This article is updated regularly. It was last updated in April 2023
We often talk about languages, particularly in the translation industry, but we rarely step back and think about the fundamental concept of language. For example, what is the difference between dialect and standard language? A surprisingly challenging question once you get into the details, but one worth looking into if you harbor any interest in language or dialect.
The consensus on the difference between a language and a dialect is that a dialect is a subcategory or variation of a language. However, as some notable literature argues, this distinction dissolves when comparing German dialects and Dutch and Afrikaans side-by-side. These languages share enough similarities for us to consider them dialects of the same language, reflecting the sociopolitical context between them.
Moreover, one thing we discovered over the past decade of work as a translation company is that people 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.
Is a dialect a language? How do you define something with as many cultural and linguistic factors as an entire language? We can view language as a method of human communication, either spoken or written, using words in a structured, conventional way. We might also see language as a communication system devised by a particular country or community.
Both serve as pretty clear definitions, but one can not help but feel they do not reflect the complexity of our thoughts about language. At what point does a language become a dialect or vice versa? While no clear-cut division exists between the two, we can look at how academics differentiate between a language and 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 definition implies that we can view a language as a parent, with several dialects stemming from it. It’s a great way to view the difference between language and dialect on paper, but in the real world, the distinctions between the two quickly begin to blur.
We will look at this in further detail below. First, let’s gain an understanding of accents.
The problem in trying to differentiate a language from a dialect in real life involves blurred boundaries. The blurring of the definitions of dialect and language becomes apparent in the following examples.
We consider Spanish and Portuguese distinct and separate languages; yet, a Portuguese speaker can read a Spanish newspaper. While retaining professional language translation services for business purposes would help, a degree of mutual intelligibility between the two tongues makes casual conversation possible, if not easy.
It turns out that mutual intelligibility represents a red herring when defining the difference between a language and a dialect. We consider the variations of English spoken around the globe as mutually intelligible dialects. An English speaker in South America might say ‘howdy’ where an Australian says ‘g’day’ and a Brit says ‘hello,’ but all three can converse, despite their different dialects and accents.
However, mutual intelligibility can apply to entire languages as well. Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians can converse fairly easily despite each speaking a different language because these three Scandinavian languages prove mutually intelligible. So, should we, therefore, reclassify them as dialects instead of languages?
And, what about Chinese languages? Should they be dialects? We consider Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, yet the two are not mutually intelligible. Yes, they use the same writing system, but a Mandarin speaker can no better understand a Cantonese speaker than an English person can understand someone speaking Portuguese.
Should we, then, consider Spanish and Portuguese dialects rather than languages? Many of those living in Spain and Portugal would surely object to such an assertion, along with most of Latin America! But, Spanish and Portuguese are both Romance languages. Aren’t they dialects of the same parent Romance language, then? And, if so, should we consider Italian, French, and Romanian the same way?
We discover enormous cultural implications when considering the differences between languages and dialects. For example, speakers of the same language may lack contemporary cultural connections. Consider English speakers growing up in South Africa and the US. Yes, historical ties bind the two, but no particular cultural affinity emerges between the average modern-day citizens of each country.
Speaking the same language, therefore, does not imply shared cultural experiences, other than those confined to the history books. Conversely, those who speak different languages can have fairly close modern-day cultural associations, like Scandinavian countries. As such, cultural considerations provide no more assistance in defining the difference between a language and a dialect than mutual intelligibility does.
Standardized languages create yet another issue. 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 derives from the dialect spoken in the South East. Standard Russian is how the language is spoken in Moscow. Standardized German consists of Middle German and High German, with three regional variants: German Standard German, Austrian Standard German, and Swiss Standard German.
Forming the basis for a language’s standardization 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.
Some linguists believe all languages descend from one original human language. If we adopt this view, we can consider every language on the planet a dialect of this initial tongue (you can read more on the origins of language by clicking the link below). But, how have we ended up with so many different languages and dialects today? Between 6,500 and 7,000 languages remain in use around the world, and countless more dialects. Why do they all sound so different?
The most cited reason for this phenomenon is geographical isolation. Over time, communities that speak the same language but remain 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 provide excellent examples of this process. Both began with the same mother tongue, yet Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese sound different from each other, much like the Spanish spoken in Spain and that spoken in Latin America.
Arabic delivers another fascinating example of linguistic divergence. Modern Standard Arabic derives from the Quran, 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 are not always mutually intelligible. Again, both geography and history bear some responsibility for the development of Arab dialects
Dialects can also relate to social class, like London’s Cockney dialect. A Cockney is traditionally considered to be a native of East London who was born within earshot of the Bow Bells of St. Mary-le-Bow Church in the city’s Cheapside area. The term then came to incorporate all English spoken within London’s East End and, later, the city’s entire working class.
Examples of the connections between dialects, social class, and educational levels, exist all around the globe. These connections prove more noticeable in large, urban areas, while rural areas tend to exhibit less diversity in the range of dialects in use. The exceptions make the study of languages and dialects an exciting adventure.
Read more: What Are the World’s Oldest Languages?
Regarding linguistic variation, we should take a quick detour to consider accents. Accents affect the way we pronounce words in a language. They can vary widely 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, we can see them as using different dialects, rather than different accents.
The Geordie dialect in England offers insight into accent phenomena. Geordies hail from the Newcastle and Tyneside area of North East England. They enjoy notability for their distinctive speech patterns – as highlighted by pop star Cheryl Cole, whose Geordie accent is so strong that she was dropped as a judge from the US version of The X Factor due to her colleagues’ inability to understand her.
However, the Geordie way of speaking amounts to more than a regional accent. It stands as a distinctive dialect within the English language, with a lot of its own words. ‘Scran, canny, breeks, wazzock, clart’ – all of these words comprise 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.’
Is reading not your thing? No worries! Different strokes for different folks. Watch this video instead!
Dialects generate fascination and frustration for professional translators. When dealing with written documents, the standardized form of a language usually takes precedence over the other dialect, mirroring the translator’s formal education in that language. However, contemporary translation needs often shift to reflect modern methods of presenting information, such as video.
With video translation, a translator may face any number of regional dialects. These can differ significantly from the standardized version of the language that they learned in school and spoke while growing up. As we stressed above, dialects are not accents, but branches of languages with distinctive terminology.
An English-to-Spanish translator, for example, might feel entirely comfortable translating formal business documents until an explainer video that features a Geordie or Cockney spokesperson describing how to operate a product.
Most translators enter the profession due to a love of languages. In fact, Tomedes’ research has found that 50% of freelance translators cite this as their primary motivation for doing what they do, followed by flexible working hours at 23%, money at 16%, and circumstances at 11%. Many translators delight in the intricacies of different dialects due to their novel terminology and distinctive speech patterns.
However, a fascination with languages does not mean that a translator faced with a video translation and a tight deadline has the time to digest a wealth of new words and meanings. As such, dialects have the potential to frustrate and disrupt workflow!
We set out to answer the question of what the difference is between a language and a dialect. It now seems clear that no easy answer exists due to blurred boundaries between the two. Some ‘languages’ might appear more like ‘dialects,’ while some dialects seem like distinct languages in their own right. Perhaps we can settle for 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 socioeconomic 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.