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The term dialect (from the ancient Greek word διάλεκτος diálektos, "discourse", from διά diá, "through" and λέγω legō, "I speak") is used in two distinct ways. One usage—the more common among linguists—refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class. A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect, a dialect that is associated with a particular ethnic group can be termed as ethnolect, and a regional dialect may be termed a regiolect or topolect. According to this definition, any variety of a language constitutes "a dialect", including any standard varieties.
The other usage refers to a language that is socially subordinated to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not derived from it. In this sense, the standard language is not itself considered a dialect.
A framework was developed in 1967 by Heinz Kloss, Ausbau-, Abstand- and Dach-sprache, to describe speech communities, that while unified politically and/or culturally, include multiple dialects which though closely related genetically may be divergent to the point of inter-dialect unintelligibility.
A dialect is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology, including prosody). Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation (including prosody, or just prosody itself), the term accent is appropriate, not dialect. Other speech varieties include: standard languages, which are standardized for public performance (for example, a written standard); jargons, which are characterized by differences in lexicon (vocabulary); slang; patois; pidgins or argots.
The particular speech patterns used by an individual are termed an idiolect.
Standard and non-standard dialect A standard dialect (also known as a standardized dialect or "standard language") is a dialect that is supported by institutions. Such institutional support may include government recognition or designation; presentation as being the "correct" form of a language in schools; published grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks that set forth a correct spoken and written form; and an extensive formal literature that employs that dialect (prose, poetry, non-fiction, etc.). There may be multiple standard dialects associated with a single language. For example, Standard American English, Standard Canadian English, Standard Indian English, Standard Australian English, and Standard Philippine English may all be said to be standard dialects of the English language.
A nonstandard dialect, like a standard dialect, has a complete vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but is usually not the beneficiary of institutional support. Examples of a nonstandard English dialect are Southern American English, Western Australian English and Scouse. The Dialect Test was designed by Joseph Wright to compare different English dialects with each other.
There is no universally accepted criterion for distinguishing a language from a dialect. A number of rough measures exist, sometimes leading to contradictory results. The distinction is therefore subjective and depends on the user's frame of reference.
The most common, and most purely linguistic, criterion is that of mutual intelligibility: two varieties are said to be dialects of the same language if being a speaker of one variety confers sufficient knowledge to understand and be understood by a speaker of the other; otherwise, they are said to be different languages. However, this definition becomes problematic in the case of dialect continua, in which it may be the case that dialect B is mutually intelligible with both dialect A and dialect C but dialects A and C are not mutually intelligible with each other. In this case the criterion of mutual intelligibility makes it impossible to decide whether A and C are dialects of the same language or not. Cases may also arise in which a speaker of dialect X can understand a speaker of dialect Y, but not vice versa; the mutual intelligibility criterion flounders here as well.
Another occasionally-used criterion for discriminating dialects from languages is that of linguistic authority, a more sociolinguistic notion. According to this definition, two varieties are considered dialects of the same language if (under at least some circumstances) they would defer to the same authority regarding some questions about their language. For instance, to learn the name of a new invention, or an obscure foreign species of plant, speakers of Bavarian German and East Franconian German might each consult a German dictionary or ask a German-speaking expert in the subject. By way of contrast, although Yiddish is classified by linguists as a language in the "Middle High German" group of languages, a Yiddish speaker would not consult a German dictionary to determine the word to use in such case.
By the definition most commonly used by linguists, any linguistic variety can be considered a "dialect" of some language—"everybody speaks a dialect". According to that interpretation, the criteria above merely serve to distinguish whether two varieties are dialects of the same language or dialects of different languages.
There are various terms that linguists may use to avoid taking a position on whether the speech of a community is an independent language in its own right or a dialect of another language. Perhaps the most common is "variety"; "lect" is another. A more general term is "languoid", which does not distinguish between dialects, languages, and groups of languages, whether genealogically related or not.
In many societies, however, a particular dialect, often the sociolect of the elite class, comes to be identified as the "standard" or "proper" version of a language by those seeking to make a social distinction, and is contrasted with other varieties. As a result of this, in some contexts the term "dialect" refers specifically to varieties with low social status. In this secondary sense of "dialect", language varieties are often called dialects rather than languages:
The status of "language" is not solely determined by linguistic criteria, but it is also the result of a historical and political development. Romansh came to be a written language, and therefore it is recognized as a language, even though it is very close to the Lombardic alpine dialects. An opposite example is the case of Chinese, whose variations such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often called dialects and not languages, despite their mutual unintelligibility.
