dialects and languages

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri Feb 22 14:42:55 UTC 2008

But if we follow the mutual intelligibility criterion, then Danish and
Norwegian are the same language.

I would say that "language" (in this sense) is a socio-political-historical
distinction and "dialect" is a linguistic one. Any categorization of
dialects that groups them into "languages" is not doing so strictly on
linguistic terms.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Laurence Horn
Sent: Thursday, February 21, 2008 7:42 PM
Subject: Re: dialects and languages

The only quarrel I might have with your
observations relates not to the relative status
of Cantonese and Mandarin, with which I am in
accord with what you say, but rather to the
assumption that Cantonese and Mandarin are
dialects of Chinese.  While there is a good deal
of arbitrariness in where "dialect" (or
"variety") leaves off and where "language"
begins, one standard (if admittedly imperfect)
criterion is based on mutual intelligibility, and
that is absent between speakers of Cantonese and
Mandarin, from what I've read.  The other
criterion is the old Max Weinreich "A language is
a dialect with an army and a navy" one, which
militates in the opposite direction here.  But
even Ethnologue, which is conservative about such
matters, lists Cantonese and Mandarin as distinct
languages (see www.ethnologue.com).  So I agree
that Mandarin isn't more of a language and less
of a dialect than Cantonese, but I think by most
standardly accepted criteria they are indeed two
languages that share a writing system (and a
fairly large army and navy).


At 9:43 PM -0500 2/21/08, James Harbeck wrote:
>I've been having a discussion on another list
>with someone, and I seem to be having trouble
>persuading her, so I just wanted to make sure
>that what I was saying was agreed on by linguists
>with more standing than I. Here's what she said
>Mandarin is a language. Cantonese is a dialect.
>This is what I've been told by my husband, who is
>from the PRC & speaks both.
>My response was as follows:
>Um. Well, many a speaker of a hegemonic dialect
>is likely to make a similar insistence, and the
>frequent implication is that the "dialects" are
>degraded versions of the "language" (which could
>hardly work in this case, since Cantonese is
>actually less historically changed than
>Mandarin). Most commonly you will see it said
>that Chinese is a language and Mandarin and
>Cantonese are dialects. (All versions of a
>language are dialects. There is no version of any
>language that is not a dialect of that language,
>and this includes whatever standard version is
>taught as being the only right way to speak it.
>Likewise, all speakers of any language anywhere
>have accents; there is no such thing as a
>language speaker without an accent.) It happens
>that Mandarin is the officially enforced dialect,
>and so is the standard; it hasn't always been
>So your husband's pronouncement is of
>sociological interest, in that it displays a
>certain set of attitudes (which might be objected
>to by Cantonese speakers), but you will find in
>general that Mandarin is referred to as a
>dialect. It _could_ be considered a separate
>language, but it isn't thought of as one, as a
>rule, and if it is one, so is Cantonese.
>(I recognize that I overstated the case when I
>said all versions of a language are dialects, as
>I admitted later -- of course there are other
>levels of varieties, e.g., registers.)
>Her response was as follows:
>In fact, my husband is Cantonese. His 2nd
>language is Mandarin. Other Cantonese speakers
>have said that same thing, that Cantonese is a
>dialect. Mandarin is what they call standard
>Chinese. My husband is also a linguist,
>translator & interpreter. Chinese grammar is
>based on Mandarin rather than on dialects such as
>Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.
>My response was this (I've trimmed bits to get to the point):
>A standard dialect is still a standard _dialect_,
>though. ... The Queen speaks a dialect; the
>Académie française enforces a dialect. Cantonese
>isn't a dialect of Mandarin; it's a dialect of
>Chinese. It's not derived from Mandarin. Mandarin
>is the standard, but it's not the language; it's
>the standard dialect of the language. ...
>Also, I assume, when you're speaking of Chinese
>grammar, you're referring to what's taught in
>schools. The grammar of Cantonese as it's used by
>hundreds of millions or Cantonese speakers is, of
>course, Cantonese grammar, based on how Cantonese
>has evolved through history; it's not a mere
>derivative version of Mandarin grammar. ... Any
>given dialect might be grammatically different
>from the standard, but it has a grammar, and a
>consistent one at that. It couldn't be a
>coherent, viable form of communication otherwise.
>After another exchange, where we mainly repeated
>the same points in other words, her most recent
>missive is this:
>Well. I also didn't mean to imply that dialects
>are inferior or that Cantonese is a dialect of
>Mandarin. Of course dialects aren't inferior. And
>by grammar, I'm not talking about "good grammar"
>but the forms & usages in a language. I once
>taught a course called varieties of English and
>had to set one student straight who thought that
>Canadian English was "just a dialect" because
>it's spoken in only one place - Canada. During
>the (20) years I taught ESL, English, & EFL, I
>had to explain to students that BrE isn't The
>English, that Parisian French isn't The French,
>Anyway, I will send you, off list, an article my
>husband wrote for STIBC (Society of Translators
>and Interpreters of BC) on Chinese. It's called
>"It's All in the Sign." I hope it clarifies
>things. I think it's important to note that, for
>practical purposes, there's a standard language
>in the PRC, a result of the May 4th Movement in
>1919. It happens to be what we call Mandarin,
>although in Chinese it's /putonghua/, or common
>So I'm still not sure whether she quite gets that
>she can't say that Mandarin _is_ Chinese and not
>a dialect, and that Cantonese is a dialect. Am I
>not giving her enough credit? And, for that
>matter, am I wrong?
>James Harbeck.
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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