dialects and languages

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sat Feb 23 15:30:47 UTC 2008

Yes, but the groupings that they are "dialects of" are, to a large extent,
sociopolitical constructs, not linguistic ones.

It doesn't have to be that way. You can define "otherness" using purely
linguistic factors. We usually don't, but you could if you wanted to.

I'm not saying linguists shouldn't group dialects into "languages" that
correspond to generally accepted sociopolitical groupings, but if you do you
must accept that this will introduce sociopolitical artifacts into the
linguistic definitions. All I am saying is that you must be aware of the
factors you use to construct your classification schema, because these will
influence your subsequent analysis.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Dennis Preston
Sent: Saturday, February 23, 2008 5:19 AM
Subject: Re: dialects and languages

How could a dialect be defined "on its own"?
Since it is defined by opposition to "other"
dialects, the underlying assumption is that they
are "dialects of something." Your proposal, to
point out their distinctiveness from other
varieties would not in nay way establish them as
languages or dialects I(and its what linguists do
when the write a grammar). When the variety
distinctiveness is between English and Japanese,
for example, we do not hesitate calling it a
"language" variety distinction, but I do no see
how this procedure will objectively establish
anything as a dialect unless we make some
assumptions about relatedness in the first
place,then we're right back where we started.


>---------------------- 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
>The sociopolitical comes in when you try to classify a dialect as a
>of [language]."
>On its own, a dialect can be defined without reference to the
>sociopolitical. All you need do is define the characteristics of phonology,
>grammar, and vocabulary/idiom that make the dialect distinctive. You will
>still have judgment calls around the edges--that's true of any exclusive
>classification system--but those calls will not be influenced by
>sociopolitical factors.
>I'm not saying it isn't useful to group dialects into larger groups called
>languages. It's just that we must recognize that these groupings are not
>determined by linguistic factors alone, or even, in some cases, to any
>significant extent.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
>Dennis R. Preston
>Sent: Friday, February 22, 2008 7:32 AM
>Subject: Re: dialects and languages
>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"? 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
>>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
>>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
>>>AcadĀ»mie franĀ”aise 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

Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Morrill Hall 15-C
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48864 USA

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

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

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