Modern Nationalism, as developed especially since the French Revolution, has made the distinction between "language" and "dialect" an issue of great political importance. A group speaking a separate "language" is often seen as having a greater claim to being a separate "people", and thus to be more deserving of its own independent state, while a group speaking a "dialect" tends to be seen not as "a people" in its own right, but as a sub-group, part of a bigger people, which must content itself with regional autonomy. The distinction between language and dialect is thus inevitably made at least as much on a political basis as on a linguistic one, and can lead to great political controversy, or even armed conflict.
The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich published the expression, A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot ("אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט" "A language is a dialect with an army and navy") in YIVO Bleter 25.1, 1945, p. 13. The significance of the political factors in any attempt at answering the question "what is a language?" is great enough to cast doubt on whether any strictly linguistic definition, without a socio-cultural approach, is possible. This is illustrated by the frequency with which the army-navy aphorism is cited.
See also Mesoamerican languages.
In 18th and 19th century Germany, several thousand local languages of the continental west Germanic dialect continuum were reclassified as dialects of modern New High German although the vast majority of them were (and still are) mutually incomprehensible, despite the fact that they all existed long before New High German, which had at least in part been shaped as a compromise or mediative language between these local languages.
To support the intended process of nation building even further, a vague myth of some common Germanic original language developed, and German dialectology began to name dialect groups after presumed and real groups of historic tribes having existed from BC to about 600 AD, from which they were assumed to have descended. Linguistic, historic and archeological evidence for such connections is scarce, meanwhile several such ideas were proven false, yet they led to several pertaining misnomers in German dialectology. Today, all diverse West Germanic local languages under the Standard German umbrella are collectively referred to as "German dialects", (including Frisian and Low Saxon ones, that are closer to Dutch) the vast majority of German speakers still believe, they were variations of "original" or even Standard German.
The classification of speech varieties as dialects or languages and their relationship to other varieties of speech can thus be controversial and the verdicts inconsistent. English and Serbo-Croatian illustrate the point. English and Serbo-Croatian each have two major variants (British and American English, and Serbian and Croatian, respectively), along with numerous other varieties. For political reasons, analyzing these varieties as "languages" or "dialects" yields inconsistent results: British and American English, spoken by close political and military allies, are almost universally regarded as dialects of a single language, whereas the standard languages of Serbia and Croatia, which differ from each other to a similar extent as the dialects of English, are being treated by some linguists from the region as distinct languages, largely because the two countries oscillate from being brotherly to being bitter enemies. (The Serbo-Croatian language article deals with this topic much more fully.)
Similar examples abound. Macedonian, although mutually intelligible with Bulgarian, certain dialects of Serbian and to a lesser extent the rest of the South Slavic dialect continuum is considered by Bulgarian linguists to be a Bulgarian dialect, in contrast with the contemporary international view, and the view in the Republic of Macedonia which regards it as a language in its own right. Nevertheless, before the establishment of a literary standard of Macedonian in 1944, in most sources in and out of Bulgaria before the Second World War, the southern Slavonic dialect continuum covering the area of today's Republic of Macedonia were referred to as Bulgarian dialects.
In Lebanon, a part of the Christian population considers "Lebanese" to be in some sense a distinct language from Arabic and not merely a dialect. During the civil war Christians often used Lebanese Arabic officially, and sporadically used the Latin script to write Lebanese, thus further distinguishing it from Arabic. All Lebanese laws are written in the standard literary form of Arabic, though parliamentary debate may be conducted in Lebanese Arabic.
In Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, the spoken North African languages are sometimes considered more different from other Arabic dialects. Officially, North African and West Asian countries prefer to give preference to the Literary Arabic and conduct much of their political, cultural and religious life in it (adherence to Islam), and refrain from declaring each country's specific variety to be a separate language, because Literary Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam and the language of the Islamic sacred book, the Qur'an.
In the 19th Century, the Tsarist Government of Russia claimed that Ukrainian was merely a dialect of Russian and not a language in its own right. Since Soviet times, when Ukrainians were recognised as a separate nationality deserving of its own Soviet Republic, such linguistic-political claims had disappeared from circulation.
