I am quite certain that many of you have wondered what the difference between a language and a dialect is. Well, I have. Many times in my life. And you know what? I still haven’t found anyone who would give me a straight answer. Because it seems that this particular question is the question that even linguists have trouble dealing with.
If you look at the definitions of both words, you may think that there is a clear-cut distinction between them. According to John Lynch, the term “language” refers “to a speech variety that is different enough from other speech varieties (in pronunciation, grammar, and / or vocabulary) to be mutually intelligible with them”, while the term “dialect” refers “to a variety of a language that is different from other varieties (in pronunciation, grammar, and / or vocabulary), but not so different as to prevent communication”. These definitions basically imply that if people understand each other, they speak the same language. Unfortunately, the concept of mutual intelligibility – which usually is the first criterion to distinguish languages from dialects – is not always so black and white.
As John Lynch notices, it may sometimes be quite difficult to test for mutual intelligibility. Such is the case in many parts of the Pacific region, where people speak not only their native tongue but also have some knowledge of the language(s) of neighbouring communities. If that wasn’t enough, there is also a phenomenon known as a dialect continuum or a dialect chain.
Imagine an island with a string of communities along its coast. Each of these communities uses seemingly the same language but a slightly different dialect. While close neighbours can easily understand each other, those separated by a longer distance will have much more troubles with that. You may be wondering why. Well, the explanation is rather simple – the differences accumulate over distance. So if a person from the village A can understand a person from the village B or C, he or she will not necessarily be able to communicate with someone from the village K. We can thus say that people from the villages A and K speak different languages. But where is the boundary? Where can a line be drawn? Do the inhabitants of the village C and the village G speak the same language but a different dialect, or do they speak two different languages? This is a very good question, isn’t it? Good luck finding the answer.
Occasionally, you may hear that if two (or more) spoken varieties use the same written standard language, they are just dialects of the same tongue. Which, you must admit, sounds very logical. An American, a Brit, and a New Zealander might not always be able to fully understand each other, but there is no doubt that they speak the same language. An American and a Frenchman, however, can be sure that their mother tongues do not even belong to the same family. (Even though we all know that French has heavily influenced English.)
Now, when we are talking about languages and dialects, we cannot forget about one very important issue – social and political identity. It is often said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. That’s a great aphorism and one that explains a lot.
I’m sure you are aware of the existence of languages that are very similar to each other. A good example here would be New Zealand Māori and Cook Islands Māori. They are both closely related and there is some degree of mutual intelligibility between them, yet they are considered separate tongues. Melanesian Pidgins constitute another example. Speakers of Bislama, Tok Pisin, and Pijin could probably carry on a proper conversation without major problems, but they would still say that they each speak different tongues. Because they come from different countries. Because they live in different cultures. Because they identify themselves with their homelands. And language is part of all this. It is part of a country, its culture and national identity.
So I’m thinking that maybe we should leave making the distinction up to people who speak a particular tongue or a dialect. Maybe they, not linguists, should decide. If, in their opinion, they speak a language, then so be it.