The Difference Between Language and Dialect

Published: 2021-07-01 04:57:08
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In sociolinguistics, language is considered as an abstract notion that is embodied in the form of dialects. It’s not clear-cut to distinguish a language from a dialect of a language. Mutual intelligibility” seems to be an ideal criterion in terms of telling a language from a dialect of a language, however, we can certainly find some cases that counter-argue this principle. Hence some other criteria should be applied as supplements to distinguish between a language and a dialect, among which, Bell’s seven principles for discussing different languages are of great inspiration. The varieties of dialects are differentiated according to the places in which they are used, the different social factors that affect their uses, and functions and styles they have when accommodating different situations in language communication.
Accordingly, sociolinguists label these dialects as regional, social, and functional dialect respectively. This paper will touch upon the discussion of the different varieties of language in relation to the users, social factors and environment.  Criteria for differentiating a language from a dialect  .  Variety and “mutual intelligibility”. In order to further the discussion of the difference between a language and a dialect, let’s first of all center on an important term in the field of sociolinguistics variety. Then what is the definition of a variety? R. A. Hudson, a famous linguist, defines a variety of language as a set of linguistic items with similar social distribution (1980:24). According to this definition, we can call any of the following items “varieties of language”: English, French, Chinese, London English, or the language used by a particular person, etc. It will be seen from this list that the general notion “variety” includes examples of what would normally be called languages, dialects and registers (a term meaning roughly “style”). Now we know that both “a language” and “a dialect of a language” are kind of variety.
Then why do we call some varieties different languages and others different dialects of the same language? Many sociolinguists agree that a dialect is one of most problematic terms to give a general definition to. Some proposed that language exists in the form of dialect. What, then, is a dialect? What are the criteria for distinguishing between a language and a dialect of a language? Linguists start with the assumption that all human beings speak their own idiolects. Similar idiolects make up a particular dialect, and similar dialects make up a particular language.

This statement in some sense presupposes that all the idiolects of a dialect and all the dialects of a language are mutually intelligible (Wang,1992:11). However, we can easily find cases to counter-argue this thesis if the principle of mutual intelligible serve as the only criterion for differentiating a language from a dialect. Take for example, the Scandinavian languages (including Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). Speakers of these three languages can, with little effort, understand and communicate with one another. These languages are mutually intelligible.
According to the principle of “mutual intelligibility”, they are different dialects. But the fact is that they are usually assumed to be different languages. If we turn our attention to China, we will find that speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin will tell you that they speak the same language. People speaking Cantonese and people speaking Mandarin are not mutually intelligible at all, yet they almost certainly insist that they speak different dialects of the same language—Chinese, not different languages, for to the Chinese a shared writing system and a powerful social and cultural tradition form essential parts of our definition of language.
So for these and other reasons, then, we cannot use the test of “mutual intelligibility” to differentiate between dialect and language. The fact is that there is no very clear distinction between the terms dialect and language. These two concepts are, as a matter of fact, ambiguous. The above two cases mentioned tell us that different languages are sometimes mutually intelligible and that dialects of the same language are sometimes not mutually intelligible at all.  So apart from “mutual intelligibility”, we also need other supplementary criteria.
Some sociolinguists have some accounts of differentiating a language from a dialect. One of them is based on the existence of a standard language or of a written form shared by a set of speakers. If two or more groups who differ in speech but regard the same form of speech as a standard, or if they share the common written form, they tend to be regarded as speaking different dialects rather than different languages, whatever degree of mutual intelligibility, like different dialects across China.
On the contrary, the Scandinavian languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are considered different languages because they have distinct, codified, standardized forms, with their own grammar books and literatures, which correspond to three separate nation states. Another account is made in terms of size and prestige. That means a language is larger than a dialect, so that a language can contain more dialects. For example, the Chinese language has seven dialects: Northern, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Min, Yue, and Kejia dialects.
