dialects and languages

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Feb 22 15:23:25 UTC 2008

At 6:42 AM -0800 2/22/08, Dave Wilton wrote:
>But if we follow the mutual intelligibility criterion, then Danish and
>Norwegian are the same language.

Or Swedish and...   That's exactly why I hedged
on the adequacy of the mutual unintelligibility
criterion, which really is neither necessary (as
Scandinavia, or now Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, or
Hindi/Urdu, shows) nor sufficient (as the
"Chinese dialects" case shows).  Further,
"mutually intelligible with" is neither a
symmetric nor a transitive relation.  And I agree
completely with your last sentence below.  That
being said, it seems a violation of ordinary
professional usage to consider two varieties as
distinct as Cantonese and Mandarin to be dialects
of the same language.  A similar and perhaps even
more complicated case is Arabic.


>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

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

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