The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A dialect is a variant, or variety, of a language spoken in a certain geographical area. The number of speakers, and the area itself, can be of arbitrary size. It follows that a dialect for a larger area can contain plenty of (sub-) dialects, which in turn can contain dialects of yet smaller areas, et cetera.

A dialect is a complete system of verbal communication (oral but not necessarily written), with its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Two dialects that share enough similarities may be said to belong to the same language (or two dialects of one language).

A standard dialect or standardized dialect (or "standard language") is a dialect that is supported by institutions. Such institutional support may include government recognition or designation; presentation as being the "correct" form of a language in schools; published grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks that set forth a "correct" spoken and written form; and an extensive formal literature that employs that dialect (prose, poetry, nonfiction, etc.). There may be multiple standard dialects associated with a language. For example, Standard American English, Standard British English, and Standard Indian English, may all be said to be standard dialects of the English language.

A nonstandard dialect, like a standard dialect, has a complete vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but is not the beneficiary of institutional support. For example, Black English Vernacular may be said to be a nonstandard dialect of the English language.

The concept dialect is distinguished from sociolect, which is a variety of a language spoken by a certain social stratum, from standard language, which is standardized for public performance (e.g. written standard), and from jargon and slang which are characterized by differences in vocabulary (or lexicon according to linguist jargon).

Varieties, such as dialects, idiolects and sociolects, can be distinguished not only by their vocabulary, but also by differences in grammar, phonology and prosody.


"Dialect" or "Language"

There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, although a number of paradigms exist, which render sometimes contradictory results. The exact distinction is therefore a subjective one, dependent on the user's frame of reference.

Language varieties are often called dialects rather than languages

  • solely because they are not (or not recognized as) literary languages,
  • because the speakers of the given language do not have a state of their own,
  • or because their language lacks prestige.

Anthropological linguists define dialect as the specific form of a language used by a speech community. In other words, the difference between language and dialect is the difference between the abstract or general and the concrete and particular. From this perspective, no one speaks a "language," everyone speaks a dialect of a language. Those who identify a particular dialect as the "standard" or "proper" version of a language are in fact using these terms to express a social distinction. Often, the standard language is close to the sociolect of the elite class.

In groups where prestige standards play less important roles, "dialect" may simply be used to refer to subtle regional variations in linguistic practices that are considered mutually intelligible, playing an important role to place strangers, carrying the message of wherefrom a stranger originates (which quarter or district in a town, which village in a rural setting, or which province of a country); thus there are many apparent "dialects" of Navajo and Apache, for example, geographically widespread North American indigenous languages, by which the linguist simply means that there are many subtle variations among speakers who largely understand each other and recognize that they are each speaking "the same way" in a general sense.

Modern day linguistics knows that the status of language is not solely determined by linguistic criteria, but it is also the result of a historical and political development. Romansh came to be a written language, and therefore it is recognized as a language, even though it is very close to the Lombardic alpine dialects. An opposite example is the case of the Chinese language whose variations are often considered dialects and not languages despite their mutual unintelligibility because they share a common literary standard and common body of literature.

Political factors

Max Weinreich has provided this definition: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy". However, this also leads to inconsistencies and controversies, as political frontiers do not neatly follow lines of linguistic usage or comprehensibility. Depending on political realities and ideologies, the classification of speech varieties as dialects or languages and their relationship to other varieties of speech can be controversial and the verdicts inconsistent. English and Serbo-Croatian illustrate the point. English and Serbo-Croatian each have two major variants (British and American English, and Serbian and Croatian, respectively), along with numerous lesser varieties. For political reasons, analyzing these varieties as "languages" or "dialects" yields inconsistent results: British and American English, spoken by close political and military allies, are almost universally regarded as dialects of a single language, whereas the standard languages of Serbia and Croatia, which differ from each other to a similar extent as the dialects of English, are being treated by many linguists from the region as distinct languages, largely because the two countries oscillate from being brotherly to being bitter enemies. The Serbo-Croatian language article deals with this topic much more fully.

Parallel examples abound. Macedonian, although mutually intelligible with Bulgarian and often considered to be a Bulgarian dialect, is touted by Macedonian nationalists as a language in its own right. In Lebanon, the right-wing Guardians of the Cedars, a fiercely nationalistic (mainly Christian) political party which opposes the country's ties to the Arab world, is agitating for "Lebanese" to be recognized as a distinct language from Arabic and not merely a dialect, and has even advocated replacing the Arabic alphabet with a revival of the ancient Phoenician alphabet.

