You say dialect, I say language….

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich famously penned:

“אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט”

I could try to impress you and pretend I can read that. Maybe if we write it this way:


To cut to the chase, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” or so claimed Weinreich. His words still ring true and have implications today.

Recently, the language blog over at the Economist ( waded into muddy waters by claiming to understand the complexities of the “dialect” versus “language” debate over the Sinitic tongues. (In the followup piece the author also smartly quotes Weinreich). Essentially, the author goes on about how Cantonese is a separate language and that it is foolish for the Chinese to consider it, along with Shanghainese, Hokkien, Hakka, and others as just a series of dialects within an indivisible whole known as Chinese.

First, some point about the terms “dialect” and “language.” There actually is no concrete definition or dividing line between the two. Generally languages can be differentiated once they are mutually unintelligible. Certainly there will be some cognates and indeed the romance languages are full of cognates among them. Similarly the Germanic languages or sister languages like Dutch and Afrikaans are at least partially mutually intelligible. Yet they are considered different languages. The Chinese dialects, however, are still called dialects.

In Chinese, the word for dialect is “fang yan” or “di fang hua” which mean “local speech” or “place talk” respectively. The way shopkeepers in Xi’an chat with their regular customers would be called “Xi’an hua” (Xi’an speech/talk) and it would effectively be an accented version of standard Mandarin. A tourist from Beijing strolling through the same market would be able to eavesdrop on their conversation and understand what is going on with little difficulty.

Were the same Beijing tourist to go to Sichuan, he would probably have considerably more difficulty understanding what was being said in the market but could still figure it out. Sichuanese is arguably still similar enough to standard Mandarin to mostly just be a matter of accent and some local terminology. Hence – dialect.

Now when the Beijinger goes to villages around Taishan in Guangdong province he is likely to have significant difficulty pickup up what is going on. While there are still many same words and grammar structures, the local patois is such that our tourist will probably be scratching his head. Fortunately since Mandarin has been the language of education since 1949, everyone speaks it – although with varying degrees of fluency and accent intensity.

So where does that leave us? Are the various regional tongues really different languages as claimed by the Economist or just “dialects” of a single tongue? They are all descended from the same ancient language (although there are some doubts about how Hokkien ties into the one-ancestor idea) but then again so are French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian – all from Latin. Yet these are considered separate languages. The Chineses are not.

The main difference is simple – and really not worth fighting about. A language becomes a language when a governing authority says it is. This can be by pronouncing the local dialect to now be the official language of a sovereign state or by saying a local dialect is in need of protection and is hence a minority language (happens all the time in Europe). Even in English in the US, there was a move to have African American Vernacular English given status as a separate language in order to aid in education of inner-city youths. What had hitherto just been a dialect could have become a language with the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen. Such is the difference between a dialect and a language.

So when in China, speak Mandarin since everyone understands it – and then learn the local dialect to feel more at home. Just don’t pick up too much of an accent!


About redguide2010

While living in China's Guizhou Province I fell in love with the China, and travel more generally. I became especially enamored with the batik art of the Miao/Hmong and Buyi minorities. This love affair filled me with the desire to share this art form and the history, and travel foibles of China, with the world. For Batiks, check this out: I lived in China for more than 3 years doing work as an English teacher, translator, and political economist. In the course of these jobs I had the opportunity to see not only the Southwest (Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan) I called home but also to spend time on business in the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta. In my experience, even the most modern, industrial and seemingly bland concrete jungle contains a wealth of history and cultural experience - for those willing to scratch the surface. Let's take a peek together!
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