Languages and Dialects: How Can One Tell the Difference?

One cannot figure out what is a language and what is a dialect. Why? Politics and unclear linguistic boundaries. 

According to OED definition a language is: ” A system of communication used by a particular country or community;” and a dialect is: “A particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”  So, when it comes to language versus dialect by these definitions size of community matters. If it is a country it is a language is it is just a county it is a dialect. If only it were that simple.

Standard American English is considered a dialect of English. Yet, that negates the definition of dialect doesn’t it? Even the most ardent believer in the Nationalist Theory of the United States (that which holds that the United States are one people and the States are just for  convenience) must admit the United States doesn’t have just one community or social class. Then again, that is why it is called Standard American English, because it is Standardized. Currently Standard British English and Standard American English are dialects of the same language, though that may change. So, it is clear that dialects can be country wide as well, not that much difficulty. 

Question: Why are Cantonese and Mandarin considered dialects of “Chinese,” but Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish considered independent languages? Answer: Politics.

To see why this shows the murky waters of language v. dialect look at these language samples.

“Dialects of Chinese”

Cantonese: O oi lei

Mandarin: Wo ai ni 

Okay, that don’t look that different. Remember Cantonese has 6 to 9 tones whereas Mandarin only has four. Objection: Aren’t all “Chinese dialects” written in the same script, thus proving they are not separate languages? Well, yes they are all written in the same script, but that proves…nothing (well, only historical influence)! Zulu and German are both written in the same script, they aren’t even related. Using the same script only shows influence not that the languages are dialect of the same language. Before going forth let it be made absolutely clear: This is NOT Saying that Cantonese  and Mandarin are not related, this is saying that they are  separate, BUT RELATED, Languages! 

“Scandinavian Languages”

Swedish: God Morgon. Du är fet, Herr James.

Norwegian: God Morgen. Du er feit, Herr James.

Danish: Gog Morgen. Du er fedt, herre James.

Note: when spoken they all sound almost identical. Why slight spelling differences don’t prove that they are separate languages: Do you like this colour/ do you like this color? Objection: Didn’t you say in the case of Cantonese and Mandarin slight differences showed that they were separate languages and here you are saying the opposite is true? Yes and no. I said that there was a major difference in Mandarin and Cantonese: number of tones. No such difference is present with Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. I am not saying that these three languages should be considered dialect and Cantonese should be recognized as its own language because I hate Scandinavian Languages and love Sino-Tibetan Languages. I love them equally (okay, no, I prefer the Scandinavian ones, because I think Germanic Languages are slightly more interesting than SIno-Tibetan ones mostly because, China makes it difficult to study her “dialects”). 

The politics involved: Chinese is a “language” of “dialects” because of China and the Scandinavian dialects are separate languages because of European history. 

Who wants to oppose China? No one. That is why Mandarin and Cantonese are considered dialects of the same language, because China says so. 

Nationalism: At one time Europeans were actually proud of there countries (okay, most still are that’s why the EU is failing), sometimes this patriotism slipped into nationalism and that is how Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish became separate “languages,” because they became separate Countries that felt the need for their own languages. 

If, by the grace of God, Hong Kong became independent (fully, it current situation is weird, part of China but with its own government and passports and boarder control, etc.), Cantonese would very liken be recognized as its own language. Where would it rank in the list of World languages? Where would the Scandinavian languages place if considered as one?

Cantonese would rank as the 22nd most spoken language in the World, after Italian and before Malay (all “dialects”) with some 62-63 1L speakers. Scandinavian would rank pretty mid range, maybe in the 50s or 60s maybe lower, with some 19 million 1L speakers.   

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