What is a Language? What is a Dialect?

Do you know what a dialect is?

Most people think they do.

If you’re a descendant of immigrants, you may have heard that your grandparents spoke a dialect of the language of their home country.

If you live in a country where your home or social language is different from the language you speak in school, or other official setting, you may refer to that “home” variety as a dialect.

If you speak a language that’s only slightly different from a neighboring language—but not close enough to be considered the same—you may consider that, too, a dialect.

The truth is that all of the above uses of the word “dialect” are correct, depending on the context in which they are used.

Of course, this confuses things when speaking of languages, and how exactly they differ from all of the different meanings of dialect.

In this article, we’ll examine the key differences between languages and dialects, and hope to shed light on the messy social, cultural, political, and linguistic undercurrents that make a single, definitive definition of dialect hard to come by.

But first, to understand dialect, we must understand language.

What is a Language?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the definition of language is:

The method of human communication, either spoken or written [or signed], consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

[Author’s note: I added “or signed” above, since sign languages are considered proper languages in their own right, and share many of the same key features that spoken and written languages do.]

The term “language” is the umbrella term that covers all human communication systems that meet the above specifications. From French, to British Sign Language, to Klingon, Esperanto, Haitian Creole, African American Vernacular English, and even the variety of your native language that they speak specifically in your city or town—these are all languages.

But, as you surely know, not all of these are considered languages for official purposes. Unless you live on an international border, the language spoken in your town is likely considered to be the same language as that of the next town over, regardless of any differences. On a larger scale, the de-facto languages of the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia (American English, British English, Canadian English, and Australian English, respectively) can be quite different from one another, but are not officially considered four separate languages. Instead, they are considered four separate dialects of the same language.

What causes this difference? Why, if all languages are languages, do some retain the moniker of “language” while others are relegated to the status of “dialect?”

Let’s dig deeper.

What is a Dialect?

Oxford lists the definition of dialect as:

A particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group.

This is a good general definition of a complicated term. There’s just one problem however.

How do we define region or social group?

Regions can be as small as your home and as large as a continent. A social group could be as small as your family or as large as a nation.

Without a definite boundary on either term, we can only truly define dialect as a variety of language.

And that, in essence, is all dialects are; a variety of language that has, for sociopolitical or linguistic reasons, been determined to be separate from the language varieties around it.

And here’s the kicker: Excepting certain linguistic reasons, the criteria that separate a language from a dialect are completely arbitrary.

How Many Colors Are In the Rainbow?

To demonstrate why such groupings are largely arbitrary, we will use a non-linguistic example; that of the color spectrum.

Ask any child in the Western world how many colors make up a rainbow, and you’ll likely get a single response: Seven.

Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.

Many Westerners are raised to believe that these are the definitive colors of the rainbow. When we drew rainbows on our papers as children, we drew a single curved “bow” divided into seven smaller “bows”—one for each distinct color.

But in reality, that’s not how rainbows work. They’re not seven solid bands of color, stacked on top of one another. Rainbows are a “spectrum” of light, each color flows into the next. What we see as “Red” gradually turns into “Orange”, and that “Orange” gradually turns into “Yellow” and so on.

So, what’s to say Red is a color, when a hue a few nanometers off in wavelength—a red-orange, let’s say—is not?

The truth is that the boundaries between colors are a human invention, and have historically been determined on a cultural basis, rather than a physical one. There are no true color boundaries, just the boundaries we impose on the spectrum itself. On the visible spectrum, there are millions of gradations of color, so subdividing the rainbow into seven “major” colors is an oversimplification. In fact, some cultures even reduce the colors of the rainbow to six (removing indigo) or eight (adding cyan). Regardless of how many colors we choose to divide a rainbow into, the true spectrum of colors remains the same.

Languages and dialects exist along a spectrum too, which is divided just as arbitrarily as the visual spectrum is.

Certain speech varieties have been afforded special social, political, or cultural importance. These are what we call “Languages”—the “Reds”, “Greens”, and “Indigos” of spoken language. Languages that differ from these prominent speech varieties—the “Red-oranges”, the “Green-blues”, and the “Blue-indigos”, are relegated to “dialect” status, despite being no less a language than their more official counterparts.

The Two Definitions of Dialect

Now that we understand that languages and dialects are just arbitrary groupings of world languages, we can examine the two different definitions of the term dialect.

The word dialect is assigned to languages for two principal reasons: linguistic and sociopolitical.

Linguistic “dialects” are varieties of languages that are considered mutually intelligible—that is, speakers of one form of the language can understand speakers of the other form without learning the other language outright.

Sociopolitical “dialects” are languages that have been determined for social, political, or cultural reasons to be of lesser importance when compared to another, more “standard” language.

