Is It a Language or Dialect?

What is the difference between a language and a dialect? This could be considered a trick question since in many cases languages and dialects are not categorized objectively. But it is an important question to ask when looking for a translation service for your web content, marketing campaigns, or email messages for foreign consumers.

Linguists have established three criteria to decide whether two different forms of communication are languages or dialects. But even so, it’s not a standard definition, and there are as many exceptions as there are languages that follow these rules.

1. Mutual intelligibility

They say that if two forms of communication are mutually intelligible, that is if speakers of both forms can understand the other without any training or education to do so, then they are dialects. If both speakers cannot understand each other, then the two forms are languages.

This does, however, bring into question how we decide if multiple language variations are dialects, an idea called the dialect continuum. Let’s say that speakers of Language A and Language B can easily understand each other, and speakers of Language B and Language C can also easily understand each other. But what happens if speakers of Language A and Language C cannot understand each other? Are all three language forms dialects or distinct languages?



2. Culture

We often categorize our own language based on how we see ourselves and our own cultures. Typically, speakers of American and British English don’t see themselves as speaking distinct languages. This is in part due to mutual understanding; American English and British English speakers can understand each other. But this also has to do with a cultural connection that the two countries share.

But then why do speakers of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish not consider their languages to be dialects? All three are mutually understandable and the Scandinavian countries are very culturally similar. This is because of historic tradition, the countries have distinct borders, governments, and citizens want to speak “different” languages.



3. Politics

In some places, language forms are categorized as dialects of the same language for political reasons. Take China. Many consider Chinese to be one language with different regional dialects, but in reality, the two most widely spoken variations of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, are more different than Spanish and Italian. The Chinese government wants there to be an appearance of language unity, which is why they have fit so many mutually unintelligible languages into the same category.

Arabic is another good example. It would be extremely difficult for a Moroccan Arabic speaker to understand a Jordanian Arabic speaker, even though both are technically dialects of Arabic. Arab nationalism and Arabs’ shared cultural heritage has made it so Arabic is perceived to be one language with many dialects rather than many distinct languages.

In the end, classifying language forms as dialects or distinct languages doesn’t really help anything if the ultimate goal is to provide translation services. But when looking to use a localization service to target specific groups of consumers, it is extremely important to know what language, dialect, or other language form they speak.

It could be catastrophic and expensive to translate content into Mandarin Chinese only to find out that your target population only speaks Cantonese. This is why you should take advantage of a professional localization service, to help you target your content and produce the most effective marketing campaign possible. Call ATA Translation Agency for a free price quote and more information about our multilingual services like localization and translation.

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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