What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

January 22, 2020
What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in March 2023 

We often talk about languages, particularly in the translation industry, but we only rarely step back and think about the fundamental concept of language. Today, we're doing just that.

What is the difference between dialect and standard language? It's a surprisingly difficult question, once you get into the detail, but one that's well worth looking into if you are interested in language or dialect. To cut things short, the consensus on the difference between a language and a dialect is that a dialect is a subcategory or variation of a language. However, this distinction is challenged by comparing German dialects and Dutch and Afrikaans side-by-side as some notable literature argue that these languages share enough similarities to be each other's dialect reflecting the strong socio-political context between them.

Moreover, one thing we discovered over the past decade of work as a translation agency is that those who translate for a living are often fascinated by the concept of language itself. So, let's indulge that passion by looking at the differences between languages and dialects. 

What Is a Language?

Is dialect a language? How do you define something with as many cultural and linguistic factors as an entire language? There are actually various ways that we can go about it:

1. A language is a method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

2. A language is a system of communication used by a particular country or community.

Both pretty clear definitions, but one can’t help but feel that they don’t quite reflect the complexity of the way we think about language. At what point does a language become a dialect, or vice versa, for example? While there’s no clear-cut division between the two, it’s certainly possible to consider ways in which we can differentiate between a language and a dialect. 

What Is a Dialect? 

In terms of its dictionary definition, a dialect is ‘a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group.’ This implies that we can view a language in the role of parent, with a range of dialects stemming from it. A great way to view the difference between language and dialect on paper, but out in the real world, the distinctions between the two quickly begin to blur. 

We’ll look at this in further detail below. First, let’s get the matter of accents out of the way. 

What Is an Accent?

While we’re on the subject of linguistic variation, it’s worth taking a quick detour to consider accents. Accents affect the way that a language is pronounced. They can vary hugely within a country but, as a general rule, an accent relates to pronunciation only. When different regions use different words to describe the same thing, they can reasonably be considered to be using different dialects, rather than simply different accents. 

The Geordie dialect in England is a good example of this. Geordies are those who hail from the Newcastle and Tyneside area of North East England. They are known for their distinctive speech patterns – as highlighted by pop star Cheryl Cole, whose Geordie accent was so strong that she was dropped as a judge from the US version of the X Factor due to her inability to be understood by all those with whom she was working. 

However, the Geordie way of speaking amounts to more than simply a regional accent. It is a distinctive dialect within the English language, with its own words for a wide variety of things. Scran, canny, breeks, wazzock, clart – all of these are part of the Geordie dialect (they mean something to eat, good, trousers, imbecile and to mess about, respectively). The dialect also has its own variant of the verb ‘to go’ – ‘gan.’ 

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Language Versus Dialect

The problem in trying to differentiate a language from a dialect, when it comes to the real world, is that boundaries are considerably blurred. We consider Spanish and Portuguese to be distinct and separate languages, for example, yet it’s fairly simple for a Portuguese speaker to read a Spanish newspaper. While engaging formal language translation services (or should that be dialect translation services?!) for business purposes would certainly be appropriate, there is a degree of mutual intelligibility between the two tongues that makes casual conversation possible, if not necessarily easy. 

Should we, then, consider Spanish and Portuguese to be dialects rather than separate languages? Many of those living in Spain and Portugal would surely object to such an assertion (along with most of Latin America!) but in essence it is true. After all, Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance languages. Are they really dialects of the parent Romance language then? And, if so, should we consider Italian, French and Romanian in the same terms?

Mutual intelligibility is, in itself, a red herring when it comes to defining the difference between a language and a dialect. We consider the variations of English that are spoken around the globe to be dialects that are mutually intelligible. An English speaker in South America might say ‘howdy’ where an Australian says ‘g’day’ and a Brit says ‘hello,’ but all three are able to converse, despite their different dialects and accents. 

However, mutual intelligibility can apply to entire languages as well. Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are able to converse fairly comfortably, despite each speaking a different language. That’s because these three Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible. So should we therefore reclassify them as dialects, instead of languages? 

And what about Chinese languages – or should that be dialects? We consider Mandarin and Cantonese to both be dialects of Chinese, yet the two are not mutually intelligible. Yes, they use the same writing system, but a Mandarin speaker can no more understand a Cantonese speaker than an English person can understand someone speaking Portuguese. 

Cultural Considerations 

There are also enormous cultural implications when we consider the differences between languages and dialects. Speakers of the same language can have absolutely no contemporary cultural connections. Consider English speakers growing up in South Africa and those growing up in the US. Yes, there are historical ties that bind the two (hence them speaking the same language), but any particular cultural affinity is certainly lacking when it comes to the average modern-day citizen. 