Through examining the evolution of the Latin language, we can observe these two definitions of “dialect” in action.

Latin, over time, evolved into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Romanian, and so on. These daughter languages of Latin can effectively be called “linguistic dialects” of Latin. Since they all originated from the same source, it is possible for speakers of one Romance language to understand speakers of the other languages and vice versa, though the actual degree of mutual intelligibility can vary from Romance dialect to Romance dialect. These “dialects” descended from Latin, and are part of the Romance dialect continuum.

Focusing in on Italian—a “linguistic” dialect of Latin, we can get a better grasp of the other type of dialect: the “sociopolitical” dialect.

In modern-day Italy, there is a single country-wide standard language, known as Standard Italian. This is the language used in official capacities by the Italian government and those it governs. There are plenty of other non-standard languages on the peninsula, such as the Romanesco dialect, the Tuscan dialect, and the Neapolitan dialect, among others.

These non-standard languages, which usually vary from region to region of Italy (or even town to town) are often called the “Italian dialects”.

However, these regional varieties are not descended from Standard Italian, in the same way that Standard Italian is descended from Latin. These regional languages descended from Latin, just as Standard Italian did.

These sister languages to Standard Italian have been relegated to “dialect” status simply because they were not chosen to be the national language of the country. So, Romanesco and Neapolitan are not “linguistic” dialects, but “sociopolitical” dialects.

To make matters even more confusing, there are some regional varieties on the Italian peninsula that have been elevated to full-language status, like Sicilian and Venetian. However, there is nothing in these languages that make them any more “language-like” or “less-dialect like” when compared to Romanesco, Tuscan, Neapolitan, or others.

On a sociopolitical level, there is nothing that separates a language from a dialect other than the fact that the society or the government of a region says so. This fact is codified in a famous quote from sociolinguist Max Weinreich:

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”

How Research Differentiates Languages and Dialects

As we’ve observed above, the terms language and dialect often converge and diverge confusingly based upon both subjective and objective factors.

How, then, is it possible for researchers to determine how many languages there are in the world? In spite of everything, how can boil down all of the linguistic variety of the world into a number that makes qualitative and quantitative sense on both a linguistic and socipolitical scale?

It’s not easy. Though the exact number is still a matter of heated debate, an organization known as SIL has endeavored to come up with the most definitive number of living languages possible. Their efforts are codified in a language database known as Ethnologue, which currently counts 7,099 languages alive today.

To divide up the world’s spectrum of languages into the clearest possible units, Ethnologue adheres to rigid standards of language definition known as the ISO 639-3 denotation.

ISO 639-3 defines a language based upon three main criteria, which we will now examine, with appropriate examples:

  1. Two related varieties are normally considered varieties of the same language if speakers of each variety have inherent understanding of the other variety (that is, can understand based on knowledge of their own variety without needing to learn the other variety) at a functional level.

This criterion explains why Standard American English & British English, or Mexican Spanish & Iberian Spanish are not considered separate languages. Each pair of languages is so closely related to the other that they can inherently understand each other without difficulty.

2. Where spoken intelligibility between varieties is marginal, the existence of a common literature or of a common ethnolinguistic identity with a central variety that both understand can be strong indicators that they should nevertheless be considered varieties of the same language.

A good example of a language that meets this criterion is Arabic. Despite the fact many of the “dialects” of Arabic (Egyptian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic, Gulf Arabic, Syrian Arabic) are called as such, most are not mutually intelligible. However, all of these “dialects” are linked by a common ethnolinguistic identity, as well as a “central variety” (Modern Standard Arabic, used in news, literature, and official domains), which leads to their classification as one language.

3. Where there is enough intelligibility between varieties to enable communication, the existence of well-established distinct ethnolinguistic identities can be a strong indicator that they should nevertheless be considered to be different languages

Good examples of pairs of languages that meet this criterion are Iberian Spanish & Iberian Portuguese, and Norwegian & Swedish. Though each language in the pair is the official language of a separate nation, the languages actually remain highly mutually intelligible, and could be considered dialects of the same language if sociopolitical identity did not divide them.


Now you know what a dialect is!

…or at least, you have a better understanding of them.

Unfortunately, since language is so deeply intertwined with human culture, politics, and society, it is unlikely that we will ever come to a universal agreement over what a language is (and is not) and what a dialect is (and is not).

However, in this article, we’ve aimed to present the terms in as neutral a light as possible, so that you can understand the terms when you see or hear them, and so that you can settle on the meanings that resonate the most with you.

In any case, it is key to remember that regardless of which label a language (or dialect) bears, it is in no way inferior to any other variety of spoken language. All languages and dialects are equally capable of expressing meaning—no matter what we call them!