Dialect or language: What separates one from the other?

The term dialect is derived from the Latin dialectus, dialectos, and further from the Ancient Greek word διάλεκτος, diálektos ‘discourse,’ from διά, diá ‘through’ and λέγω, légō ‘I speak.’

When you look up the difference between language and dialect you will discover that a language is generally defined as a system or method of human communication either spoken or written, consisting of words that are structured by grammatical rules. Ethnologue catalogues 7,102 living human languages.

A dialect, on the other hand, is a particular form of a language which is attached to a specific region or social group. It is not to be confused with an accent, however, which refers to variations in pronunciation, while dialect also encompasses specific variations in grammar and vocabulary.

Dialects are either standard (officially recognized and supported by institutions) or non-standard (not officially recognized). Dialects of the same language are often mutually understandable. Languages of the same language family are often not mutually intelligible.

Beyond those theoretical definitions, the distinction between what we call a language and what we call a dialect gets a lot murkier very quickly. Quite often, politics play an important role in whether something gets labeled a language or a dialect.

A good example is the contemporary hot button case of Ukrainian, which has been recognized as a language since the establishment of the Cossack Hetmanate in the 17th century. Over 200 years later, it was labeled a mere Polonized dialect by the Russian Tsar. A view that still prevails and provides insight on why Russia feels they should have a say in the region. Whether, going forward, Ukrainian will continue to be spoken as just a dialect of Russian or will continue to be recognized as an independent language might well get decided by whomever wins the war.

Another good example of the complexities associated with making this distinction is China. Written Chinese has developed from logograms that often do not give any indication of pronunciation unlike languages that use alphabets. For the last couple thousand years, Chinese signs have stayed consistent, however, pronunciation and grammar has developed separately in many regions. At the foundation of the Republic of China, Mandarin, the dialect spoken in Beijing, was chosen as the official language. However, many of China’s most populous cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong are located in regions where dialects other than Mandarin prevail. Cantonese, Shanghainese and Taiwanese have millions of speakers and Hokkien has been accepted in Taiwan as an important local language alongside Mandarin.

For Arabic a similar controversy exists. Spoken dialects of the Arabic Language share the same writing system, however, since some dialects are mutually unintelligible from each other there is debate among scholars in what category they should fall. There are three geographical zones where Arabic is spoken:

  • Zone I: The Arabian Peninsula where Arabic was already spoken before the rise of Islam
  • Zone II: The Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Iraq, and some parts of Iran or the areas to which Arabic speaking peoples moved as a result of the conquests of Islam. The Egyptian, Sudanese, and Levantine dialects (including the Syrian dialect) are well documented, and widely spoken and studied.
  • Zone III comprises the areas outside of the continuous Arabic Language area.

In Germany, dialects are more common in the South than in the North. Although the overarching Hochdeutsch is used for official use in Liechtenstein, Austria, and Switzerland, most Swiss German speakers perceive this standard German as foreign.

Dutch is spoken in both the Netherlands and Belgium, but although both countries share the same dictionaries some words might only be used on one side of the border. Just like an English dictionary might categorize a car’s trunk as American English and boot as British English, Dutch makes the distinction between northern Dutch and southern Dutch. So why do a lot of Dutch speakers in Belgium insist that their language is Flemish and really different from what is spoken in the Netherlands? Well, Belgium has been independent since 1830, and it’s not just the difference in accent that separates, but also 192 years of cultural independence.


Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


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