What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?


Many people will recognize the situation: you are out and about in your own country and suddenly find it difficult to understand the people around you a few hours away from home. At first you think they are speaking a different language, until you recognize words and come to the conclusion that it must be a local dialect. Even in the small Netherlands we have a large number of these, up to 267 according to the Syntactische Atlas van de Nederlandse Dialecten (the SAND for insiders), making the Netherlands one of the highest dialect densities in the world! So that just might explain the language differences.

Ow do, soz but if tha can speak Lanky, tha should dee so. Need help with dialect translation?

Looking for a translation in, say, Twents or Flemish? No worries! Our translators will work on your text with enthusiasm. Request a free quote now.

Speech confusion within national borders

But what if this same scenario takes place in the border area between the northeast of the Netherlands and Germany? Then the question suddenly becomes a lot more complicated, because then it could also be that it is not a dialect, but German. After all, German also shares some words with Dutch. Then again, German also has dialects, so maybe it is a German dialect? But how do you know if it's a German or a Dutch dialect? Or is it secretly the same dialect on both sides of the border? But then, what is actually the difference between a language and a dialect?

The difference between a language and a dialect

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the latter question is entirely valid, but the bad news is that it cannot really be answered. For both, in a nutshell, it is a phenomenon with its own grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and, to some extent, culture. Where language and dialect differ, however, is a discussion that has occupied both linguists and policymakers for decades, precisely because there are hardly any linguistic criteria for it. After a lecture by American dialectologist Uriel Weinreich, someone in the audience once remarked that "a sprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot" (a language is a dialect with an army and a fleet, in Yiddish). This comment has made history within the field, precisely because it is such a striking, evocative and concise summary of a complicated issue: the distinction between language and dialect often turns out to be primarily political in nature, not linguistic.

A good example of how politics plays a leading role in this, is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This is a European treaty aimed at protecting language variation and gives countries the option of officially recognizing certain regional languages or vernaculars and grant them certain rights. In the Netherlands, Frisian, Yiddish, Limburgish, Lowlands Saxon and Romani have been recognized. Frisian stands out here: it is included in the official language code, while the others are not. But Lower Saxon is also an interesting one, since the majority of its speakers do not live in the Netherlands but in Germany! For all these regional languages, there has been a strong lobby for official recognition, whereas for certain other dialects, such as Zeelandic, it has been less successful. For a more detailed discussion of this Charter, we recommend this piece by linguist Marc van Oostendorp, in which he makes it clear that inclusion in the list depends largely on the interpretation of the committee members at the time.

But what was I hearing, a language or a dialect?

OK, so it's complicated. But if you still want to know what you heard around you on the train, we can perhaps put the technical story aside for a while to give a slightly more satisfactory answer. Unless it was really clearly another language (German, English, Danish, etc.), we can actually safely say it was a dialect. Some dialects may have more official recognition than others, but from a linguistic perspective, dialect is primarily a certain combination of language features. If what you heard was a set of language features that deviated from standard language, it was almost certainly a dialect. And if it was indeed in the aforementioned border region, chances are it was Lower Saxon. So, issue solved after all!

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