Speaking the same language, therefore, doesn’t imply any kind of shared cultural experiences, other than those confined to the history books. On the flip side, those who speak different languages (let’s think about Scandinavia once more) can have fairly close modern-day cultural associations. As such, cultural considerations are no more help in defining the difference between a language and a dialect than mutual intelligibility is. 

Where Do Standardized Languages Fit in?

Then there’s the issue of standardized languages. Many countries have, at some point, in their history, selected a particular dialect on which to base their standardized language. In Vietnam, for example, education is delivered in the Hanoian dialect. In England, the standardized language is based on the dialect spoken in the South East. Standard Russian is based on the way the language is spoken in Moscow. Standardized German is a mixture of Middle German and High German (with three regional variants: German Standard German, Austrian Standard German and Swiss Standard German). And so on and so forth. 

Being used as the basis for a language’s standardization often lends the chosen dialect a certain cachet. However, in reality that dialect is no more nor less valid than any other dialect of the same language, each of which has developed over time in its own distinctive way.

How Do Dialects Develop?

Some linguists believe that all languages are descended from one original human language. As such, it’s possible to consider every language on the planet to be a dialect, in some sense, of this initial tongue (you can read more on the origins of language by clicking the link below). If that’s the case, how have we ended up with so many different languages and dialects today? There are between 6,500 and 7,000 languages in use around the world and countless more dialects. Why are they all so different?

The most commonly cited reason for this is geographical isolation. Over time, communities that speak the same language but which are separated from each other will develop their own speech patterns and accents, as well as their own words. The variants of Portuguese spoken in the ‘new’ and ‘old’ worlds are excellent examples of this. Both began with the same mother tongue, yet Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese sound distinctly different from each other. It’s the same with the Spanish spoken in Spain and that spoken in Latin America.

Arabic is another fascinating example of linguistic divergence. Modern Standard Arabic delivers a version of the language that is based on that of the Quran, which is believed to have been written between 609 and 632 CE. This form of Arabic allows speakers from different parts of the Arab world to communicate. It’s necessary because the dialects of Arabic spoken in different countries aren’t always mutually intelligible. Again, both geography and history have much to do with this. 

Dialects can also relate to social class, as well as geographical area. London has a great example of this with its Cockney dialect. A Cockney is traditionally considered to be a native of East London who was born within earshot of the Bow Bells (these being the bells of the church of St Mary-le-Bow in the city’s Cheapside area). The term then came to incorporate all those within London’s East End and, later, the city’s entire working class. 

Examples of the connection between dialects and social class, as well as dialects and educational levels, can be found across the globe. This is usually most noticeable in large urban areas, while more rural areas tend to be less diverse in the range of dialects in use (there are, of course, exceptions, which is what makes a study of languages – and dialects! – such an exciting adventure).

Read more: What Are the World’s Oldest Languages?

Translation Services and Dialects 

Dialects can be a source of both fascination and frustration for professional translators. When dealing with written documents, it’s often the standardised form of a language that’s used, which usually mirrors the translator’s own formal education in that language. However, contemporary translation needs are changing to incorporate modern ways of presenting information, such as video. 

With video translation, a translator could be faced with any number of regional dialects. These can differ significantly from the standardised version of the language that they learned in school and have grown up speaking. As we stressed above, dialects are not merely different pronunciations, but branches of languages that include their own distinctive terminology. 

An English to Spanish translator, for example, might be entirely comfortable with translating formal business documents, but an explainer video that features a Geordie member of staff describing how to operate a product is a very different matter. (We’re not singling out Geordies here for any other reason than that they speak one of the most interesting and instantly recognisable dialects of British English!). 

Many translators enter into the profession due to a love of languages. In fact, Tomedes’ own research has found that 50% of freelance translators cite this as their main motivation for doing what they do (followed by flexible working hours at 23%, money at 16% and circumstances at 11%). This means that many will be delighted to discover the intricacies of different dialects, with their new terminology and distinctive speech patterns. 

However, a fascination with languages doesn’t mean that a translator faced with a video translation and a tight deadline has the time available to discover a wealth of new words and meanings. As such, dialects have the potential to be hugely frustrating and disruptive in terms of workflow! 

Final Thoughts

We set out to answer the question of what the difference is between a language and a dialect. It’s clear that there’s no easy answer to this due to the vast range of blurred boundaries between the two. Some ‘languages’ might more properly be considered ‘dialects,’ while some dialects seem to be distinct languages in their own right. Perhaps we can settle on saying that a dialect is a regional variation of a language, while acknowledging that this is an incredibly simplistic way to view a debate that incorporates everything from geography and history to socio-economic status! 

Do you agree? What other insights can you share to help define the differences between a language and a dialect? We would love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below. 


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