Calling a Spade a Spade

My favorite character in the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes is the child who states the obvious. I suppose if that kid grew up and studied languages, s/he would ask why Serbs and Croats say they speak different languages even though they understand each other just fine and why Chinese is considered one language even though a ten-year-old from Hong Kong and a ten-year-old from Shanghai couldn’t communicate well enough to say who their favorite soccer players were and why.

Ever since I was introduced to the fact that the terms dialect and language had very weak definitions I have pondered on possibly better ways to address differences in speech. If all languages were as different as Cambodian and Turkish, or Japanese and Swahili, we would have no problems distinguishing between a dialect and a language. A dialect would be a variation of a language that all other speakers of that language could mostly, if not entirely, understand; a language would be considered different when the speakers of one group could not understand the speakers from another group.

These definitions have two major problems. One problem is that rulers have called mutually intelligible ways of speaking different languages to try and solidify their control and separate their subjects from others. They also do the reverse, calling mutually unintelligible ways of speaking the dialects of one national language for to solidify their control and unite different people who might not consider themselves unified. Over time these decisions have become ingrained in issues of national pride, religious unity, ethnicity, tradition, etc.

The second problem comes from dialect continua. In a nutshell, people living village A understand the people in village B just fine. People from village B and village C understand each other well but people from village A have a hard time communicating with village C and vice versa. People from village D understand people from village C quite well but have difficulty understanding villagers from B and can’t really understand the people from A. Examples of dialect continua include the varieties of Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, German and the main Scandinavian languages. The trouble is that everyone in the language group is understood by someone else but very few are understood by everyone.

I will be writing more about this fascinating subject in the future but for right now I would like to leave you with my basic proposal for changing how we call different linguistic varieties. My ideas are not fully fleshed out but I think they are a good start and I would appreciate your opinions about how to improve upon them. I would also like to clearly state right here that I am not interesting in the comments of naysayers. I don’t mind people disagreeing with certain points or, better yet, making helpful suggestions – even if I don’t end up agreeing with them – but I am not interested in hearing from those who think that this is a pointless or impossible endeavor.

My new approach to looking at linguistic varieties, as of now, is based on two principles and three definitions.


  1. Dialect – A spoken variety of which roughly 80% can be understood by the speakers of another dialect with little effort or less than a few days of constant exposure.
  2. Sister Language – A spoken variety of which roughly 65% can be understood by the speakers of another sister language but that can be learned very quickly through systematic study or by a week to a month’s worth of constant exposure.
  3. Language – A variety of speech that is less than 50% intelligible by speakers of other languages and cannot be learned without months or years of systematic study or constant exposure.


  1. Perspective – The designation of dialect, sister language or language changes depending on the perspective of the speaker or groups of speakers.
  2. Self-determination – While these new definitions would be very useful in academic or scientific settings no steps should be taken to force linguistic groups to conform or change the terms they use in everyday life or government.

I’ll end by referencing my very first post, which was about this subject.

Good Attitudes, Bad Attitudes and Mutual Intelligibility

The comedian Robbin Williams has a part of a stand-up routine where he muses over how unintelligible the Scots are to the rest of us English speakers. Saturday Night Live was hosted by Gerard Butler not too long ago and they did a funny sketch where a newscaster “interpreted” for the Scottish actor. I have a good Argentine friend who has lived in the USA for quite some time and has had to modify his accent and pronunciation significantly to communicate well with the Chicanos in California. These are supposed to be people speaking the same language yet there are Laotians and Thais, Swedes and Norwegians, and Croatians and Serbs who speak to each other in their own languages freely and understand 80%-90% of what the other is saying.

Dr. Arguelles just conducted a great interview with a Laotian (really Isan)/Thai speaker about how mutually intelligible the two languages are. I invite you to take a look.

I’m sorry. I’m too annoyed to understand what you’re saying.

Sometimes we don’t understand a language/dialect because we associate it with offensive or irritating people. This is often the case with a sophisticated city accent and a provincial or country accent. I think most of this ends up having to do with our attitudes because I have seen people in the states with very regional accents have long conversations with pretty foreign exchange students whose English was halting. There is also the example of a friend of mine who passed for a Japanese person on the phone and then met with the Japanese person who swore that he could barely understand my friend and wanted to speak to the Japanese person he had talked on the phone with.

I suppose what we can take from this is to have a good attitude when trying to understand others. Having a good attitude seems to clear the mind and facilitate communication. Not judging others for their way of speaking may just help you understand a foreign language better.