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.


5 Responses

  1. I talked about this with a friend of mine from Denmark. I asked her if the languages and cultures of Denmark, Norway and Sweden are quite similar, why are they divided into different countries?

    Not that this would ever happen, of course, but I think a lot of people are interested in keeping separate because of pride. I’ve never studied Serbian or Croatian, but I’ve read how speakers of each language insist that one is different enough from the other to be considered an individual language, and focus on the differences to make their point.

    Do you think this pride is a positive or a negative? On the one hand you have an identity of some kind, but on the other it can put up barriers to make for unifying what all intents and purposes is the same language.

    • Quite a provocative question Tristan. The way I see it, that pride is a two-edged sword. I think it comes from a variety of sources. In the case of the Norwegians, both Denmark and Sweden have taken over during different stretches of their history. Their culture still wants to assert that it’s independent and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This is why I think the second principle is so important.

      The Norwegians, like everyone else, have a need to feel independent and calling the way they speak and write the “Norwegian language” helps to give them that feeling. On the other hand, in certain academic and scientific settings, I hope they would open to other people using terms other than “language” to describe their speech. The fact is, Norwegians are the best at understanding and being understood by both the Danes and the Swedes. No matter how slowly a Cambodian talks I am not going to understand what he is saying. The terms “language” and “dialect” just don’t cut it. I would hope that they would also see value in using more accurate, non-politicized, terms as long as we afford them, and everyone else, the right to call their speech whatever they like in informal and political settings.

  2. There are other tricky questions. With Chinese, I speak Mandarin, and I can understand a lot less than 50% of Cantonese, close to 5%. However, if I pick up a newspaper, I can read it fluently – 100%. So where does that fit?

    I also think it would vary a lot with the kind of speech – at street level, Hindi and Urdu are probably 95% mutually intelligible, even for people with very little exposure to the other “language”, but when reading academic material that is highly sanskritized on the one hand, and highly persianized/arabicized on the other, the comprehension would plummet rapidly. (You could argue that this is an unnatural use of the language, but at what point in history does something that is unnatural become natural?)

    It’s also interesting when what we call a language today contains many different dialects. It’s possible that very standardized Norwegian, and Danish, are close enough to be called at least sister languages. However, there are many dialects in Norway that are probably less than 50% intelligible to Danes with no prior exposure.

    Interesting discussion though, and worth thinking about.

    • Stian: Thanks for bringing up these points. They are great opportunities for me to illustrate what I mean in the post. First off, I don’t think that writing systems are always reliable factors in determining how related languages are because they can be very arbitrary. Your knowledge of Hanzi should allow you to read Japanese Kanji well enough to understand at least the basic idea of what is written, much like French and Italian. Does that put Japanese and Chinese in the same language family? With a little modification you might even be able to write English with Hanzi (if you wanted to). Conversely, Croatian is written with the Latin Alphabet and Serbian is written with the Cyrillic Alphabet. Without training, neither can read what they other writes yet with no training at all they can speak and understand each other quite fluently.

      Your second point about dialect continua is a great way to apply my definitions and principles. I will go into this more in a future post, but essentially, some spoken varieties function like dialects and others function as sister languages; occasionally, they function as separate languages. On the one hand, we should not criticize countries and ethnic groups for calling the way they speak different or the same as they way other people speak; on the other hand, in a classroom or academic setting, it does not make sense for everyone else to treat these spoken varieties as the same when they are mutually unintelligible. Hence the title. In such a setting, I think it is more accurate for us to use three general terms to describe language rather than just two.

  3. The artificial construction of separate “languages” out of Serbo-Croatian, Malay, Hindustani, Romanian, Bulgarian, Persian, Turkic languages, Scandinavian and Portuguese are really bad jokes. Thai and Lao, too, are really close to each other.

    Standard Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are subtle variants of the Eastern Herzegovinian sub-sub-dialect (sic!) of the Neo-Shtokavian sub-dialect of the Shtokavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian. Funny enough, the Serbo-Croatian dialect traditionally spoken in Central Croatia, Kajkavian, is quite divergent and is often described as a bridge between Serbo-Croatian and Slovene. It would have been a much more logical choice as basis for a national Croatian standard language. Instead they use what amounts to Serbian with a slight Croatian accent.

    It’s the same in Scandinavia, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. In fact, the only difference between Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia is the lexicon, which is drawn from different sources partly, and Hindi and Urdu are identical at the level of everyday speech, only the advanced vocabulary in the written languages is drawn from Sanskrit and Persian respectly, and the script is different. You could as well declare the various national varieties of Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and German different languages, and it would make more linguistic sense, probably.

    On the other hand, even the different regional varieties of spoken Mandarin are not all mutually intelligible.

    There is no internal reason why Chinese and German are considered unitary languages, while Slavic and Romance are considered language families. But it always boils down to “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, that’s why professional linguists (apart from sociolinguists, who, however, have their own terms) don’t bother with the distinction.

    I could go on and on, this nationalistic language policy is completely bonkers both from a linguistic and a purely practical point of view.

    By the way, it just occurred to me that it’s basically a kind of conlanging, except that you actually force your brainchildren on millions of people. A more pragmatic approach would entail the adoption or construction of zonal “compromise” languages, for example a Low German/Danish/Norwegian hybrid for all speakers of Germanic languages, a Slovak/Czech/Polish hybrid for Slavic, an Occitan/Spanish/Portuguese hybrid for Romance, etc., easy to learn as a second language for anyone who already speaks one language in the family.

    You may want to check out the Linguasphere register – they use a scheme that amounts to something very similar as you propose.

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