In addition, they also think that the term language implies social prestige, for it is written as well as spoken, but dialectal varieties are generally not used in formal writing, thus is not comparable with more socially valuable language. A famous linguist Bell (1976:147-57) has listed seven criteria that may be useful in discussing different kinds of languages. According to Bell, these criteria, namely, standardization, vitality, historicity, autonomy, reduction, mixture and de facto norms, may be used to distinguish certain languages from others. Standardization refers to the process by which a language has been codified in some way. That process usually involves the development of such things as grammars, dictionaries and possibly a literature, etc. Once a language is standardized it becomes possible to teach it in a deliberate manner. According to these criteria, both English and French are quite obviously standardized, Italian somewhat less so, and the variety known as Black English not at all. Vitality, the second of Bell’s seven criteria, refers to the existence of a living community of speakers.
This criterion can be especially used to distinguish languages that are “alive” from those that are “dead”. For example, Latin is dead in the sense that no one speaks it as native language; it exists only in a written form frozen in time, pronounced rather than spoken, and studied rather than used. Yet we should note that a language can remain a considerable force even after it is dead, that is, even after it is no longer spoken as anyone’s first language and exists almost exclusively in one or more written forms, knowledge of which is acquired only through formal education.
Classical Greek and Latin still have considerable prestige in the Western world, and speakers of many modern languages continue to draw on them in a variety of ways. Historicity refers to the fact that a particular group of people finds a sense of identity through using a particular language: it belongs to them. Social, political, religious, or ethnic ties may also be important for the group, but the bond provided by a common language may prove to be the strongest tie of all. Historicity can be long-standing.
For example, the speakers of Chinese, the different varieties of colloquial Chinese make much of a common linguistic ancestry. Autonomy is an interesting concept because it is really one of feeling. A language must be felt by its speakers to be different from other languages. However, this is a very subjective criterion. For example, some speakers of Black English maintain that their language is not a variety of English, but is a separate language in its own right. In contrast, speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin are not autonomous languages but are just two dialects of Chinese. Reduction refers to the fact that a particular variety may be regarded as a sub-variety rather than as an independent entity. Sometimes the reduction is in the kinds of opportunities afforded to users of the variety. For example, there may be a reduction of resources, that is, the variety may lack a writing system, etc.  Mixture refers to feelings speakers have about the “purity” of the variety they speak.
This criterion appears to be more important to speakers of some languages than of others, e. g. more important to speakers of French and German than to speakers of English. De facto norms refers to the feeling that many speakers have that there are both “good” speakers and “poor” speakers, and that the good speakers represent the norms of proper usage. If we apply the above criteria to the different variation and change in the world, we will see that not every variety we may want to call a language has the same status as every other variety. English is a language, but so are Latin, Ukrainian and Chinese. Each satisfies a different sub-set of criteria from the above list. Although there are mportant differences among them, we would be loath to deny that any one of them is a language.
They are all equals as languages, but that does not necessarily mean that all languages are equal. Regional dialects. Definition and characteristics of regional dialects As we travel throughout a wide geographical area in which a language is spoken, and particularly if that language has been spoken in that area for many hundreds of years, we are almost certain to notice differences in pronunciation, in the choices and forms of words, and in syntax.
Such distinctive varieties are usually called regional dialects of the language. Regional dialect is named in accordance with their geographical distributions, so that Chinese Northern dialect is associated with the northern areas of China; Yue dialect is the main speech variety in Guangdong Province; and Xiang dialect is chiefly spoken by the inhabitants living in Hunan, etc. Regional dialects seem to be based on the different geographical locations in which each is the main means of daily communication.
In regional dialects, vocabulary and syntax may also vary from one another, sometimes causing mutual unintelligibility. For example, Chinese speakers call the word “corn” differently in different regions, in Northeast China, people say ; in Sichuan, it’s called; in Fujian, people say ; and in South China’s Guangdong Province, people call it ”. The use of varied syntactic patterns in regional dialects is confusing as well, let’s study the following examples:
 From the above differences, we can observe that in Mandarin, adverb precedes verb or adjective, while in Cantonese, some adverbs are behind verb or adjective. Reasons for the appearance of regional dialects. So what’re the reasons for the appearance of regional dialects? Firstly, Geographical barriers like mountain ranges, big rivers or other natural factors usually cause great transportation problems for people living in an out-of-way place. This is especially true of areas where economy is very backward.
