Language focus | 08.07.2009

When does a dialect become a language in its own right?

The word dialect is sometimes misunderstood. As dialect tends to go hand in hand with accent, the terms are often used interchangeably, but this is inaccurate. While accent refers to the way a person pronounces words, dialect is concerned with the words themselves and the grammar a person uses.

So what does distinguish a dialect from a language? It seems to be largely just perception. Interestingly, there are some separate languages that seem to be more closely related than some different dialects originating from the same language. While Dutch and Afrikaans are generally considered to be different languages, Afrikaans actually takes 90% of its vocabulary from Dutch. Conversely, Cockney and Glaswegian are considered to be dialects of the English language, yet speakers can struggle to understand one another. In Italy someone living in Milan will find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand someone from Naples or Sardinia speaking their local dialect; here the regional dialects are so distinct from the standard Italian that they merit the title of languages in their own right and even have separate dictionaries.

Generally speaking, the difference between a dialect and a language is not clearly defined. It is largely a result of perception and often influenced by political factors. Different countries are more likely to be seen to have different languages than different areas of the same country. If a nation has a formal ‘standard’ version of a language, this is likely to be acknowledged, whereas less formal regional variations are far less likely to be considered languages in their own right. As always, there are exceptions to this rule, as seen with the Napolitano and Sardo examples above. If you are unsure whether certain communities are speaking in dialect or a specific language it merits further research as there is no clear cut rule.

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