There have been cases of a variety of speech being deliberately reclassified to serve political purposes. One example is Moldovan. In 1996, the Moldovan parliament, citing fears of "Romanian expansionism," rejected a proposal from President Mircea Snegur to change the name of the language to Romanian, and in 2003 a Moldovan–Romanian dictionary was published, purporting to show that the two countries speak different languages. Linguists of the Romanian Academy reacted by declaring that all the Moldovan words were also Romanian words; while in Moldova, the head of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, Ion Bărbuţă, described the dictionary as a politically motivated "absurdity".
Unlike most languages that use alphabets to indicate the pronunciation, Chinese characters are developed from ideograms which do not always give hints to its pronunciation. While the written characters remained relatively consistent for the last two thousand years, the pronunciation and grammar in different regions has developed to an extent that the varieties of spoken language can be mutually incomprehensible. Linguists usually regard Chinese language as a family of languages rather than one language. As a series of migration to the south throughout the history, the regional languages of the south, including Xiang, Wu, Gan, Min, Yue(Cantonese), and Hakka often show traces of old Chinese or middle Chinese. From the Ming dynasty, Beijing has become the capital of China, and the Beijing spoken language has become more accepted as the common language. During the Republic of China, Mandarin Chinese was standardised as the official language, based on Beijing spoken language. Since then, other varieties of spoken language are often regarded as fangyan (dialects) although many linguists argue that they are different languages or topolects. Cantonese is still the most commonly used language in Hong Kong, Macau and among some overseas Chinese communities, while Min-nan has been accepted in Taiwan as an important local language alongside with Mandarin.
Many historical linguists view any speech form as a dialect of the older medium of communication from which it developed. This point of view sees the modern Romance languages as dialects of Latin, modern Greek as a dialect of Ancient Greek, Tok Pisin as a dialect of English, and North Germanic as dialects of Old Norse. This paradigm is not entirely problem-free. It sees genetic relationships as paramount: the "dialects" of a "language" (which itself may be a "dialect" of a yet older language) may or may not be mutually intelligible. Moreover, a parent language may spawn several "dialects" which themselves subdivide any number of times, with some "branches" of the tree changing more rapidly than others.
This can give rise to the situation in which two dialects (defined according to this paradigm) with a somewhat distant genetic relationship are mutually more readily comprehensible than more closely related dialects. In one opinion, this pattern is clearly present among the modern Romance languages, with Italian and Spanish having a high degree of mutual comprehensibility, which neither language shares with French, despite some claiming that both languages are genetically closer to French than to each other: In fact, French-Italian and French-Spanish relative mutual incomprehensibility is due to French having undergone more rapid and more pervasive phonological change than have Spanish and Italian, not to real or imagined distance in genetic relationship. In fact, Italian and French share many more root words in common that do not even appear in Spanish.
For example, the Italian and French words for various foods, some family relationships, and body parts are very similar to each other, yet most of those words are completely different in Spanish. Italian "avere" and "essere" as auxiliaries for forming compound tenses are used similarly to French "avoir" and "être", Spanish only retains "haber" and has done away with "ser" in forming compound tenses, which are no longer used in either Spanish or Portuguese. However, when it comes to phonological structures, Italian and Spanish have undergone less change than French, with the result that some native speakers of Italian and Spanish may attain a degree of mutual comprehension that permits extensive communication.
One language, Interlingua, was developed so that the languages of Western civilization would act as its dialects. Drawing from such concepts as the international scientific vocabulary and Standard Average European, linguists[who?] developed a theory that the modern Western languages were actually dialects of a hidden or latent language. Researchers at the International Auxiliary Language Association extracted words and affixes that they considered to be part of Interlingua's vocabulary. In theory, speakers of the Western languages would understand written or spoken Interlingua immediately, without prior study, since their own languages were its dialects. This has often turned out to be true, especially, but not solely, for speakers of the Romance languages and educated speakers of English. Interlingua has also been found to assist in the learning of other languages. In one study, Swedish high school students learning Interlingua were able to translate passages from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian that students of those languages found too difficult to understand. It should be noted, however, that the vocabulary of Interlingua extends beyond the Western language families.