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  #1  
Old 08-09-2003, 08:46 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Language vs. Dialect

We've got a bunch of linguistics professionals on the board -- let me ask, in the interests of clarity (and because it's come up from time to time in the past) is there's any formal definition of the distinction between a language and a dialect.

At one time I'd run into a criterion that said any two of:
  1. Separate, parallel evolution from related tongue
  2. National speech, official or predominant, of a current or former nation
  3. Separate literature
  4. Lack of mutual intelligibility
defined a language, while absence of all or three-out-of-four of these made it merely a dialect of another language. When I mentioned that in a thread many months ago, though, someone refuted that, though I don't now recall on what grounds.

So I'm looking for an "official" or generally accepted criterion for making the distinction between separate language and dialect.
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  #2  
Old 08-09-2003, 09:08 PM
Hari Seldon Hari Seldon is offline
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There simply is no criterion. For example, Dutch is considered a language distinct from German, while Plattdeutsch, which I think is closer to Dutch than to Hochdeutsch is just considered a dialect of the latter.

I cannot vouch for this, but I read recently that Catalan, usually considered a dialect of Spanish, is no closer to Spanish that Portuguese is. The same source claimed that only the historical accident that Portugal is a separate country accounts for that. Similarly, I understand the various Chinese "dialects" are no closer to each other than the various Romance languages are to each other. I have heard dialects of English that are incomprehensible. So I think it is an arbitrary distinction. You have to draw the line somewhere, but it is a continuum.
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Old 08-09-2003, 09:12 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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A language is a dialect with an army.

I'm not sure you're going to get anything close to a definitive answer. With the human propensity for organizing thought between lumpers and splitters, I have seen too many "standards" put forth to gain a consensus. (Species tend to have the same problems in biology.)
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  #4  
Old 08-09-2003, 09:13 PM
Dragonblink Dragonblink is offline
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As we are often told in linguistics classes, while most linguists prefer to make the dividing line based on mutual intelligiblity, the requirements for being a language are as follows:

1. An army
2. A navy
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  #5  
Old 08-09-2003, 09:15 PM
Dragonblink Dragonblink is offline
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Well dang, someone stole my well-traveled joke while I was typing it.
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  #6  
Old 08-09-2003, 09:15 PM
MC Master of Ceremonies MC Master of Ceremonies is offline
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Yep, there's no criterion for language versus dilaect, for example 'Chinese' is usually includeed as one language because it has the same written form yet the mutual inellitengibilty is very low, yet the Scandivian languages (Swedish and Norweigian ) are defined as seperate languages tho' they have quite a high degree of mutual inellligibilty.
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Old 08-09-2003, 10:45 PM
Sattua Sattua is online now
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Just for interest's sake, the degree of sameness below which "mutual intelligibility" stops existing is anywhere from 90% - 60%.
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  #8  
Old 08-10-2003, 12:32 AM
dtilque dtilque is offline
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There was an example of dialects turning into languages just 10 years ago. Where there used to be one language, SerboCroatian, there are now three: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. Still mutually intelligible, but they each have their own army now.
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  #9  
Old 08-10-2003, 01:03 AM
hazel-rah hazel-rah is offline
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You can't neatly abstract the difference between a language and a dialect. The contrast only has meaning when you are referring to a specific set of speakers, and that particular meaning doesn't tend to extend very far beyond that particular set of speakers.

A good way to accurately refer to language is as a bunch of dialects. It's all dialects. You can classify them into language families, but the historical relationship between language families invariably involves treating them as dialects of a parent language. And in this case, by parent language I of course mean a group of dialects. You might say that you can see languages on the horizon, but when you get there all you ever find is a bunch of dialects.

Another problem with the language vs. dialect distinction is that it can reinforce popular misconceptions about how dialects are related. The layperson tends to think that you have the language with nonstandard dialects that are descendents of or corruptions of the language. Which is factually incorrect. They're siblings. And deciding you don't like your brother doesn't mean you get to call yourself "dad."

-fh
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  #10  
Old 08-10-2003, 01:51 AM
ruadh ruadh is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Hari Seldon
I cannot vouch for this, but I read recently that Catalan, usually considered a dialect of Spanish
Catalan is only considered a dialect of Spanish by people who don't know anything about Catalan. Its closest relative is Occitan, a language of southern France.
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  #11  
Old 08-10-2003, 06:02 AM
Wendell Wagner Wendell Wagner is offline
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Chinese is not usually referred to as a language with a lot of highly divergent dialects. Anyone with any reasonable knowledge of the subject is aware that Chinese is a group of related languages. (I believe that it's usually considered to be nine different languages.) Each of these languages has its own dialects. Saying that someone is speaking "Chinese" is a sloppy, non-technical way of describing what they are doing.
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  #12  
Old 08-10-2003, 07:23 AM
Space Vampire Space Vampire is offline
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Well... I know one or two things about Chinese, but don't really know what you mean... But then I focus more on using it than picking it apart, so maybe you're right. What do you mean? What are these nine different languages with their own set of dialects? If you're right I'm certainly curious to know.
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  #13  
Old 08-10-2003, 07:42 AM
prow|er prow|er is offline
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While the Chinese languages have one written form, even this written form varies in different languages to a slight extent. For example, Cantonese has a few unique characters not found in Mandarin.

