    Linguists often like to talk about a continuum of dialects and within any continuum some classification has to be possible on purely linguistic grounds. It is all relative and different criteria may apply in different continua. In some cases the absence of a continuum is so clear that there is no problem saying you are faced with two different languages.
  11. Ёж! Senior Member

    A silly question it may be, but how do you know that (genetically) it is a tree?.. :) The logic you presented may not work well with Yorkshire English and Japanese…
  12. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I think the point is not so much that you cannot define dialect linguistically, the point is that you don't need to. The concepts doesn't add anything. If you call Spanish and Portuguese languages of the Western Iberio-Romance family or as dialects of the Western Iberio-Romance language does not provide any new insights.

    If you analyse a group of languages you think in terms of a classification tree. It is convenient to call the leaves of the tree languages or dialects (which or the two terms you choose doesn't matter and is just a naming convention; e.g. German German and Austrian German are called dialects because Germans and Austrian choose to regard it this way while German and Luxembourgian are languages because Germans and Luxembourgers choose to regard it this way) and the nodes families. What is a leaf and what is a node depends on the object of your inquiry.

    This only changes when you take political and cultural considerations into account. Then concepts like majority language, minority language, official language, standard language, colloquial language and dialect become important.
  13. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I don't think, all languages you compare need to be in one graph. Only where it makes sense and furthers your inquiry.
  14. francisgranada Senior Member

    And also: when one language is rather two (or more...)? For example, the Brasilian Portuguese and the European Portuguese are two lanuages or one language? Or the Serbian and the Croatian are not de facto one language?

    As the names of the languages are also question of convention, a particular classification tree is also a certain "compomise", unless it doesn't contain all the regional/familiar/personal (ad absurdum) variants of the langauages, regardless of how they are called.
  15. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    In the Portuguese example the golf between the two is closing due to Brazilian media being show in Portugal and being very popular. I'm not sure with serbo-croatian, it was spilt up due to politics but it seems like farther away from the wars it gets the more they are being drawn together again due to geography & simple economics.
  16. Maurice92 Senior Member

    France french
    I don't agree. Most linguists speak of languages and dialects. Very often , the distincton is not clear, but it is in some cases.
    For example, in North of France, people spoke (at least some years or centuries ago) various dialects of a language, the oil language. But there is not a clear separation between two dialects of oil languages. If you go from a geographic point to another, the idion change slightly in a continuous manner, and more abruptly at other points, but there is no clear boundary where the whole vocabulary changes completely between two dialects. Between two different languages, there is a clear separation, that is the dfference between dialect and languages.
  17. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I am not sure it is that simple.

    Suppose you have a long thin island and going from east to west there are seven cities A, B, C, D, E, F and G and each city has it own variety of speech different from all the others. The people from A have no great difficulty communicating with the people from B. Stopping there we can say that the speech varieties of A and B are dialects of the same language. The people from B have no great difficulty communicating with the people from C. We can again say that B and C are dialects of the same language and it has to follow that C and A are dialects of the same language. We carry on from east to west and in each case the inhabitants of one city understand the speech of the inhabitants of the next city along. Accordingly, the speech varieties of A, B, C, D, E, F and G must all be dialects of the same language. However, it is in fact the case that the speech varieties of A and G are not mutually intelligible. There is, to anyone knowing only the speech varieties of A and G "a clear separation" between the two. So, applying the continuum test A and G are dialects of the same language, but applying the clear separation test are different languages.

    The situation could be more complex if we assume the island is in fact two states one containing A, B and C with its capital at A and one containing D, E, F and G with its capital at E. In each state the standard language is based on the speech of the capital city. The citizens of the eastern state may regard the speech varieties of B and C as dialects of the standard language, while in the western state the speech varieties of D, F and G may be regarded as dialects of the standard language. However, C is in fact right on the border and the way they speak there is closer to the standard language of the western state than to the standard language of the eastern state.

    There is also another island a thousand miles away to the south inhabited by the descendants of those who lived in A but emigrated a thousand years ago. The inhabitants of the island use a speech variety which is not mutually intelligible with any of the varieties spoken in A, B, C, D, E, F and G but differs no more from them than A differs from G. Are the speech varieties of both islands all dialects of the same language?

    Whilst linguists may talk about both languages and dialects, these sorts of complications are why, on the whole, they prefer to say "There are only dialects". That does not though prevent them from asserting that X and Y are dialects of Z, but Z will be an abstraction and no one speaks an abstraction. So "French" is both an abstraction and a dialect. It is an abstraction when used to describe a collection of certain speech varieties, but a dialect when used to describe one of those varieties which just happens to be called French.
  18. Maurice92 Senior Member

    France french

    I agree with that, but I think that the concept of mutually intelligibility is not very clear, the membership of one word to one language or to another is more clear, at least in some cases , as in France. The isoglosses of the dialects in France has been studied by the linguist Pierre Guiraud ( Patois and dialectes français - Presses Universitaires de France). Anyway, it is just a useful criterion for distinguishing dialects and languages but the reality is very complex ; the studies of the 660.000 idioms in the world may be simplified by reducing the number of languages at about 7000.
    I agree with all you say but some simplification is made by using the concept of language.
  19. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica
    Languages do not exist in reality only dialects do. Languages are artificial constructs created by people hoping to stadardise or add order to the chaos that really exists.

    The problem with the old way of thinking about dialects is that it 1) does not reflect the reality. Dialects exist before a "language" exists. and 2) the concept of the dialect (meaning a "corrrupt" form of some language) has been historically used as a tool of political and cultural subjugation.

    I believe when you say "most linguists", you may be thinking of out-dated linguists.
  20. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    How can anything be an artificial construct and not exist at the same time? You are contradicting yourself. Cars are also artificial constructs and they exist, so do also traffic codes.
    Both language and dialect are, however abstracts.
    A dialect is meaningless without a language, as it refers to a local variety of a language.
  21. tonyspeed Senior Member

    English & Creole - Jamaica
    Who defines what a language is and what a language isn't? Who defines which local speech is a language that is representative?

    These are political decisions. They do not represent an absolute truth.

    If you do not understand this, you should do research on the history of languages.
  22. itreius Senior Member

    Ben Jamin's point might have been that the term dialect, as used within linguistics, goes hand in hand with language and is inseparable from it. It implies that a dialect is "part" of a language. In that sense, arguing that only dialects exist (not languages) doesn't make sense.

    A more neutral term, independent of the entire sociopolitical baggage brought about with language, is lect (sometimes used precisely for that reason).
  23. nwon Senior Member

    Northwestern Ontario
    Inglés canadiense
    The argument that lananges don't exist would preclude the existance of dialects. You can parse the terminology to the point of nothingnessif you have that mindset. Saying that Thai and Finnish are "dialects" (of what ? Dialect as a term implies that it's a smaller part of a whole) is just ridiculous and, well, wrong.
  24. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    Please don't use a tone of "I wise, you stupid" at the forum". I understand more than you suppose.
    Who decides what a language is? The usage does. The word "language" has many different meanings, and the basic and original meaning is: "a means of communication between humans".
    You have been stuck with one of the specialized meanings of "language", and build your argumentation on it.

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