There have been cases of a variety of speech being deliberately altered to serve political purposes. In the nineteenth century, for example, Norwegian nationalists created Nynorsk from a number of selected dialects spoken in the west of the country, which had been less influenced than eastern dialects by Danish and Swedish during centuries of Danish and Swedish rule. Another example is Moldovan. No such language existed before 1945, and most non-Moldovan linguists remain sceptical about its classification. After the Soviet Union annexed the Romanian province of Bessarabia and renamed it Moldavia, Romanian, a Romance language, was transposed into the Cyrillic alphabet and numerous Slavic words were imported into the language, in an attempt to weaken any sense of shared national identity with Romania. After Moldavia won its independence in 1991 (and changed its name to Moldova), it reverted to a modified Latin alphabet as a rejection of the perceived political connotations of the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1996, however, the Moldovan parliament, citing fears of "Romanian expansionism," rejected a proposal from President Mircea Snegur to change the name of the language back to Romanian, and in 2003 a Romanian-Moldovan dictionary was published, purporting to show that the two countries speak different languages. Linguists of the Romanian Academy reacted by declaring that all the Moldovan words were also Romanian words. Even in Moldova, the head of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of Linguistics , Ion Bărbuţă , described the dictionary as a politically motivated "absurdity".

The historical linguistics point of view

Many historical linguists view every speech form as a dialect of the older medium of communication from which it developed. This point of view sees the modern Romance languages as dialects of Latin, modern Greek as a dialect of ancient Greek, and Tok Pisin as a dialect of English. This paradigm is not entirely problem free. It sees genetic relationships as paramount; the "dialects" of a "language" (which itself may be a "dialect" of a yet older tongue) may or may not be mutually intelligible. Moreover, a parent language may spawn several "dialects" which themselves subdivide any number of times, with some "branches" of the tree changing more rapidly than others. This can give rise to the situation where two dialects (defined according to this paradigm) with a somewhat distant genetic relationship are mutually more readily comprehensible than more closely related dialects. This pattern is clearly present among the modern Romance tongues, with Italian and Spanish having a high degree of mutual comprehensibility, which neither language shares with French, despite both languages being genetically closer to French than to each other: French has undergone more rapid change than have Spanish and Italian.

Concepts in dialectology

Concepts in dialectology include:

Mutual intelligibility

Some have attempted to distinguish dialects from languages by saying that dialects are mutually comprehensible while languages are not. But this paradigm does not always work. Italians and Spaniards, for example, can understand each other when speaking what are their supposedly separate "languages," whereas Lombards and Sicilians, speaking what are supposedly "dialects" of the same language, cannot.


Another problem occurs in the case of diglossia, used to describe a siuation where, in a given society, there are two closely-related languages, one of high-prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low-prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue.

Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum is a network of dialects in which geographically adjacent dialects are mutually comprehensible, but with comprehensibility steadily decreasing as distance between the dialects increases. A well-known example is the Afrikaans-Dutch-Frisian-German dialect continuum, a vast network of dialects with four recognized literary standards. Although standard Dutch and German are not mutually intelligible, a chain of dialects connects them, with no break in intelligibility between any geographically adjacent dialects along the continuum. A network of dialects similarly exists among the Eastern Slavic languages, among which Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian are recognized as three literary standards. The Serbo-Croatian language can also be viewed as a network of four major dialects and three literary standards.


A diasystem refers to a single genetic language which has two or more standard forms.


A pluricentric language is a language with several standard versions.

The Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache framework

One analytical paradigm developed by professional linguists is known as the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache framework. It has proved popular among European linguists, but is not so well known in English-speaking countries, especially among people who are not trained linguists. Although only one of many possible paradigms, it has the advantage of being constructed by trained linguists for the particular purpose of analyzing and categorizing varieties of speech, and has the additional merit of replacing such loaded words as "language" and "dialect" with the German terms of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache, and Dachsprache, words that are not (yet) loaded with political, cultural, or emotional connotations. It may prove to be a tool helpful for enabling people to see some ancient and poisoned linguistic controversies through a different lens of perception.

See also

External links

  • Incorporating Dialect Study into the Language Arts Class
  • Vernacular Dialects in U.S. Schools
  • Fishermen's Dialect on the South-East Coast of Scotland.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 01:28:50
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01