Dialectology (by Edward J. Vajda)

      The study of language in society is called sociolinguistics. The real basis for much of sociolinguistics is that the differences in language among members of a speech community or between different regions speaking different varieties of the same language are often meaningful for society. Not everyone who speaks a given language speaks it in the same way.  Actually, every individual uses language in their own unique way.  This is evident from an analysis of writers' vocabulary usage, for example.  It is possible to prove the authorship of an anonymous work based on statistical studies of word usage.  An individual's particular way of speaking is called an idiolect.  Language variants spoken by entire groups of people are referred to as dialects.  Some linguists use the term lect to describe any variant of a language (family lect, village lect, etc.) 

      Dialectology is a branch of sociolinguistics that studies the systematic variants of a language.  The term dialect was first coined in 1577 from the Latin dialectus, way of speaking.  Dialectal variation is present in most language areas and often has important social implications.  The earliest recorded instance where dialectal information played a role in history appears in the Bible, in the Book of Judges, verse 12:4-6: Then Gilead cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever an Ephraimite fugitive said 'Let me cross', the men of Gilead asked him "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he answered "No." they said "Then say shiboleth.  He would say Sibboleth, since he could not pronounce the word correctly.  Thereupon they seized and slaughtered him by the fords of the Jordan.  Because of these lines, the word shibboleth, which in ancient Hebrew meant either ear of grain or flowing stream, has come to mean a distinguishing mark or criterion.

      To study dialects we must first decide how to determine when two similar forms of a language are merely dialects of the same language and when are they separate languages.  The difference between dialect and language is not clear-cut, but rather depends on at least three factors, which often contradict one another.

      1)  The first criterion is purely linguistic, mutual intelligibility.  Can the speakers of two different language forms readily understand one another?  If they cannot, then the two forms would normally be considered separate languages--at least by linguists.  Such is the case with Dutch, German and English, which are not mutually intelligible, or are mutually intelligible only to a small degree.  There are at least 5000 forms of speech across the world that are as different from one another as German is from English.  These would normally be considered separate languages.  If language differences cause only minimal problems in communication, there is a tendency to call the variants dialects of a single language: such is the case with British, Australian, American English and the English of India--all dialects of English.       

      2) The second criterion is cultural, and takes into account the opinion of the speakers:  do the speakers themselves think of their form of language as a variety of a more standard form of speech?  Is there a neutral or standarized form of the language that speakers look to as the norm.  This is certainly true of the varieties of English spoken in the United States.  Most anyone speaking Southern English or Brooklynese would consider their language forms to be local variants of American English; they would also recognize certain newscasters as speaking English "without an accent."  In fact, some people use the word dialect to mean "an accent," although an accent is only the phonological aspect of a dialect; dialects also differ in grammar and vocabulary.  Most speakers of American English would also consider American English and the English spoken in Britain--which subcribes to a slightly different standard--to be variants of a single language.  (There are differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, punctuation, etc. between standard American English and British English.) On the other hand, the Germanic languages of Scandinavia show a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but few if any Danes or Norwegians would claim that their language is a substandard dialect of Swedish.  Each language--Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic--has its own, separate literary standard, even though the language forms themselves show a fairly high degree of mutually intelligible. 

      Most language forms that share a single literary standard are mutually intelligible.  A few are not.  The several main dialects of Chinese are not at all mutually intelligible in their spoken form.  The best known, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are more different from one another than German is from English.  Yet all of them use a single standard written form.  This is possible because Chinese characters are based only very loosely on sound.  Therefore, many Chinese speakers consider their very divergent spoken forms to be variants of a single standard language, unified by the use of written characters with shared meanings.  In terms of spoken form, the so-called "dialects" of Chinese could easily be considered separate languages;  in the speakers' view, they are dialects of the same language--at least as far as the written language is concerned.

      3)  A final criterion in differentiating language from dialect involves a language's political status, a factor that is external to the form of the language and sometimes even at variance with the culture of the speakers.  Do the political authorities in a country consider two language forms to be separate languages or dialects of a single language? Extremely different, non-mutually intelligible language forms may be called dialects simply because they are spoken within a single political entity and it behooves the rulers of that entity to consider them as such:  this was the case with Ukrainian and Russian in the days of the Russian Empire, where Ukrainian (called Little Russian) was considered a substandard variety of Russian (called Great Russian). This could also be said to be the case with the so-called dialects of Chinese in the People's Republic of China.

      On the other hand, language forms that are quite mutually intelligible can be considered separate languages also for purely political reasons.  Such is the case with Serbian and Croatian in the former Yugoslavia.  Linguistically, these two language forms are more similar than the English spoken in Texas and New York; linguists, in fact, usually called them both by the name Serbo-Croatian.  However, for entirely political reasons the Serbs and the Croats have deliberately invented separate literary standards to render their language more divergent than it really is.  Furthermore, the Croats, being Catholics, use the Latin alphabet, while the Orthodox Serbs use a version of Cyrillic.   A similar situation pertains is other cases, notably Hindi/Urdu, and Bengali/Assamese. 

