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What is a dialect?

Following our recent posts on Neapolitan and different varieties of Arabic, it seemed like a good time to look at some of the uses of the term ‘dialect’, and to try to untangle what it is that linguists mean when they use this term.

The primary use of the term dialect is to designate a variety of a given language which is characteristic of a group of that language’s speakers. In the case that this group is distinct for social rather than geographic reasons, the version of the language they speak is a sociolect, whilst a regiolect refers to a dialect spoken in a geographically defined area. 

The term idiolect (from Greek words meaning ‘own’ and ‘to be spoken’) refers to the unique version of a language spoken by individuals. Indeed, at an almost metaphysical level, we could argue that there is no such thing as a dialect, or indeed a language, just a multitude of overlapping idiolects.

A good example of a sociolect is what is called by linguists Received Pronunciation (RP), a form of British English which used to be thought of as ‘proper’ English. Of course, RP is (was) really just a sociolect spoken by a particularly dominant sector of British society, namely the better-off portions of the South.

Staying with the British Isles, the versions of English spoken in and around Newcastle (“Geordie”, which bears more visible traces of its Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian roots than most other forms of English) is a good example of a regiolect.

A secondary, more popular, use of the term dialect is to refer to a language which is in some sense subordinate to a national (or regional) standard language. Thus, although a dialect has as much of a claim to ‘language status’ as the dominant form of a language, for historical or social reasons it has been sidelined. A dialect in this sense is often parallel or cognate to the dominant language, but not a variety or derivation of it.

Mutual intelligibility is often posited as a fundamental characteristic of dialects. Valencian and Barcelona Catalan are both dialects in the sense that they are mutually intelligible. Standard Norwegian today would have been considered a dialect of Danish a hundred years ago.

When Tuscan was chosen as the national language of the newly unified Italy, the other languages which had grown and co-existed alongside it were downgraded to dialects. Although Venetian or Neapolitan, for example, should be thought of as ‘sister languages’ to what is now called Italian, they are often referred to as simple dialects, or regional variations on the dominant sociolect.

Wikipedia lists the main reasons why some languages may be considered dialects rather than languages proper:

• because they have no standard or codified form,
• because the speakers of the given language do not have a state of their own,
• because they are rarely or never used in writing (outside reported speech)
• or because they lack prestige with respect to some other, often standardised, variety.

Or, as the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich famously put it, a language is a dialect with an army.

Some linguists try to avoid all the rather unpleasant associations of the word ‘dialect’ by using ‘idiom’ as a term to denote all and any speech systems, whether they are considered dialects or not. Anthropological linguists deal with the same issue by insisting that all specific forms of a language used within a speech community are dialects – in other words, everyone speaks a dialect.

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