What’s the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

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What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?

The answer is not as clear-cut as you might think.  Let’s look at the different ways to determine the difference between a dialect and a language, and how they stack up in the real world.

Mutual Intelligibility

The most obvious way to distinguish a language from a dialect is by looking at mutual intelligibility. Sure, Americans and Brits have their linguistic differences, but we can usually understand each other. We speak the same language, after all.

Seems like it should be cut and dry, right? Dialects are regional variations of a single language that are still close enough that speakers can understand each other.

But not so fast!

Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich was known to say “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” And in fact, there are plenty of examples of “languages” that are mutually intelligible being classified as separate languages for political reasons  (and vice versa). 


For example, let’s take a look at some current events.  At the end of March, a group of linguists, researchers, writers, scientists and activists at a language conference signed a declaration stating that Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin are all the same language.

Quartz summed the research up as follows:

“According to the researchers, none of the four languages studied differ enough from one another to be considered different languages; speakers of each language can also understand each other despite regional nuances. This is an example of a “polycentric language,” or a language that developed in parallel in different states.”

But despite the fact that there’s a high degree of mutual intelligibility between these “languages,” quite a few of the people who speak them want nothing to do with other politically.

For example, in Croatia, “the culture minister and prime minister warned that creating a common language could undermine the self-determination of individual Balkan states and related it back to the artificial unity imposed under Tito’s regime.”

Does sharing a language mean sharing a country?

But would it? The idea that national boundaries should follow linguistic boundaries dates back to at least the 18th century. Romantic philosophers believed that each “people” had the right to determine its own destiny as a nation.

So, what makes a “people?” What makes the English English, or the Germans German? A shared history and mythology? A shared set of customs? Obviously, a shared language is one of the easiest characteristics to identify and has been used to set the boundaries of different nations in the past.  But language boundaries don’t always match up with cultural identities or national boundaries.

So, on one hand, we have the Balkan countries struggling against the idea that they share a language, even though the languages they speak are mutually intelligible. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian also have a high degree of mutual intelligibility but are considered different languages.

On the other hand, consider the examples of Arabic and China.

Cultural Identity

Arabic is an official language in 26 countries . . . but those countries speak it very differently. For example, Moroccan Arabic is almost incomprehensible to Arabic speakers from Saudi Arabia. Yet the different varieties of “colloquial Arabic” are usually considered dialects, not separate languages.

In this case, speaking Arabic is part of a broader cultural identity. Modern Standard Arabic, the standardized form of the language taught to schoolchildren, allows people from different Arabic countries to communicate.

China is another good example of how cultural identity can trump mutual intelligibility. There are scores of mutually unintelligible local languages that are called dialects, united originally by a common literary language and now by a standardized spoken form.

Dialect Continuums

In fact, it’s often difficult to determine where one language ends and the other begins.  For example, until the end of World War II, West Germanic languages like German, Dutch and Flemish formed what’s called a “dialect continuum.” People in neighboring villages could understand each other almost perfectly. But the further apart you went from your starting point, the more the languages would differ from each other.

So, where does one language end and the other begin? And how do you classify the dialects in the middle?

Class Identity

Sometimes, the difference between “language” and “dialect” boils down to who speaks it (or who spoke it in the past). When it comes time to create a standardized version of a language, it’s usually the upper-class “dialect” that gets the official seal of approval.

For example, Italy has many local languages, all of which evolved separately from Latin. The Italian language is actually based on the dialect used in Florence in the 13th century. Dante’s poems made it a “must-know” local language for the nobility, and a common court language throughout what would later become Italy. The “commoners” kept speaking their own languages (and in many cases, they still do.)

Standardized Italian is based primarily on Florentine. When Italy became a nation in 1861, only 2.5% of the population could speak it.  But now, Italy’s other regional languages are often called “dialects,” as if they were variations of standard Italian.

So what’s the difference between a language and a dialect?

It depends on who you ask, and on which of these somewhat arbitrary factors carries the most weight.

But it any case, it often has little to do with the uniqueness or history of the language/dialect itself.

As John McWhorter wrote in the Atlantic, 

“[I]n the scientific sense, the world is buzzing with a cacophony of qualitatively equal “dialects,” often shading into one another like colors (and often mixing, too), all demonstrating how magnificently complicated human speech can be.”

How do you think we should define the difference between a language and a dialect? Let us know in the comments!