Language Versus Dialect

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

-Max Weinreich


2 Assumptions About Languages and Dialects

  1. Speakers of different languages cannot understand each other.
  2. Speakers of different dialects (of the same language) can understand each other.

But in reality, this is much more complicated.

Where Both Assumptions Hold True

  1. English and French are different languages. Speakers of one cannot understand the other.
  2. American English and British English are classified as different dialects because speakers of each can generally understand the other.

4 Cases Where The Assumptions Do Not Hold True

Hindi and Urdu: These 2 languages were originally considered dialects of Hindustani. Speakers of one can understand the other. But they are now classified as different languages!

  • When British India split, most Urdu speakers ended up in Pakistan and most Hindi speakers ended up in India.
  • Urdu speakers are predominantly Muslim while Hindi speakers are predominantly Hindu.
  • Urdu is written in the Arabic alphabet while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script.
Sign in Urdu, Hindi, & English

The growing divide between India and Pakistan is reflected in the languages. Urdu continues to adopt more Persian and Arabic loan words, due to Pakistan’s being part of the Muslim world. Hindi has purged many Arabic and Persian loan words, while adopting words from other languages, especially English.

Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian: These three were originally classified dialects of Serbo-Croatian. Speakers of 1 can understand the other 2. But they are now classified as different languages.

  • Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia were all part of Yugoslavia but became their own countries in the early 90s, through bloody conflicts.
  • Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholics, and Bosnians are Muslims.
  • Croatian and Bosnian use use the Latin script and Serbian uses Cyrillic.

Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic: These two are classified as dialects of Arabic and both are written in the Arabic script. Moroccans and Iraqis both consider themselves to be ethnically Arab and are predominantly Muslim. But speakers of one dialect cannot understand the other. Due to geography and contact with other ethnic groups, these two dialects have split significantly. Various Berber languages, as well as French and Spanish, have heavily influenced Moroccan Arabic. On the other hand, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish have heavily influenced Iraqi Arabic.

Cantonese and Mandarin: These two are both classified as different dialects of Chinese and are written with the same alphabet. Both speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin both consider themselves to be part of the Han Chinese ethnic group. But speakers of one dialect cannot understand the other. Mandarin is spoken in the northern China while Cantonese is spoken southern China. As with Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic, both Mandarin and Cantonese originate from a single language. But they greatly diverged due to geography and influences from neighboring languages.

The Interesting Case of Yiddish and German

Yiddish is very similar to German, but is heavily influenced by Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages. Yiddish speakers can understand German and vice versa. In the past, Jews in German-speaking countries were forcibly isolated from the rest of society and thus developed their own unique culture. This is why Yiddish is classified as a separate language. Yiddish is written in the Hebrew alphabet while German is written in the Latin alphabet.

Imagine a German (who only knows German) and Israeli (who only knows Hebrew but not Yiddish) are looking at a book written in Yiddish. The Israeli could read the text out loud but would not understand the meaning. The German could not read the text but would understand the meaning when the text is read out loud by the Israeli.