      A somewhat different example of political language-making is to be found in the case of Romanian.  When the USSR took over the eastern province of Romania in 1945 at the close of WW2, they declared that the local Moldavian dialect was a separate language.  Although Moldavian and other regional dialects of Romanian actually differ very little, the Soviets forced the Moldavians to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet and add many Russian words to the vocabulary.  When Moldavia became independent in 1992, the Russians living there have started a civil war to gain their own mini-state inside Moldavia;  they justified their apprehension by saying that Moldavians speak Romanian and sooner or later will rejoin Romania.  So the definition of dialect vs. language, unfortunately, can also vary for purely political considerations. 

      The best we can do in defining a dialect as something different from a language is to say the following:  If two language variants are mutually intelligible and subscribe to the same literary standard, they are dialects of the same language rather than separate languages--provided, of course, that there is no overriding political reason to think otherwiseAnd, if two language variants are not mutually intelligible, they are different languages-- unless there is some overriding political or cultural reason to consider them the same language.  One exasperated linguist said that a language is simply a dialect with an army and navy. Thus, the difference between dialect and language is partly linguistic and partly a matter of opinion based on extra-linguistic considerations. 

      It could be argued that most languages spoken today were once simply dialects of another language.  When a single people migrates in separate directions and the resulting groups no longer maintain close communication with one another, then dialects emerge and in time can evolve into separate languages (cf. Indo-European).  The same effect can be produced as a result of political disintegration (cf. Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire).  

      When people are cut off from each other--either by geography, by ethnic separatism, or by political separation-- which group tends to change the least and retain the older forms of a language?  It turns out that the language spoken by the group that is most isolated from the mainstream tends to change the least (Appalachian English is most like 17th cent. English. Portuguese of Brasil.   Yiddish like 15th century German).  A striking example among Indo-European languages is Lithuanian and Latvian.  Often, languages that are on the periphery of a language area tend to retain old forms the longest. (Spanish and Rumanian are more conservative than French and Italian).

      What factors speed up or hinder the formation of dialects?  Since language naturally changes all the time, a language spread out over a large territory or over a geographically diverse territory such as a series of mountain valleys is prone to differentiate into dialects.  Language unity can still be maintained by a unified system of education, by the influence of the mass media, by the social mixing that occurs within a highly mobile population.  Common culture and political institutions also tend to resist the emergence of new dialects. 

      Some languages are very homogenous, showing little dialectal variation.  Political unity over a wide area for a long period of time tends to minimize the formation of dialects.  Russian is a good example:  there are only three dialectal areas over a vast territory.  Other languages have very many dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible.  These dialects are the result of speech communities being isolated from one another over long periods of time.  As a rule, the less groups communicate, the more their language forms will diverge.  A good example of this is the Basques, who inhabit a tiny territory of northeast Spain.  Since villages and regions are separated by mountains, the Basques speak at least half a dozen very different dialects.  In ancient Greece each city state had its own dialect.  German has so many dialects today because of centuries of political disunity, during which time each province or town developed its own way of speaking; the main division today is between High and Low German.

      Because dialects very often emerge because of language spread and subsequent isolation, they may often be described in terms of geography.   In such cases linguists usually find a dialect continuum.  The difference between one areal dialect and another is often a gradual series of changes, not an abrupt change in any one location.  Cf. the gradual transition from High to Low German.  Instead of marking the boundaries of dialects on maps, linguists often mark the distribution of various features with bars called isoglosses (Cf. the pronounciation of greasy [s] vs. [z] south of Pennsylvania.)  Main dialects tend to be separated by isogloss bundles, or coincidences of isoglosses.  (e.g., New York and New England vs. the rest of the country; or the South vs. the rest of the country.)

      In addition to geography, other factors may lead to dialectal change.  One is ethnicity, the cultural, religious and racial differences that separate groups of people.  The dialect of an ethnic group within a larger speech community is often marked by certain unique features.  Often these features derive from the influence of an earlier language spoken by the given ethnic group. Cf., the example of minorities in the former USSR who speak Russian.)  Sometimes ethnic groups seek to assimilate into the mainstream and an ethnic dialect disappears in a few generations (Lithuanian speakers of Russian, who usually achieve near perfect Russian).  Sometimes speakers deliberately try to maintain themselves apart from the majority (Georgians and Estonians, who deliberately speak Russian with as much accent as possible as a statement of their nationalism)  This process also is apparent among various ethnic groups in the United States today.  The lingo of American teenagers is another example of intentional and deliberate language divergence.

      Another factor in the development and perpetuation of dialects is social differentiation.  In England the upper classes speak different dialects than the lower classes.  Usually, dialects developed on the basis of several interacting factors.  The classes of Britain, for example, originate in large part from historical differences in ethnicity.  Even today, by and large, Britain's lower classes trace their ancestry to the original Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles who were defeated by the Anglo-Saxons.  Many upper class British families trace their ancestry back to the Norman French who conquered England in 1066.