The 9 Chinese languages and some famous dialects I believe are:
Mandarin, spoken all over China and is the official language (Northern, Southwestern, Northwestern)
Yue, spoken in Guangdong province (Cantonese)
Wu, spoken in Zhejiang province (Shanghainese)
Gan, spoken in Jiangsu province
Xiang, spoken in Guizhou province
Min, spoken in Fujian and Guangdong province (Hokkien/Taiwanese, Teochew, Hainanese)
Hakka, distributed around Guangdong and Guangxi province

Each of these languages have their own dialects. But of course if u ask any PRC official he'll just deny the fact that Chinese consists of many languages...
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  #14  
Old 08-10-2003, 07:44 AM
Monty Monty is offline
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Wendell: I'd dearly love to see some stats on your assertion that Chinese "is not usually referred to as a language with a lot of highly divergent dialects." In the course on "Languages of the World" which I recently completed, Chinese was used as an example of one of the various ways in which the language/dialect conundrum is considered. The deciding point in favor of it being usually considered as a language with mutually unintelligible dialects is that the speakers of said dialects identify their speech as Chinese. FYI, there are also mutually unintelligible dialects of German whose speakers consider their speech to be dialects of German.

FTR: Your comment about sloppy & nontechnical is a purely personal judgment and is, well, sloppy & nontechnical.
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  #15  
Old 08-10-2003, 08:11 AM
China Guy China Guy is offline
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There are an awful lot of Chinese dialects that are incomprehensible to native Chinese speakers. Heck, there are Fukian (Fujian) dialects that are incomprehensible to other Fujian speakers, let along someone that speaks Mandarin as their native tounge.

Yet Chinese is considered one language.
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  #16  
Old 08-10-2003, 10:51 AM
MC Master of Ceremonies MC Master of Ceremonies is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Wendell Wagner
Chinese is not usually referred to as a language with a lot of highly divergent dialects. Anyone with any reasonable knowledge of the subject is aware that Chinese is a group of related languages. (I believe that it's usually considered to be nine different languages.) Each of these languages has its own dialects. Saying that someone is speaking "Chinese" is a sloppy, non-technical way of describing what they are doing.
Quote:
Because there has long been a single method for writing Chinese, and a common literary and cultural history a tradition has grown up of referring to the eight main varieties of speech in China as 'dialects'. But in fact they are as different from each other (mainly in prounounciation and vocabulary as French or Spanish is from Italian, the dialects of the south-east being linguistically the furtherest apart.
Cambridge Enclyopedia of Language

Chinese is a single language in conventional linguistic classifications.
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  #17  
Old 08-10-2003, 11:29 AM
Wendell Wagner Wendell Wagner is offline
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Well, for instance, here's the page on the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family from Ethnologue:

http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=1270

They consider that there are 14 languages which are part of the family, including Dungan, which is not usually called Chinese because it's spoken in Kyrgyzstan, although it's just as closely related.

In _The Cambridge Encylopedia of Language_ by David Crystal, it says that although they are frequently referred to as dialects, it would be more accurate to think of them as 8 different languages, since they are not mutually intelligible.

In _The World's Major Languages_ edited by Bernard Comrie, it says that it would be linguistically more useful to refer to them as separate languages, although for political purposes they are frequently referred to as dialects.

In _The Atlas of Languages: The Origin and Development of Languages throughout the World_ edited by Bernard Comrie, Stephen Matthews, and Maria Polinsky, it says although they are frequently referred to as dialects, Cantonese differs from Mandarin as much as Italian differs from French.

Here's a website that speaks of them as 7 different languages:

http://www.chinalanguage.com/Language/chinese.html

Here's an Encyclopedia Britannica article that says that, although they are frequently referred to as dialects, they are really different languages.

http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=118135

I think a summary of the sources I've just checked would be that linguistically it would be better to think of them as different languages (some of which have highly divergent dialects within them), politically many people would prefer to call them dialects.

In fact, I think that politics is what's preventing an accurate assessment of the linguistic situation in China. The Chinese government is desperately trying to hold the country together despite the wide variations in language and many other things. For instance, there's only one time zone in China (although it would more properly be split up into five of them) because they want to avoid any thought of regionalism in the country.