As a result, regional dialects appear when language with its own characteristics develops. Geographical isolation is one of the important factors for language variations within a country as well as across continents. Secondly, sociolinguistics also regards regional dialects as the result of historical changes in society. For example, many centuries ago, British settlers brought their native language English to North America. After a few centuries, English in the two continents has developed into different regional dialects with their own characteristics in pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, etc.
The same explanation can also be applicable to the case of Australian English, Indian English, Canadian English. Historical events like immigration and colonization have spread English into every corner of the world and split it into many different regional dialects. 4. Social dialects We know that human being are living in stratified social communities, and the way we use language reflects our differences in age, social status, social class, sex and profession, etc.
All these become very crucial factors in determining in the relationship between different speech features and speakers’ social background (Wardhaugh, 1986:46) 4. Social dialects in relation to age differences Talking about age differences, we know youth frequently use vernacular words or slang forms and deletion of past tense marker—ed in the sentence like “My Dad cook for me yesterday. The tendency to make particular use or deletion of certain linguistic features marks their group membership when they tend not to conform to the social norms. But when teenagers grow old enough to enter the work force they gradually use more standard forms as they’re required to do so.
The variety of children’s language is characterized by simplicity and lack of variation in style; and the variety used by young people is most responsible to the changing society and marked with vitality and solidarity; while in old people’s speech, one can find many old-fashioned linguistic features that are no longer used by the younger generation.  Social dialects in relation to sex differences. Many sociolinguists have observed that there is evidence of gender differences in language use.
And such gender-related differences can be categorized into two kinds, one is sex-exclusive speech forms used by women or men only; the other one is sex-preferential forms which both sexes use but with one sex showing greater preference for them than the other. For the first type we can find an example in Japanese language, there are men-only pronouns: “I” and  “you” for casual speech which women cannot use. For the case of second type, it seems that women’s speech style tends to be more polite, uncertain, and indirect.
For example, female speakers are more likely to use some words like lovely, sweet, adorable, please, it’s very kind of you, etc. Women usually out-perform men in their choice of correct or standard speech form; while men tend to use a more non-standard vernacular style. Women used to be discriminated and regarded as inferior to men, whereas men had been more prestigious, authoritative and dominant in social affaires. However, with the increasing consciousness of the inequality imposed upon women, some feminists advocate to use neutral terms.
As a result, now more and more English-speaking people insist on using words like chairperson, police officer, salesclerk and so on instead of the old and sex-based terms like chairman, policeman and saleman.  Social dialects in relation to differences of social class membership. The term social class implies different groups of people who can be differentiated in terms of social prestige, wealth, and education, and language users’ social relationship with other speakers is revealed in the ways they use the language.
There are some criteria for social-class identification, like educational background, professional training, and occupation. The linguistic differences that indicate the social membership of different speakers are also manifest in vocabulary and grammar parts of the language they speak. For example, non-upper-class speakers often use multiple negations like, a young black American may say, “We ain’t had no trouble about none of us pulling out no knife”.
Halliday (1978:33) generalized the social context of language use in terms of three factors: the filed, this includes both professional and non-professional, or technical and non-technical social activities; the mode, which refers to the vehicle and channel of communication; or the way language is organized to deliver information, for example, written or oral style of speech; and tenor, which refers to the relationship between the participants and the intention of the speaker in the exchange of message and meaning with other speakers. The field of discourse Language varies not only among people with different socio-economic status, but also among those with different trade and profession. A field or trade usually has its own terms of expression: a doctor learns to “talk doctor”, a lawyer learns to “talk lawyer”, and a priest learns to “talk priest”. This kind of professional or technical speech or writing is commonly referred to as jargon, it usually occurs among people sharing mutual interests or in-group knowledge which is usually inaccessible to a non-specialist.
The jargon is used when the language user wants to convey the information of his special field with exactness and economy to his co-workers. Now with the rapid development and application of modern science and technology, some jargon vocabulary has gradually been introduced into general language and used by people in their everyday life, such as penicillin, fax, network, clone, etc. The mode of discourse. Language is either spoken or written. With different channels of transmission, either by sound or by written symbols, the spoken and written styles of language manifest distinctive features respectively.
