22 May The difference between a dialect and a language

Dialect - by Planet VeritasAccording to the database Ethnologue, there are 6909 living languages in the world. An immense number. This includes those, which some people (myself included) might have considered as dialects but which are given language status in the Ethnologue and other publications.

Whilst working at Planet Veritas I have been able to interact with translators and interpreters of many languages but also dialects. As a student of Italian I have come to realise just how varied Italian is across Italy. Although I was aware of the different dialects throughout the country, it wasn’t until recently that I realised some of these dialects are considered, by some, as languages in their own right.

Take Lombard for example, it is considered by official standards to be an Italian dialect but in the Ethnologue publication it is listed as a language. It is the same for the majority of dialects in Italy, despite the fact that many of them are not immediately recognisable as being related to Italian.

So what is the difference between a dialect and a language? Perhaps the most obvious categorisation is size. Dialects are viewed as smaller subcategories of larger languages. So, Italian is made up of the standard version, along with Lombard, Bergamascque, Ennese, Messinese etc. Of course not all of these dialects meet the criteria to be considered a language but when a dialect varies so much from the language to which it is linked, should it not be given a language status? Dialects in many countries bear no resemblance to the language they supposedly stem from, whilst in others it is clear that there are only minor differences.

Whether varieties are referred to as dialects depends on if they have no codified form – so if they have not gone through the official process and met certain criteria. Similarly, if they are not often used in written form but rather are simply oral, they may not be considered as a language in their own right.

As is expressed in the quotation “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, it is not just linguistic aspects that are used to determine the difference between the two. In fact, social and political aspects can affect how a language variety is viewed. Communities and regions where dialects are spoken might use this distinction between language varieties as another way to distinguish themselves from other parts of the same country, for example.

With so many languages in the world and so many dialects within them is it any wonder that translation and interpreting are so important? What are some of the rarest languages and dialects you’ve encountered?

To see just some of the languages we work with here at Planet Veritas, please visit our languages page.

  • Elfie Burgess, Business Development Manager
    Posted at 15:09h, 22 May Reply

    Great article! I was just wondering, is a “dialect” always defined by it’s written form, or can differences in pronunciation constitute a separate dialect? Does anyone know?

  • Stanag6001 student
    Posted at 07:24h, 27 May Reply

    I heard the same saying form my English professor. He used to say that Language has its own Army, Navy and Air Force, historically speaking. Military rule!

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