And what are your sources?
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Old 08-10-2003, 12:00 PM
Monty Monty is offline
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Just for entertainment value, WW, read what I posted before you ask what I posted. You said:
Quote:
Chinese is not usually referred to as a language with a lot of highly divergent dialects.
I said:
Quote:
Wendell: I'd dearly love to see some stats on your assertion that Chinese "is not usually referred to as a language with a lot of highly divergent dialects."
My statement was in response to you assertion that there's some kind of quantifiable number of persons who refer to Chinese in the manner you described and that quantifiable number is greater than the number of persons who do otherwise.
I also provided a cite:
Quote:
In the course on "Languages of the World" which I recently completed, Chinese was used as an example of one of the various ways in which the language/dialect conundrum is considered. The deciding point in favor of it being usually considered as a language with mutually unintelligible dialects is that the speakers of said dialects identify their speech as Chinese.
I've now bolded the part above you evidently missed.

And to show you that Chinese is not the only speech with that particular conundrum, I provided one example of a non-Chinese speech:
Quote:
FYI, there are also mutually unintelligible dialects of German whose speakers consider their speech to be dialects of German.
Now, there's reinformcement of what I actually said & it's in the posting from China Guy.
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Old 08-10-2003, 12:12 PM
Wendell Wagner Wendell Wagner is offline
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Plattdeusch is not a dialect of (Standard) German. It's a separate language. Again, anyone who calls Plattdeutsch a dialect of German is ignoring the linguistic criteria and going purely by political considerations.

What do you mean by "stats"? Do you actually want a census of the number of people who call Chinese a group of languages versus the number of people who call it a group of dialects? What does that prove? There's a useful definition for "language" which says that it has to do with mutual intelligibility. Anything else is bowing to political pressure. Mandarin and Cantonese are separate languages. Standard German and Plattdeutsch are separate languages. Polycarp asked for a "formal definition," not a census of how the terms are often used.
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  #20  
Old 08-10-2003, 01:23 PM
MC Master of Ceremonies MC Master of Ceremonies is offline
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The Scandanivian languages in several ways have a high degree of mutual intelligibillty, ceratinly no less a degree than exists between some dialects of ceratin languages, yet they're most often listed as seperate languages. There are no hard and fast rules for differentiating a language from a dialogue (though ethnologue does attempt to apply rules to seperating langauges making Basque for example into three seperate languages), the varities of Chinese are conventionally referred to as 'dialects'.
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  #21  
Old 08-10-2003, 04:12 PM
Monty Monty is offline
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Yes, Wendell. That's exactly what I mean by stats. I can help you get started: I include myself who considers Chinese to be a group of languages based on the linguistic relationship, but also as a group of dialects of one language based on the political considerations. That's because I don't think we can really disregard the political issues involved. Language is, after all, an aspect of humanity. So is politics.
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  #22  
Old 08-10-2003, 04:13 PM
Monty Monty is offline
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p.s. Standard German is a dialect of German, from all accounts I've heard.
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  #23  
Old 08-10-2003, 05:46 PM
Monty Monty is offline
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Above where I said "linguistic relationship," I should've said, "genetic (in the linguistic sense of the word) relationship."

Short hijack: How many corollaries to Gaudere's Law are there now?
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  #24  
Old 08-11-2003, 08:27 AM
China Guy China Guy is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Wendell Wagner
Well, for instance, here's the page on the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family from Ethnologue:

http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=1270

They consider that there are 14 languages which are part of the family, including Dungan, which is not usually called Chinese because it's spoken in Kyrgyzstan, although it's just as closely related.
The Sino-Tebetan link is pretty recent and far from proven. Methinks that politics is playing a large role in trying to find a common source/commonality for both languages. Not saying it's impossible, but seems way beyond a stretch to this layman.

Plus, about 2 years ago on this board it came up and I went through the site of the UC Berkeley guy that seems to be the champion of this theory. I personally was far from convinced or even made to think there was some real basis for the claim. YMMV
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Old 08-11-2003, 11:20 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Thanks for the fascinating discussion, all!

From the above interesting but not definitive discussion, I conclude that:

1. There is no consensus definition of what constitutes a "language" vis--vis a "dialect."

2. Deference is given to any reasonable notion that a nation may take as to what constitutes the language or languages spoken in it. E.g., if Belgians insist that Flemish constitutes a distinct language from Nederlandish Dutch, we will accept that perspective; likewise the Romanians of Moldavia speak Romanian in a Moldavian dialect; the Moldovans speak Moldovan, a separate language, and never mind that Moldavian and Moldovan are mutually intelligible.

3. A common written language, particularly one using ideograms rather than alphabet or syllabary, furnishes grounds for regarding a set of dialects, even if not mutually intelligible, as a single language, but this is strongly disputed.

Obviously, some degree of common sense needs to be applied here. The official French assertion that Breton is "a group of French dialects" is objectively true only in the sense that Breton is spoken by French nationals, whose dialects are "French dialects" in the same sense that "daown East Maine" and Deep South y'awlese are "American dialects."

In short, there's no real answer to my question as phrased -- I'm trying to draw a line arbitrarily at a given point on what's really a spectrum, a continuum from "exactly alike" to "clearly totally different" but with every point between reprsnted.

Is that about accurate?
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