Language Versus Dialect: Understanding the Relationship

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Understanding language versus dialect is important, not only due to the sociological aspects of the dialect issue but also because understanding dialect is crucial when looking at the natural history of languages. Is it important to know about just English and its dialects or about all the dialects that exist the world over?

Picture describing a word in different languages which shows there exist multiple dialects in the world.
Languages and dialects are interconnected as most languages are a bundle of dialects, making the languages dialects in a sense. (Image: stoatphoto/Shutterstock)

Language Versus Dialect

Looking deeper, there is no such thing as a language. For example, the notion that French is a language is an artificial, arbitrary concept. Because most of what we call languages are bundles of dialects, that is, they are bundles of variations on a theme, and that is what dialects are. Like in a cell in an organism, inside that cell are all those organelles and the nucleus. All those things are made of molecules which in turn are made out of atoms, and an atom is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. In the same way, languages when looked at closely are dialects.

In Great Britain, there is a wide variety of English. There is the familiar standard English of Great Britain, but there are all sorts of other Englishes, too. For instance, in the standard it would be, “The government has today decreed that all British beef is safe for consumption.” But in Scots, the way that they say, for example, “After he had gone through all of it, a great famine broke out in the land”, they say, “Efter he had gane throu the haill o it, a fell faimin brak out i yon laund.” That does not sound like another language, but, except for the Scots, it is not the English that people are used to. The way to say, “We’ve just now taken a horse-stealer who was making off with it”, in a Lancashire dialect is, “Ween meet neaw ta’en a hawse steyler at wur mayin’ off with’tit.” That is an ordinary English dialect, just like standard English is an English dialect. Dialects get even further. When someone says in standard English, “He isn’t going to tell you.” In Cornwall, a region of England, it comes out as, “Aw bain’t gwine for tell ee.” That way of speaking is extinct now, but well documented.

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Clearing Dialect Misconceptions

When understanding what dialects are, certain misconceptions have to be shed. One of them being that a dialect is a degraded version of the standard language. It is easy to think when people speak in those ways which sound funny that these are somehow lesser versions than the standard, unless one has grown up speaking that way. People also think that it is a departure from the way the language was, is, or should be.

What Creates Dialects?

Dialect is not sloth or a slip of the tongue but just a language change. The same language change that created English from an earlier Germanic ancestor, which was before that Proto-Indo-European, creates those dialects.

For example, once there was Latin and French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese did not exist. Then Latin disappeared as a living, spoken language, and developed into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Latin, for, ‘I gave it to the woman’, referring to a present or a book, would be fēminae id dedi. In French, it would be je l’ai donné à la femme.

Picture shows the names of some languages written on colorful notes.
The English language was created from its ancestor—the Proto-Indo-European language. (Image: Four season lover/Shutterstock)

In Spanish it is, se lo dí a la mujer, and so on, all of which are quite different from fēminae id dedi. In which case, Latin became a different language. There is no question that Spanish is not good Latin. Spanish is Spanish, and Latin was something else, where both were respected. Dialects are the pathway from one language to a bunch of new languages. Except in the middle of that pathway, when the process does not go all the way, it is the intermediate stage.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Where Do Dialects Stand?

Imagine the development from Latin to French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian as a bush, with Latin being down on the ground and French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian being leaves outside and on top and on the sides of the bush, that you might trim like hedges; the dialects are somewhere down in the middle of the bush. It is not the trunk, but it is not yet the tips of the branches. It is what happened when the change only went so far. French, Spanish, and Italian have diverged from Latin so much that they are completely different languages. Dialects are when that process has only gone halfway. They are not different languages but just variations on a theme. Those variations are the dialects and that is how a dialect developed.

Learn more about language change as the building of new words and constructions.

Concept of Dialects

Dialects are looked on as something illegitimate whereas separate languages are okay, when in fact there is historical documentation of a time when the languages were not separate enough to be seen as new languages. They were still just dialects of something else, and people thought of them as the wrong thing. For example, there was a time when Latin had diverged into several different varieties. Linguists often called that Early Romance. It was one way in what is now France, and one way in what is now Italy. But really all of them seemed like the same language. They were different kinds of Latin.

Picture of an old Latin book.
The Latin dialect was spreading in many places as Italian and Portuguese were still to emerge. (Image: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock)

People of that time who were educated, often thought that those were the new kinds of Latin in those regions. Latin was diverging in places, but there was no such thing as Italian or Portuguese yet. Latin varied from place to place. Spoken Latin had picked up a passel of words considered too casual for written Latin, and the grammar people used when speaking was broken down.

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Intermediate Stage of Dialect

It makes sense that what a person hears as bad Latin is what another would hear as, say, French. It is a matter of how time passes, and whether this new variety becomes the way people talk as an official part of a new nation. A dialect is an intermediate stage along something where there is no point thinking that something wrong has happened. For example, the French heard in 63 A.D. presumably was not quite the French that is known now. Language changes very slowly, so the logic does not work.

Common Questions about Language Versus Dialect

Q: What is the difference between dialect and language?

There is no such thing as a language because most of the languages are bundles of dialects with variations. Just as inside a cell there are organelles and the nucleus, which made of molecules, which in turn are made out of atoms, and an atom is made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons, languages are dialects.

Q: What are the types of dialect?

There are various types of dialects spoken in various regions of a country. For example, in Britain, France, Spain, and Italy there are many dialects spoken within their regions.

Q: How does a dialect develop?

Dialects are a process that has only gone halfway. There are no different languages but just variations on a theme. Those variations are the dialects and that is how a dialect develops.

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