WHAT IS A LANGUAGE? WHAT IS A DIALECT?

In order to understand the extent of linguistic diversity in the world today, we must first define language. Linguists often use the degree of “mutual intelligibility” between two speech varieties to decide whether they are separate languages or dialects of the same language. For instance, an English speaker and a Chinese speaker cannot communicate with each other without an interpreter. English and Chinese are totally unrelated to each other and mutually unintelligible. They are two different languages.

However, a Southern American English speaker has little or no difficulty in communicating with, say, an English speaker from Michigan. The Southern and Midwestern varieties of American English do differ in terms of phonology (e.g., a Southern American English speaker may pronounce the words “pin” and “pen” the same way as “pin” whereas a Michigander would say them differently), vocabulary (e.g., a soft drink may be called “soda pop” in Michigan but “Coke” in the South), and grammar (e.g., double modals are possible in Southern American English as in “I might could build a house” but not acceptable in Michigan English) (see also Charity Hudley & Mallinson, 2011). But these differences are not significant enough to cause major problems in communication. These two varieties are mutually intelligible and are considered dialects of American English. Dialects may thus be defined as mutually intelligible forms of a language that differ in systematic ways from each other.

However, it is not always easy to decide whether the systematic differences between two speech varieties reflect two dialects or two different languages. Definitions of languages and dialects are influenced not only by degrees of mutual intelligibility, but also by non-linguistic factors such as culture, ethnic and national identity, and religion. For instance, two mutually intelligible speech varieties (i.e., “dialects” according to a linguistic definition) may be called different languages. Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible to a large extent but are considered separate languages since they are the official languages of Sweden and Norway and thus markers of national identity.

Similarly, Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible to a large extent and are sometimes collectively referred to as Hindustani. But there are political and religious motivations for considering these as separate languages. Hindi is the official language of India while Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and one of the officially recognized regional languages in India. The India-Pakistan border is one of the most intensely contested and politically volatile regions in the world, and rivalry between Hindi and Urdu speakers is fueled in part by religious differences. Though mutually intelligible, a distinguishing feature of Hindi and Urdu is the different writing systems—while Hindi is written in the Devanagari script, Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script (see Figures 3.1 and 3.2). There is also a difference in literary affiliation—Urdu borrows its technical and learned vocabulary from Persian and Arabic, whereas Hindi borrows the same kinds of terms from Sanskrit (Bhatia & Ritchie, 2006b).

Conversely, mutually unintelligible varieties (i.e., “languages” using a purely linguistic definition) may be called dialects of the same language. This is true in the case of Chinese. Broadly, Chinese has seven “dialect” groups— Putonghua (Mandarin), Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Yue (Cantonese), and Min— all of which have distinctive tonal systems and are widely believed to have evolved from the same language system (Li & Lee, 2006). But there is considerable variation within each of the major dialects in terms of phonology, vocabulary, and syntax. So much so that

the Chinese dialects are more appropriately seen as members of a language family akin to Romance languages . . . intelligibility in some cases may be more problematic than in communication between say, a Spanish and an Italian national, each speaking their native language.

(Li & Lee, 2006: 744)

Despite the lack of mutual intelligibility, there is a widely held view that the different dialect groups in China share a common linguistic and cultural heritage, and this perception is widely credited to a common logographic writing system (Li & Lee, 2006). Unlike an alphabetic writing system which represents the sounds of a spoken language, a logographic writing system represents ideas and is independent of the phonetic pronunciations of the individual dialects. Thus a logographic writing system facilitates communication among speakers of different Chinese dialects whose pronunciations can be worlds apart. For example, the phrase “Happy Birthday” is written in Chinese as a ± 0 (the

Hindi

FIGURE 3.1 Hindi

Source: Katzner, 2002. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

four characters mean “birth,” “day,” “fast,” and “happy” respectively) but is pronounced quite differently as “sheng ri kuai le” in Mandarin, “saang yaht faai lohk” in Cantonese, and “sang niq khua loq” in Shanghainese (Wu).

Since a common writing system unites the Chinese people from different parts of the country, one may think that all that the Chinese have to do is to simply write to each other back and forth to communicate. However, because standard written Chinese is modeled on Northern Mandarin, the degree to which speakers of Southern dialects are able to write the way they speak is much lower than that by Mandarin speakers. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Chinese government has promoted Putonghua (Mandarin), based on the Beijing dialect, as the national lingua franca, particularly in the domains of education and the media. Li & Lee (2006) observe that this helps explain the lower rate of educational achievement

Urdu

FIGURE 3.2 Urdu

Source: Katzner, 2002. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

among non-Mandarin speakers. The Chinese government’s promotion of Putonghua as a national language privileges Putonghua speakers while putting other dialect groups at a disadvantage. I will return to issues related to national language policies later in this chapter.

 
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