dialects and languages

Paul Johnston paul.johnston at WMICH.EDU
Sun Feb 24 08:11:03 UTC 2008

And these differences change over time too, due to the influence that
comes from whatever Standard language happens to be mandated in the
territory, too--the dialect of, say, Kleve, in Germany, looks very
much like that of the Nijmegen area (even having typical Central
Dutch /u:/ > /y:/ in the words for house, out, etc.), but Nijmeegs is
influenced by Standard Dutch and any erosion goes in a Westerly
direction and Kleefs is influenced by Standard (High) German in
recent years, and any replacement of traditional dialect forms tends
to come from that direction.  This is driven by sociopolitical
factors, and tends to re-arrange boundaries according to where the
national boundaries are in some cases.  Not in  all--cf. Galician,
Rusyn, Lemko and other "wrong side of a border" varieties, which tend
to be looked at as independent languages--Galician, though closely
related to (Northern) Portuguese, is these days looked at as NEITHER
Portuguese NOR Spanish, but as separate.

I work with Scots extensively, and am writing a textbook on it.  One
of my chapters discusses the "languagehood" question, not taking
sides as to whether Scots is or not a language--it has been declared
one by the EU by fiat--but talking about the rationales for declaring
it one, and comparing these rationales with those for a number of
varieties that claim languagehood, from ones everyone accepts (like
Dutch and Portuguese) through ones that used to be in dispute, but
are generally not now (like Catalan and Ukranian) to ones in about
the same position as Scots--including an extensive literature and
history of use as a regional language like Scots (Occitan, Low
German) to ones that the EU accepts but lack the historical aspects
(like Letzebuergesch) to ones that the EU hasn't adopted but the
Ethnologue list has (like Cimbric, modern Venetic, Swabian).  I find
it interesting, by the way, that if you take the Ethnologue list as
your guide, there's almost nothing left of the Italian or Spanish
languages but the Standard and overseas varieties, but no one has
postulated, say, modern Northumbrian, Cumbrian, Yorkshire or
traditional Somerset dialect as a separate language from English.
The English of England seems pretty inviolate from splitting by
anyone--even though when I was working in Northumbrians doing my Ph.
D., there was a palpable feeling of being neither English nor Scots
on the part of a lot of Northumbrians--they're Geordies or
Northumbrians, maybe Borderers, but "no English, hinny". Or at least,
they were, pre-1998.

  In any case, my point was that you couldn't escape the
sociopolitical in defining languages--and that a language is a
language if its speakers feel it's one and ultimately, if outsiders
come to agree.  In the case of Scots, the outsiders have spoken--the
speakers WERE torn when I lived there, and may still be, given the
dragging of feet in wanting to use Scots in education, in the media,
etc.  The advocates are active (but not always native speakers), but
the push toward extension of the domains where Scots is accepted has
been uneven.

To come full circle, the Scots/English boundary at the vernacular
level has been hardening since the sixteenth century, and recent
developments seem to reinforce it even more as traditional Northern
English features shared with Scots recede on the Northumbrian/
Cumbrian side of the Border, and as Border Scots vernaculars share
more and more with the Edinburgh/Glasgow area.  So the existence of a
pretty hard boundary seems to reinforce the idea of Scots/English as
separate languages--again this is sociopolitical, and does not apply
fully to the two coasts, where the varieties shade into each other
even now.  But it seems to me these hardenings are a sort of self-
fulfilling prophecy, driven by feelings of sociopolitical identity.

The whole question is not only a can of worms, it's a big bucket full
of nightcrawlers.

Paul Johnston

On Feb 22, 2008, at 10:32 AM, Dennis R. Preston wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Dennis R. Preston" <preston at MSU.EDU>
> 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.
> dInIs
>> ---------------------- 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).
>> LH
>> 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
>>> initially:
>>> ----
>>> 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
>>> thus.
>>> 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,
>>> etc.
>>> 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
>>> speech.
>>> ----
>>> 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?
>>> Thanks,
>>> 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
> 517-353-4736
> preston at msu.edu
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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