How the debate over languages vs dialects can lead us astray

I think the problem with the words “language” and “dialect” is that it
tries to put people who speak a certain way together even though there may be great differences between those people.

“American English” and “British English” are both called dialects of
English despite there being huge cultural difference between the
speakers.

I think when people hear that Sicilian is a dialect of Italian, they assume that if they learn Standard Italian, they will be able to understand Italian. But the “dialect” of Sicilian is very different to Standard Italian.

I also think when you say that you speak a certain language, people bring to that a certain view of that kind of person.

I think this is why Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are considered separate languages, despite being hugely similar. People in those countries don’t like each other, and when you say “I speak Serbian”, it doesn’t just mean “I understand things Serbians say” it is also saying “I connect with and have an understanding of Serbian people”.

I grew up in Hout Bay, a small, rustic and sparsely populated suburb in Cape Town. There are mountains all around, lots of trees, and it is on the coast. I no longer live in Hout Bay. We left there when I was still in school and moved to a more populated area of the city closer to the schools. I have more access to shops and entertainment, but Cape Town still moves at a slow pace compared to bigger cities.

I have never been to New York, and while I have a general concept of what a huge city like that is, I am sure the actual place will be quite an eye opener for me.

When people say things like “Let’s go on a bender”, talking about drinking around town, I can understand the general concept, but the details completely elude me. It’s not a code. You can learn what “bender” means. The biggest difference is culture.

In that moment, there is a break down in communication because I am not getting the same picture that others who engage in this activity are getting.

When people say, “Hey man, why don’t we try that new (insert brand name here) beer? I’ve heard good things. The taste really has got a great crispness”, it is almost useless to non beer drinkers. At this point, the communication is only useful to people interested in beer.

I often get messages on my profile, or on my page and people wanna discuss something. We’ll be talking and then I am like, “Wow! Can you believe the weird nuances of English? Turn me on and turn on me are completely different. It’s because turn on is a phrasal verb and the other is just a verb using the common structure “on me” (like he just “let loose on me”). “Turn” can mean “to defect”. So “turn” and “on me” come together to mean “he betrayed me””

Not only would a non native speaker find it hard to tell the difference between “turn on me” and “turn me on”, native speakers might even find it hard to understand the explanation with its discussion of phrasal verbs.

Whenever we speak, we assume a common understanding and common knowledge. When we don’t have that, there is a break down of communication and of understanding. A cat can’t understand the human condition. And most of us have less understanding of what it’s like to be a nomadic sheep herder.

I just finished a great audiobook about the Aeneid and one word that was really important in it was “pietas” which means “the duty that you have to yourself and society”, and it evolved over time into the Modern English word “piety”.

The person narrating the audiobook made it clear that failing to understand the real meaning of the word and how it was important for these people meant failing to understand these people’s motivation.

So where does this leave us? I think the debate about languages vs dialect is a complex one and not simply a debate about definitions.

We all are part of a cultural group, which has its own social mores, and beliefs, and our own beliefs are somewhere on the continuum of beliefs that exist within our society.

If I had to sum it up, I would say (as a reminder for myself as well), just because someone speaks the same language as you, don’t assume they are the same as you. We are all different, in a myriad of ways, and that multitude of differences can be seen not only in the languages of the world, but in the varities within that language.

Steve the vagabond

About Steve the vagabond

Hi, I created Silly Linguistics. If you like life on the silly side, you have found just the right place
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