Languages, Accents and Dialects

Does anyone know what the difference between a language and a dialect is? You may think that you do but take a minute and try to explain the difference to yourself. What is most likely to happen here is that you will get confused or say something contradictory. That’s because scientifically, there is no difference at all. What this means is that the words language and dialect really don’t have a good definition. This, however, does not leave them without many connotations.

At one point or another, the Chinese, Spanish, French and Russian governments have all tried to promote a state endorsed way of speaking and writing while trying to stomp out any way of speaking or writing that didn’t align with their definitions. One of their tactics has been to call the other ways of speaking or writing dialects. Calling a way of speaking a dialect carries the connotation of being an extension of a larger and perhaps even superior way of speaking or writing. According to these governments Wu, Catalan, Provençal and Ukrainian were not separate languages but annoying dialects of the more important state endorsed languages of Mandarin, Spanish, French and Russian. Never mind that these dialects are unintelligible to native speakers of the state endorsed languages.

Without prior study, people from Zurich and Munich cannot understand one another when they talk even though they both claim to speak German. The same goes for people from Morocco and Iraq. They may pick out a few words here and there but over all they are speaking the same language in name only. The German speakers are united by a common history and literature as are the Arabic speakers. Therefore, even though the one has little idea about what the other is saying, they all speak the same language.

Then there are cases like Serbian and Croatian and Hindi and Urdu. Native speakers of these language pairs understand one another with no problem at all but use different alphabets and generally belong to different religions. They also have a history of violence. Therefore, they speak different languages and feel a more comfortable distance from each other.

What should we call a language then? Let’s call a language something that the fictional phonetician Professor Henry Higgins would like: a standardized way of speaking and writing. Does that sound a little fascist? Maybe it is but we already have many examples of it all over the world, especially in Europe. Germans and Italians learn a standardized dialect in school which is also used in the media, literature and everywhere else but occasionally at home or among friends. The British have Received Pronunciation and even Americans who work in broadcasting can only go so far without what is considered a “neutral” accent. Walter Cronkite was from Texas but you wouldn’t know it by listening to him speak on T.V.

What about differences in speech? Let’s say that if a person deviates from the official language but in an intelligible way then the person speaks with an accent. Social linguists have lots of fun with accents. Accents not only tell what region of the world that people are from, they often betray a person’s education, or lack thereof, ethnicity and sometimes even their profession or gender. For the sake of this post, however, let’s say that a person or group that speaks with one accent can understand almost everything said in a different accent, somewhere between ninety and one-hundred percent.

Now we come to dialects. A dialect should be a variation of a language that is still eighty percent intelligible by all of the other speakers of that language. As an American, I can really only think of two variations of English that qualify as full on dialects. One is the modern English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The grammar is different as are the meaning of a huge percentage of the words. The reader finds himself reading passages several times not just to ponder the meaning of the text but to decipher what the meaning is in the first place. The other is the way people speak in the far north of Great Britain, Geordies and Scots to name a few. My wife and I have watched almost all of the DVD’s from the 7-Up series (follow the hyperlink for more information about this fabulous documentary) listening to people from most parts of Great Britain but when we watched the movie Goal, which takes place in New Castle up in northern Great Britain, we had to listen to what the locals said lots of times if they didn’t speak nice and slowly. Sometimes we couldn’t figure out what they were saying at all.

The classification of what qualifies as a language, accent or dialect would require exhaustive studies. First the languages would need to be defined. Each country could gather a group of academics together and they would decide on a standardized form of speech that is the easiest for everyone to understand. If I’m not mistaken, France, Spain, Italy and Germany already do this.

After the language itself is established the accents can be identified. Technically, everyone has their own personal accent. Huge numbers of people from different social classes, regions, ethnicities etc. would then be recorded saying different things and then be asked to identify what the collection of recordings were saying. The types of speech that are considered to be ninety to one hundred percent intelligible by all different groups would then be considered accents. Those considered to be at least eighty percent intelligible would be considered dialects.

No language, accent or dialect would be considered scientifically superior or inferior to another. The lack of ability to speak the standardized language might show a lack of education, but not necessarily. Some people choose to continue to speak with their accent or even dialect to show pride in their origin. In fact, some people have criticized Oprah Winfrey of not being “black enough” partially because of the way that she chooses to speak. Others will discard there accent or dialect to hide the way that they speak. Mel Gibson and Anthony LaPaglia are two Australian actors who worked to hide their native accents to broaden their opportunities in American movies and T.V. shows. Needless to say, it is all a personal choice and therefore very subjective.

This would redraw the linguistic world map. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian might be considered accents and/or dialects of the same language while Wu, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese would finally be considered different languages. A more formalized approach would also make language learning easier for foreigners since there would be one standardized way to say things that every partially educated speaker of that language would recognize.

Some may find this approach to be pedantic or even despotic but I think that as long as people are not biased, there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. Linguistic unity is a strength marked by almost every great civilization in the history of the world. When God wanted to discourage man’s activities, He confounded their common language. People who speak a common language feel an instant connection when surrounded by those who speak a different language.

That said, linguistic diversity, in all its forms, adds richness to life. To hear a southerner say I’m much obliged to ya and to here a British person ask if you might have the time are perfectly understandable and even enjoyable. Accents and dialects form bonds among the groups of people who speak them and this has inherent value that should not be discarded. The adoption of a standard language should not entirely replace the way people speak.

What do you think? Is it worth the trouble to classify these terms or should we simply let them continue to be subjective and vague? Should we discard their usage all together? Are you in favor of getting ride of dialects all together? Should everyone just lose their heritage and culture and only speak English? What do you think?