When explaining the differences between a language and a dialect, many doubts and differing opinions arise. This range of opinions stems mainly from historical and political aspects, and not so much from the linguistic aspect, which is what we shall focus on in this post.

Let’s start by looking at the Oxford Dictionary definitions of language and dialect: 

What is a language? 

– The system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country or area. 

– The use by humans of a system of sounds and words to communicate. 

What is a dialect? 

– The form of a language that is spoken in one area with grammar, words and pronunciation that may be different from other forms of the same language. Spanish is one of the dialects that descends from Latin. 

Therefore, according to these definitions, can a language that doesn’t have a writing system be considered a dialect? Is this the main difference between a language and a dialect? 

Not necessarily. Taking this difference into account would be a serious mistake given that none of the current languages had a writing system when they first appeared; originally, there were simply a method of oral communication, which later began to be expressed through meaningful marks. 

So, how can we differentiate between language and dialect? By considering the concept of mutually intelligible languages, for example. 

What is a dialect in linguistic terms? 

Mutually intelligible languages are those languages where speakers can understand each other, whether in writing or speaking, without needing to have studied the other language. 

“Speaking the ‘same language’ does not depend on two speakers speaking identical languages, but only very similar languages”

(Adrian Akmajian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT Press, 2001).

That is, linguists understand there is a mutual relationship in a dialect: if two languages, A and B, are mutually intelligible and also historically related, linguists say that “A and B are dialects”, that “A is a dialect of B” or that “B is a dialect of A”. 

What is a dialect in sociolinguistic terms? 

Another approach when identifying the differences between language and dialect is the sociolinguistic aspect. The majority of languages have a prevalent (or standard) variant considered by some speakers to be “better” than the other variants, which are called “dialects”. 

This is the case of Andalusian, for example, and Castilian or standard Spanish, spoken in Madrid, or Cockney and Standard English in British English. This inferiority complex of dialects versus languages is well summarised in the famous saying attributed to the Yiddish philologist, Max Weinreich: 

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy”or “A language is a dialect with an army behind it”. 

What is a dialect in geographical terms? 

Geographically speaking, it is said that a language is identified as belonging to an entire country, while a dialect is only present in some areas, regions or parts of a country, not throughout. 

Dialect continuum 

A dialect continuum is when languages A and B are mutually intelligible, so too are B and C, but A and C are not. This is very common in some African languages, for example. 

In such instances it is even harder to differentiate between languages and dialects because, as previously indicated, languages A and B are dialects, so too are languages B and C, but, on the contrary, languages A and C are not. 

Examples of dialect varieties 

We’ll now look at some examples of dialect varieties of different languages spoken in the world. 

Spanish dialects 

According to the CVC (Virtual Cervantes Centre) web page, “Particularly in the case of Spanish, some studies on the current linguistic situation set out eight dialects, according to the areas where the the language is spoken: Leonese, Aragonese, Judeo-Spanish, Extremaduran, Murcian Spanish, the Andalusian linguistic modality, Canarian and Spanish of the Americas”. 

British English dialects 

In the United Kingdom alone there are nearly 40 dialects with completely different accents and, in some cases, there are also differences in the orthography and morphology. 

The 10 most famous British dialects are: 

1. Scottish 

2. Geordie (Newcastle) 

3. Scouse (Liverpool) 

4. Yorkshire 

5. Welsh 

6. Brummie (Birmingham) 

7. West Country 

8. RP or Standard English (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex) 

9. Essex 

10. Cockney (East London) 

Italian dialects 

Italy is one of the countries with the most dialects. In this instance, however, it would be more appropriate to talk about a situation of diglossia: “Bilingualism, especially when one of the languages enjoys superior social or political prestige or privilege”, whereby standard Italina, in particular, is superior to the rest. 

Some of these Italian dialects are: Tuscan, Romanesco, Napolitan, Sicilian, Piadmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Venetian, Friulian, Ladin and Sardinian, amongst others. 

So, what is the difference between a language and a dialect? 

It will depend on who you ask and which of the differentiating elements of language and dialect their answer is based on. 

It’s certainly a very interesting topic to debate with friends and acquaintances because no doubt everyone has a very different perception of dialect and language. 

If you really want to split hairs, ask them the following question: are all dialects languages? 

Tell us what conclusions you reach. Here at Tatutrad, we’d love to continue the debate in the comments.