For many, one of the main factors that contributed to the survival and flourishing of the primitive human species is their ability to communicate through speech. Because of the unique anatomy of the human larynx, they can produce sounds and associate them with a certain concept, like “bear attack” or “gather fruits,” for instance. They also use these meaningful sounds to aggregate into social packets, proving that speech communication is indeed an evolutionary advantage.
Scholars had not arrived yet at a unified conclusion as to when “language” officially started. Some scholars like Steven Pinker posit that language came into being when primitive humans began using vocal sounds to signal their peers and that it evolved parallel to humans. For others, like Noam Chomsky, language appeared abruptly during the course of human history in a stochastic manner. Regardless of its origin, we can all agree that language is a vital part of our life.
Up to date, there are 7117 living languages all around the world, according to SIL Ethnologue. Most of these languages still have several dialects as a subset depending on factors such as geographical location or culture. Just like the origin of language, however, the distinction between a language and a dialect is also a gray area among linguists and other academics. Here, we will outline some of the distinct features separating languages from dialects and discover the area where the line becomes blurred.
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Different Facets of Language
The first thing that probably comes to mind when we talk about the word “language” is speaking. That point has some inherent validity to it since the tool used by humans at the conception of language is speech or vocal signals. The written symbolic language appeared much later on in history as civilizations started becoming more advanced.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines language as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” Notice how technical this definition is. Sometimes, we tend to dwell too much on the rigorous technical aspects of a language. Even the academic field of linguistics focuses mainly on sounds (phonetics and phonology), words (morphology), sentence structure (syntax), meaning (semantics), and context (pragmatics).
Strictly speaking, though, language is more than just about words or speech. Several philosophical, sociocultural, and physiological aspects explain how language works and how it helps us make sense of the world around us. To be able to define language completely, we need to look at those various facets carefully.
- Language and Philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the topnotch philosophers during the early 20th century, wrote in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This profound nugget of wisdom emphasizes that without knowledge, we will not be able to access the knowledge in this world. This is also the reason why we assign categories or names to the objects that we know. For example, we know what the word “chair” refers to a piece of furniture with four legs, armrests, and back frame. This association of a chair’s concept to the word “chair” is made possible by the human faculty of language.
- Language, Society, and Culture. Humans are social animals. Early humans have to stick together for mutual protection against possible predators during prehistoric ages, and communicating through speech helped them form groups and tribes. Until now, language is still a huge part of our everyday lives. We use it as an apparatus for socialization, which is the process of participating in the activities of a society like buying groceries, talking with friends, and working at the office. Moreover, we use language for passing on traditions and beliefs to our friends and family. Parents would always remind their children about the importance of finishing the food on their plates and praying before going to sleep. This diffusion of ideas and practices from one person to another is the building block of culture, and language makes this happen.
- Language and Physiology. The human body is endowed with the proper parts that enable it to create, process and interpret language. According to Norman Geschwind, an American behavioral neurologist, the brain has a well-functioning “language area” wherein all the information necessary for understanding language is stored. Furthermore, humans are also biologically designed with organs for speech like the mouth, tongue, larynx, diaphragm, and lungs. These parts help us produce a variety of sounds that eventually build-up language.
Indeed, we cannot confine language inside the vacuum of technicalities because it is related to different ideas and structures like philosophy, society, culture, and physiology. Additionally, it is not enough to be acquainted with the definition of languages – we also have to look at their practical, real-world applications. And we know that the best application of a language is communication.
Language Diversity in Communication
When used within the context of communication, language refers loosely to the set of words, phrases, and rules used by a certain group of people to communicate either verbally or in writing. That is why if you try to compare the words used in the US to the words used in Japan or in the Philippines, you will see that they are vastly different. The languages used in these countries are not the same.
As mentioned earlier, there are more than 7000 languages that are alive today. There are even countries with hundreds of recorded languages! This is a testament to the diversity of languages in the world. Because of the large number of tongues in some countries, classify these into different categories.
