dialects and languages

Dennis Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Mon Feb 25 11:32:40 UTC 2008

Hmmm. I think you missed my "at a certain latitude" proviso.


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>header -----------------------
>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
>Subject:      Re: dialects and languages
>Isn't the easternmost variety of "Dutch" really Fries and the
>westernmost variety of "German" - again, taking latitude into
>consideration - really Low German? (I'm making do with the "atlas" in
>the appendix of a dictionary.)
>On Fri, Feb 22, 2008 at 1:20 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu> wrote:
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>>mail header -----------------------
>>   Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>   Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>>   Subject:      Re: dialects and languages
>>   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 SkÂne, 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
>>   overnight.
>>   LH
>>   >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
>>   >
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>>   >>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
>>   >>>Acad»mie fran¡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,
>>   >>>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.
>>   >>>
>>   >>>------------------------------------------------------------
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>>   >>
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>>   >>
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>>   >
>>   >
>>   >--
>>   >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
>All say, "How hard it is that we have to die"---a strange complaint to
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>                                               -Sam'l Clemens
>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

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