What is a Language?

By Michael Gasser

How would you tell someone (say, an alien with no knowledge of human culture) what English is, without using the word language?
We can of course extend the boundaries in our example even further, beyond North America to include England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, a number of Caribbean countries, and communities within many other countries. This large speech “community” is not really a community in the usual sense of the word, but it does share many conventions. For example, in all of these places, speakers make a question from a sentence like he ate potatoes by inserting the word did and changing the form of the verb ate: did he eat potatoes?, and of course speakers in all of these places share the word potato for referring to a class of tuberous vegetables. The conventions of this large “community” are what we refer to as “English”, which we consider a language. Thus in one sense a language is a set of dialects. In another sense it is (like a dialect) a set of conventions shared by a speech community.

Two Dialects of One Language or Two Separate Languages?

But how do we decide when a collection of dialects is a language and not just another, more general dialect? As we’ve already seen, a dialect can also be a set of dialects (the North American English dialect consists of Southern dialect, New England dialect, Canadian dialect, etc.). What makes English a language and not just another very general dialect? What makes Canadian English a dialect of English and not a language in its own right?

The answer to this question is complicated. In fact there is no clear answer because the words dialect and language are used in different ways for different purposes. There are two completely different kinds of criteria related to the distinction between dialect and language, linguistic criteria and social or political criteria.

Linguistic Criteria

Given two overlapping sets of linguistic conventions associated with two different speech communities, for example, Mexican Spanish and Argentine Spanish, how do we decide whether they should count as two dialects or two separate languages? One criterion is the degree of overlap: how similar are the vocabulary, the pronunciation, the grammar, and the usage? Unfortunately there’s no simple wat to measure this overlap, at least no way that researchers would agree on. One way to have a sense of the overlap, though, is mutual intelligibility, the extent to which speakers from the two or more speech communities can understand each other. Mutual intelligibility is also not easy to measure, and it is often based on the impressions of speakers and hearers, how much they understand when they encounter members of the other group or how long it takes them to get accustomed to the speech of the other group. We also need to establish some sort of intelligibility threshold; no two speakers can be expected to understand each other all of the time. So none of this is precise at all. The idea is simply that if two sets of linguistic conventions are similar enough so that their speakers can usually understand each other, then the two sets of conventions should count as dialects of the same language rather than separate languages. On these grounds, we call Mexican Spanish and Argentine Spanish dialects of the same language (Spanish) because speakers of these dialects normally have little trouble understanding each other.

To find out what should count as a separate language on grounds of mutual intelligibility, a good resource is Ethnologue – an online database of all of the world’s known languages, 6,912 according to their current listing. The Ethnologue compilers attempt to use mutual intelligibility to decide what should count as a language. While English is listed as a single language, both German and Italian are listed as multiple languages. Each of these languages, for example, the variety of Italian called Sicilian, is usually referred to as a “dialect”, but, according to the Ethnologue compilers, these are distinct enough to be considered separate languages. Again, the criterion of mutual intelligibility is a rough one, and some of Ethnologue’s claims are controversial.

Social and Political Criteria

Another sort of criterion for what counts as a dialect is the social or political unity of the group in question. In Bavaria, a state in southern Germany, and in parts of Austria most people speak a dialect called Bavarian or Austro-Bavarian, which on grounds of mutual intelligibility could be considered a language distinct from the speech of Germans and Austrians in other regions. Ethnologue calls Bavarian a language. But Bavarian is clearly closely related to those other dialects and not more closely related to dialects of some other language, and so for mainly political reasons, it is convenient to consider it a dialect of the German “language”, rather than a language in its own right. Something similar can be said about the speaking conventions of the older generation in the Ryukyu Islands in southern Japan (because these dialects are dying out, most young people do not speak them). On the basis of mutual intelligibility, we could divide the island dialects into several separate languages, each distinct from the Japanese language. But the Ryukyu Islands are politically part of Japan, and these dialects are clearly related to Japanese and not related at all to any other known language (unless we consider each of them to be a language). So for political reasons, it is convenient to consider them dialects of Japanese, just as the dialect of Osaka is considered a dialect of Japanese.
Mutually intelligible “languages”

At the other extreme are examples like the languages spoken in the northern European countries Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. These “languages” are all related to one another, and speakers from some pairs of countries within these have little difficulty understanding one another when they are speaking the standard dialects of their languages, despite the obvious differences, especially in pronunciation. Thus on grounds of mutual intelligibility, we might consider some of these “languages” to be dialects of a single language. But Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are official “languages” of separate countries, and there are separate spelling conventions for some of the sounds in the languages.

Actually the situation is even more complex than this because Norway has two official dialects, and a fourth related language, Faroese, is spoken in the Faroe Islands, which are administered by Denmark.

So for mainly political reasons, they are considered separate languages rather than dialects of a single language.

To summarize, the line between dialects of one language and separate languages is somewhat arbitrary. However, wherever we draw the line, three points should be clear:

  1. Every language has multiple dialects.
  2. Every speaker of every language is also a speaker of at least one dialect of that language.
  3. Since the pronunciation conventions of a dialect constitute an accent, every speaker of every language speaks with some accent. There is no such thing as “speaking without an accent”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *