dialects and languages

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Feb 22 18:20:09 UTC 2008

At 10:32 AM -0500 2/22/08, Dennis R. Preston wrote:
>I don't understand why both aren't
>sociopolitical? Why would (at a certain latitude
>of course) the easternmost variety of Dutch, for
>example, be a "Dutch dialect" and the westernmost
>variety of German be a "German dialect"?

A nice example is Skåne, spoken in what is now
the south of Sweden; it used to be a dialect of
Danish (when the area belonged to Denmark) and
then magically became a dialect of Swedish,
without having undergone any appreciable changes


>They are
>"dialects of" a language for the same
>sociopolitical reasons that the languages are
>languages. No linguistic features would make them
>better members of the Dutch or German "set." If
>"dialect" means linguistically different variety
>of some historical family (i.e., West Germanic),
>this might be OK (as it is in many historical
>texts), although the metric of difference would
>also come into play.
>>---------------------- Information from the mail
>>header -----------------------
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>
>>Subject:      Re: dialects and languages
>>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
>>>AcadÈmie franÁaise 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
>Dennis R. Preston
>University Distinguished Professor
>Department of English
>15C Morrill Hall
>Michigan State University
>East Lansing, MI 48824
>preston at msu.edu
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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