- Official Languages. These are recognized by the national government for all legal purposes.
- Regional Languages. Like official languages, these are also recognized for legislative usage, and its scope is limited to a particular state, province, region, or territory.
- Minority Languages. These are spoken by minority or ethnic groups in a country.
- National Language. Intended for symbolic representation, these are used to represent the identity of a country.
Note that these categories are not incongruous. A regional language could also be considered as an official language if the government deems it necessary to do so. A possible consideration that the government may look at is the number of native speakers. If a regional language is spoken by a significant percentage of the national population, then they might consider declaring it as an official language as well.
What About Dialects?
Languages are dynamic, which means that they constantly change along with their speakers. Take a large country, for instance. Even if that country were to adopt a single language to be used, the people living in different regions would have slight disparities in terms of how they live. Eventually, this would cause the language in one region to have slight differences compared to the languages spoken in other places. These variations of the language can be considered as dialects.
Encyclopædia Britannica describes dialects as “subdivisions of recognizably different types of language … that do not, however, render intercommunication impossible or markedly difficult”. If two persons speak different dialects of the same language, they will still understand each other, but they will notice that there are actually words or expressions that vary. In linguistics, this criterion is called mutual intelligibility or inter-comprehensibility.
English is an example of a language that has several dialects, including Australian English, Northern British English, and Midwest American English to name a few. Several words and phrases actually vary among these dialects. What an American calls a cookie is known by a Brit or an Aussie as a biscuit.
You may think that a variation in accent is a requirement for two linguistic systems to be considered as dialects of a language, but it is not. Dialects are more directed towards lexicon and grammatical rules, while the accent is descriptive of the pronunciation. Two individuals speaking different dialects may or may not have similar accents.
Where Do Languages and Dialects Deviate?
The inter-comprehensibility criterion for determining if two forms of speech are dialects of the same languages can sometimes cause confusion. For instance, Spanish and Portuguese are two different languages, but when a Spanish speaker and a Portuguese speaker are asked to converse, they will understand each other without much difficulty. Is it then appropriate to call Spanish and Portuguese dialects? No. Since they are spoken in two countries separated by borders, they are different independent languages in themselves.
Similar to the previous example, Serbian and Croatian are two languages that have very similar lexicon and grammar. They actually originated from the language Serbo-Croatian, but they split during the onslaught of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Languages, indeed, are affected not just by territorial boundaries but also by political alterations.
Those scenarios showed us that there is no clear demarcation between what we consider as dialects and languages. This is made more complicated by the fact that language is dynamic, and it is tied to different facets like politics, society, culture, and a host of other related aspects.
Even linguists, social scientists, and other academics can agree with this. According to the anthropologist Einar Haugen, “impossibility of stating precisely how many ‘languages’ or ‘dialects’ are spoken in the world is due to the ambiguities of meaning present in these terms”.
But, is there really a need to dichotomize language and dialect? Tomasz Kamusella, a Polish scholar, claims that the inability to standardize the distinction between languages and dialect is due to the fact that this matter is subjective. In retrospect, there is really no point in providing a distinction between the two. Language is dynamic, and it will never let itself be encaged.
Languages and Dialects in the Industry
Given that a country may have several languages and dialects, industries must be prepared to craft documents and paperwork in multiple languages. There may come a time when you need to purchase a product, but the region you are buying it from requires you to submit documents written in a dialect different from yours.
In this case, businesses can opt to hire in-house translators for their language service needs. However, this option might be too expensive, even impractical, since translators are not always needed anyway. Instead of hiring their own translators, what they can do is to partner with global language companies offering translation services as this is a more cost-effective option.
Labels Are Not Everything
Languages are fascinating subjects to study because they give you a wider and clearer perspective of the world where you live. And yes, we have seen how confusing it is to differentiate languages from dialects. Just take note that labels are not everything. What matters is not the way we classify languages from dialects but rather the way we use them accurately in all our dealings, be it personal or professional.