“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”

Hello HLC readers! I’m Lisa, I’m a Swede (this kind, not this kind, and hopefully never this kind) but I live in Scotland, and I’m here to talk to you about the differences between languages and dialects. Now, the title of this post, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”, should have made everything clear, so that will be my contribution for today.

Joking!

I’m so not done. The title quote was made popular by the sociolinguist, and Yiddish scholar, Max Weinreich (in Yiddish, with Roman letters: a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot)1. This particular quote has been passed down to me on average once per each course I’ve taken in my four years of studying linguistics, which either tells you 1. Linguists are in serious need of new content, or 2. This is probably important for budding linguists to discuss. Both might be true in some cases, but most of the time 2 is the correct answer. We will need to tread carefully, and I don’t intend to make any political statements, but simply to shine some light on the complexity of the matter which, in fact, is often highly political. One final disclaimer: This is a really difficult topic to summarise. Bear with me.

For some of you reading, the question of what is and isn’t a language is probably something you haven’t thought about a lot. Some of you may think that the distinction is clear-cut; a language is distinct, it’s not similar to or dependent on anything else, and a dialect isn’t. You may even say that dialects are clearly sub-languages, because of the very way we phrase “dialects of a language” to imply that dialects belong to a language and not vice versa. Further, dialects are mutually intelligible (i.e. speakers of different dialects of one language can understand each other), which is not the case with languages. This is not exactly wrong, it’s just overly simplified.

First of all, if mutual intelligibility is a dialect criterion then my native Swedish could arguably be a Scandinavian dialect rather than a proper language – I, like most Swedes, understand Norwegian very well, and to some extent Danish, if spoken slowly (I’m currently working on my spoken Danish comprehension by watching both the Bridge and the Killing… My crime vocabulary is looking pretty solid by now). However, a lot of Swedes would not be thrilled to be told that their language is a dialect, and it does feel counter-intuitive to call it one.

On the other hand, there are agreed-upon dialects that are not mutually intelligible. Why are the dialects of, for example, Italian still called dialects, despite speakers of, for example, Emilian and Sicilian not being able to understand each other2 , while Norwegian and Swedish are officially agreed upon to be different languages? Also, what makes people call Catalan a dialect of Spanish (Don’t shoot the messenger!), or Cantonese a dialect of Chinese? Can you see a pattern forming? I’ll spell it out: The term language is most often, but not always, awarded to those “dialects” that have, or have had, official language status in a country, i.e. the dialect of those in power. The term dialect, or lect, is sometimes used neutrally in linguistics to cover both official languages and dialects, but there is  another term which is also used that I like more: variety. Variety is less socio-politically charged, and I use it all the time to avoid having to make a language/dialect distinction when I talk about linguistics.

There are, however, exceptions to the ‘official language’-criterion. If we go back to Spain, for example, no one would argue that Basque is a dialect of Spanish because Basque looks and sounds nothing like Spanish at all (or maybe some would argue this, but could we all agree that this is an unusual opinion?). So, there must be an element of likeness, or similarity, involved. Preferably the variety in question would be a part of the same language family3  – this could be why no one argues the language status of indigenous varieties, like Sami varieties in northern Scandinavia or the various native American varieties like Navajo and Cree.

My take on the issue is this: What people choose to call a language is largely based on four criteria:

  1. Is this variety an official language of a country?
  2. Is the variety distinct in terms of likeness to the official language of that region? Recall what was said above about indigenous languages.
  3. Is this variety considered an example of how that variety should be spoken, i.e. a standard variety, that also has sub-varieties (dialects) that diverge from that standard? An example: British English has a standard, sometimes called BBC English, or RP, but also a plethora of quirky dialects like Geordie, Scouse, Scottish English, Brummie, etc., all still considered to be English.
  4. Does it have an army and a navy?
  5. I jest.
  6. The real number 4: Is the variety standardised? Can we study it with the help of grammars and lexicons? Is it taught in schools? (Language standardisation is a whole topic of its own, which we will come back to in a later post.)

We can see that the term language is strongly connected to the status a variety has in a nation, it is a term that is awarded or given. When we attempt linguistic distinctions between languages and dialects, things get confusing really quickly. Is differing syntax, for example word order differences, more distinguishing than differing vocabulary? Norwegian and Danish have largely similar vocabularies, but very distinct pronunciations, so how does that factor in when we determine whether they are distinct languages or dialects of one variety? How much is the mutual intelligibility due to close contact, rather than actual similarities4 – do I understand Norwegian well because I grew up a couple of hours from the border to Norway, or because Norwegian and Swedish are so similar?

It is also relevant to talk about the historical perspective (after all this is is the Historical Linguist Channel). To throwback to Rebekah’s post last week, we know that English has changed a lot since the Anglo-Saxon times. We all tend to agree that Latin is one language distinct from Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, but we also know that these languages all originate from Latin. What about English then? Old English and Present Day English look different enough that we could happily call them distinct languages, but what about Early Modern English? When do we say a variety has diverged enough from its parent language to be considered a language in its own right? Is my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt, a part of my immediate or extended family? Well, that often depends on my relationship to my great-aunt, which brings us back to the subjectivity of the question.

The point I’m trying to make with these confused ramblings is that the term language cannot be defined linguistically, but is a wholly social and political term. The people of Montenegro generally refuse to recognise their variety’s similarity to Serbian, despite the varieties being largely indistinguishable – they speak Montenegrin. Knowing the history of the region though, we might be able to see where the Montenegrians are coming from, why it feels important for them to distinguish themselves as a people through their language5 . When we discuss what a language is, it’s important to keep in mind what the term means for the people who use it. Our language is tightly connected to our sense of identity; this is one reason why we’re so reluctant to see it changing or being used in a way we perceive as wrong (throwback to Sabina’s and Riccardo’s posts). The term dialect is somehow seen as inferior to language, and thus the terminology becomes a much larger issue than any linguistic definitions we can make.

Related to this issue are topics like standardisation (mentioned above), minority languages, and the idea of debased English. The latter two are also upcoming topics. In future posts, I will be addressing a variety that is my special interest, Scots 6, which is particularly affected by the issues discussed here. Scots is a Germanic variety spoken in Scotland, which is closely related to English but is still distinct from English (much like Swedish and Norwegian). First, however, I will be back next week to outline the main disciplines that fall under the umbrella of linguistics.

Footnotes

1He didn’t utter the quote first though, but an auditor in one of his lectures said it to him. I recommend reading about the situation on Wikipedia.

2Ask Riccardo about this issue and your evening entertainment is sorted.

3“Language family” is the name given to a group of languages which share an ancestor. We will dedicate more time to this topic at a later point. Meanwhile, you may admire this beautiful Indo-European and Uralic family tree.

4These and other questions are addressed by linguistic typologists, who try to map the languages of the world, categorise them and determine their relatedness.

5This fact was brought to my attention by a student from Montenegro during the course Scots and Scottish English, taught by Dr. Warren Maguire at the University of Edinburgh. A lot of the discussions we had in that course have provided background for the arguments and questions presented here.

6The Angus Macintosh Centre for Historical Linguistics have made brilliant videos explaining the history of Scots, in both Scots and English. I strongly recommend watching these!

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