Colloquial style, also called vernacular style, is used in the home, with close friends, between people from the same ethnic group for everyday communication. When people have a face-to-face conversation, their mutual interest or concern in certain topics, and their common background knowledge usually help reduce the load of task in their exchanging information with other participants; in addition, the participants can make use of their pronunciation, intonation, pitch, body gesture etc to convey their ideas. As a result, the colloquial style of language can be succinct and concise without causing misunderstanding.
In addition, there is a universal application of hesitation fillers such as er, mm, um, or well, you know, sort of, I mean etc. in the colloquial style of language users to help the speaker gain more time to think about what he says or to void the interruption of the flow of speech. Written style is another kind of mode of discourse. Compared with colloquial style, it is typical of formality. And written style can be further divided into styles of science, art, politics and business respectively. Each of them has developed its own features in the special register of language use.
The mode of discourse, to an extent, more or less decides what kind of message, tone, and cohesive device must be chosen for the communication. It interacts with the field of discourse as well as the relationship between the speaker and the addressee to provide a background or context in which a particular style of language can be most appropriately used.  Speakers usually talk differently to people who have a different background and relationship to them, which is an important factor in determining the appropriate style of speaking in communication.
For example, when you telling your friend that you like his new coat, you may say, “Hey, cool coat, I like it! ” When telling the same thing to your boss, probably, you may say, “You look smart in your new coat today” Actually this is a matter of choosing your variety or code. And this choice of the right style in talking is based on the social distance between speakers. The better you know someone or the more familiar with him or her you are, the more casual and relaxed style you use; otherwise you may use a more formal utterance in conveying your ideas.
Some typical examples about the tenor of discourse are motherese, teacher talk and foreign talk. Motherese refers to when a mother talks to her little child, it is sensible of her not to talk in the same way as she does to an adult. Usually they will make use of some adjustments including special pitch, intonation, dictions, etc which is more acceptable for children. The use of motherese shows that the age of the addressee may affect the speaker’s style. The type of language style teachers use in language classrooms is called teacher talk.
For example, teachers may use simpler utterance with low-level students; they use a more standard pronunciation and a more formal intonation. In addition, teachers usually will have a special favor in direction tutorial questions such as “Is the cup on the table? ” and confirmation checks such as “Understand”? The teacher-student relationship largely determines the use of teacher-talk style to make sure the smooth process of formal proceedings in classrooms. Foreign talk is similar to teacher talk as well as motherese in that all use high frequency vocabulary, and all adopt shorter sentences with simple grammar.
Yet the foreign talk is likely to be influenced by more variables such as the topic of conversation, the age of the participants, and the language proficiency of the learners. Hence foreign talk is comparatively more dynamic than the other two in various situations. The choice of appropriate form is influenced by the personal relationship between the participants: the higher degree of familiarity between them, the lower formality in language style they use; on the contrary, the lower degree of familiarity, the higher formality in style.
To sum up, languages and dialects are a crucial part in the area of sociolinguistics, which is mainly concerned about the relation between linguistics and society. And the terms language and dialect are kind of ambiguous, thus it’s hard to draw a definite line between the two. Instead of making an absolute conclusion, it’s wiser and more recommendable to analyze the issues in question from a more objective point of view. And the paper adheres to this basic principle from the beginning till the end. Finally because the society is changing form time to time, so is the language, it’s better to leave space for the further discussion and exploration relating to the above topics being covered in this paper.

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Coulmas, Florian. The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Beijing: Foreign Language and Teaching Press, 2001.
Halliday, M. A. Language as Social Semiotic. London: Arnold, 1978.
Hudson, R. A. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
Wang Dechun. Yuyanxue Gailun (An introduction to linguistics) Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Teaching Press, 1997.
Wang Dexing. Shehuiyuyanxue Daolun (An introduction to sociolinguistics). Beijing: Beijing Foreign Languages Institute Press, 1992.
Wardhaugh, Ronald. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Zhu Wanjin. Shehuiyuyanxue Gailun (Sociolinguistics: an introduction). Changsha: Hunan Education Press, 1992.

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