What is a dialect vs. a language?
Published on August 4, 2020 / Updated on November 9, 2022
We all know that British people and American people don’t speak the exact same. We have different vocabulary, different syntax (word order), and even different grammar rules. Sometimes we wind people up about not speaking English ‘properly’. As an American, I’ve been told I don’t speak the ‘Queen’s English’ so I’m less correct. I don’t mind a bit of ribbing, but as a language enthusiast I’m quick to point out this centuries-long discussion about dialect. In today’s post, we are going to learn what a dialect is and see examples in different languages.
The use of the word ‘dialect’ has roots in colonialism. In the ~400 years between 1500-1900, Europe’s major powers colonised the world. The English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French traveled from their home countries to people living in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Along the way they built powerful trade empires, requiring trade partners to learn European languages in order to do business. Eventually they established colonies, all of which included forced language learning. As a result, a hierarchy emerged: People who spoke the language ‘properly’ from the coloniser country were upper-class elites while people from indigenous populations and lower economic status spoke a ‘dialect’ of the language. ‘Dialect’ had a negative undertone and has been used for non-European languages as well.
It’s an old way of thinking. Even today it’s hard for native-English-speaking teachers from countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and Nigeria to get a job teaching English. Speaking English with an accent from a formerly colonised country is still seen by some as improper.
We see the same in Latin American Spanish vs. Spain Spanish. Spain founded the Real Academia Española, a foundation claiming authority over the Spanish language. For centuries they have dictated what forms of Spanish are considered proper and what forms of Spanish are considered linguistic variations.
In modern linguistics, there is an updated definition. A dialect is a form of a language unique to a region or social group. People ‘over here’ naturally speak differently than people ‘over there’. Dialects have always existed but modern linguists now recognize all variations as dialects instead of using the terms as a value judgment. Language is fluid, ever-changing, and has geographic and political influence. No dialect is better than another.
As we said, England and the United States have two different English dialects. Other dialects include the English spoken in Ireland, South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, Jamaica, South Africa, and more. Posh accents and not-so-posh accents are examples of two more English dialects.
Arabic has dialects. Actually, Arabic is a ‘diglossic’ language, or a language that has a formal variety for professional situations around the world and an informal variety for everyday use. Meanwhile, spoken Arabic is different from country to country. This means Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Sudanese Arabic, Yemeni Arabic, Cypriot (from Cyprus) Arabic, and Palestinian Arabic are all dialects of the Arabic language.
The Chinese language has many dialects. Growing up in California, I was taught in primary school to say Happy Chinese New Year by wishing happiness and prosperity: “Gong hei fat choy”. I learned years later that this phrase is from the Cantonese dialect. In the San Francisco Bay Area, most of the Chinese community have immigrated from southern China and Hong Kong, where Cantonese is spoken. In Mandarin, which is the Chinese dialect spoken in the capital of Beijing and throughout the public education system, the same greeting is “Gong xi fa cai”.
In the 2020 book El progresivo en el español peninsular dialectal author Víctor Lara Bernejo reveals that my easy trick for talking about the future in Spanish is a phenomenon of dialect. I’ve also written about Chilean Spanish before. The Spaniards who colonised Chile brought their Castilian dialect to Latin America, which over time evolved into the Chilean dialect of Spanish. On the Iberian Peninsula the dialect including the Spanish “lisp” or ceceo became the predominant dialect. To hear different dialects of Spanish, check out the NPR podcast I recommended in our 6 best Spanish-language podcasts blog post.