Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Language or Dialect? Part 1

Someone once said "A language is a dialect with an army and navy". In terms of "grey areas", the various language v. dialect debates aren't up there with other dilemmas such as euthanasia, abortion or gay marriage... but they can be quite problematic.

Since we have a sick fondness for arguments, here are today's contenders in: Language or Dialect?

Afrikaans v. Dutch

They're used on opposite ends of the world. You can't get much further south than South Africa and if you do you'll probably lose your testicles to frostbite. The Netherlands on the other hand is in northern Europe. Geographically the places couldn't be much farther apart. Linguistically... not so much.

The Netherlands is also known for its tulips...
South Africa, not so much.

Afrikaans came from Dutch and took around 90-95% of its lexicon from it. A good argument for being a dialect is mutual intelligibility, which asks if two parties speaking their own languages can still understand one another.

Between Afrikaans and Dutch the answer is yes. It's apparently easier when it's written down. Afrikaans has been influenced by other sources (as if it could remain unscathed in the linguistic minefield of South Africa!) and also has a simplified spelling (American English, anyone?).

To avoid upsetting anyone, we could say they are languages in their own right. Even with their many similarities they lack a shared history, shared culture and other things we like to consider integral to a language.

Plus, if you have to keep asking "wat?" then it defeats the idea of them being the same language.

Ruling: Separate languages

Arabic and its many, many variations

If you read our post on Arabic, available here, you'll see that Arabic isn't technically a language. It's a group of similar languages considered dialects. Confused? Us too!

There are so many differences and so little mutual intelligibility between them we'd have to agree. Of course they're all held together by the Qur'an and Classical Arabic, so maybe they are just dialects. It's too much of a minefield to even attempt to get to the bottom of in just one post. What does the Ethnologue (our Bible, Torah, or even Qur'an) say?

Ruling according to Ethnologue: Macrolanguage, a language of languages.

Dutch v. Flemish

Dutch again? The Dutch can't decide whether it should be one language with many dialects or many languages. Given that even Belgium considers Dutch to be one of its official languages, with no mention of Flemish, we'll go with that. Thank God! This is getting ridiculous!

Ruling: Dialects of Dutch


We also consider Belgium to be awesome because
it provides us with delicious chocolates.

Galician v. Portuguese

Oh dear, oh dear! Where to begin with this one?

One may remember that there was once Galician-Portuguese, but then politics changed things. Spain got Galicia, and later Franco got Spain and minority languages throughout Spain were suppressed. Despite Franco being from Galicia...

Spain's influence over Galicia managed to change the way Galician is written. The phonology and vocabulary are different between the two. Mutual intelligibility between the two is good, at least in northern Portugal, though it's not so good once you get to central or southern Portugal. Galicians may not get to speak their language further afield just yet.

Linguistically, the two can often be considered variants of the same language, but given the huge political background it may be safer to call them languages. But when have we played it safe?

Ruling: Dialects of Portuguese, sorry Galicia!

Tomorrow we're discussing three more pairings in Part 2 of Language or Dialect?, so be sure to check it out!

Part 1 | Part 2