What’s the difference between language and dialect?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at what the difference is between a language and a dialect.

A READER recently wrote saying that he did not speak his “native dialect”. I assume he meant what we would call tok ples in Tok Pisin, which linguists would call his first language.
The words “dialect” and “language” are used in different ways by different people. When we are talking about language in PNG, it is important to understand how linguists define these two words. When linguists speak of “dialects”, they mean varieties of one “language”.
We all know from our daily life that there is much variation in languages. A simple way to define “language” and “dialect” is that when people speak two speech varieties and can understand each other, they are using different dialects, but when people speak two different varieties and cannot understand each, those two varieties are different languages.
Thus, because speakers of Australian English and US English can understand each other (in spite of minor differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary), these are two dialects of the same language, whereas because speakers of Australian English and Mexican Spanish cannot understand each other, these are considered to be different languages.

Bislama–one dialect of the Melanesian Pidgin language.
Tok Pisin–one dialect of the Melanesian Pidgin language.

As with so much in life, however, politics complicates the issue. For example, speakers of PNG Tok Pisin, Solomons Pijin, and Vanuatu Bislama can all understand each other easily, in spite of some differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.
But because these varieties are spoken in different independent countries and for historical reasons use slightly different spelling conventions, we tend to talk about them as different languages, even though it would be more correct to call them three dialects of one language, Melanesian Pidgin.
Similarly, because all the related varieties of Chinese are spoken in one country with a strong, centralised political system, we usually call Mandarin, Cantonese, Shangaiese and other varieties spoken in China dialects of one language, “Chinese”.
This is in spite of the fact that some varieties are as different from one another as English and Spanish, and are considered separate languages by linguists.
In Melanesia we have another factor complicating the distinction: Dialect chains. An example of this would be three varieties spoken in areas close to each other.
If variety A and variety B can speak with each other, they are obviously dialects of a common language. Similarly, if variety B and variety C can communicate easily, they are also dialects of a common language. But what if variety A and variety C are so different from each other that speakers of variety A cannot communicate with speakers of variety C?
We would normally say that these are two different languages, but then what about the mutual intelligibility between A and B and between B and C? Both variety A and variety C share a common dialect, B. The term “dialect chain” shows that this is a chain of related speech varieties with some dialects that are very different from each other, but which do share speech varieties that can be understood by each member of the group.
European colonial powers used “language” and “dialect” in a very different way from modern linguists. They tended to reserve the word “language” for speech varieties that had writing systems and “dialect” for speech varieties that were not written down. They therefore spoke about “administrative languages” such as English or French, and “native dialects” spoken by the non-white people whose lands they had conquered.
In this way “dialect” came to have a negative connotation as the way indigenous people spoke, as opposed to “language”, which, as the way Europeans spoke, was thought of as superior. It is undoubtedly with this colonial idea that the writer of the email to me described his home language as a “dialect” and Tok Pisin as not “a real language”.
Linguists would say that his home language, Tok Pisin, and English are all “languages”. A language is a group of speech varieties that can be mutually understood that has its own sound system, grammar constructions, and vocabulary. Tok Pisin has all of these— if you use English pronunciation in Tok Pisin, you are speaking incorrectly and may not be understood.
Similarly, there are grammar rules and vocabulary that a foreigner needs to learn in order to speak correct Tok Pisin; otherwise the foreigner is speaking poor Tok Pisin and will probably not be understood.
Of course, within Tok Pisin itself there are dialects of Tok Pisin—varieties with special features of pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar that show that speakers come from different areas (New Guinea Islands, Sepik, Highlands, Port Moresby, etc.).
But Tok Pisin itself is a language, not a dialect. Similarly, the more than 830 ways that Papua New Guineans speak are “languages”, although many of them have different ways of speaking that we call “dialects” of those “languages”.
It is important to understand what linguists mean by these two terms, and not to use the term “dialect” only as a way of denigrating Tok Pisin or other non-European languages of Melanesia. It is especially important not to continue using “language” and “dialect” with their out-dated and often racist colonial meanings of “European languages” and “native dialects”.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at http://craig.volker@jcu.edu.au. Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.


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