A language is a dialect with an army and a navy

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.  –Max Weinreich

romance dialect continuum
The western end of the Romance dialect continuum. Picture source: http://ito.userweb.mwn.de/grndkurs/uebungen/uebung11.htm.

Back in graduate school, I did research on a small language spoken only by about 30,000 people in one town in what is now South Sudan.  I was the first (and so far only) person to ever work on that language, so I am the world expert on it by default.  (This is a shame–the language and the people deserve a far better “expert” than me.)  The Wikipedia page on the language varies drastically in content from time to time, but its contents are usually mostly taken from the blurb on the back cover of the book that I wrote about it.

As I said, the contents of the Wikipedia page get drastically edited.  One of the most common things that the various editors duel about is whether the title of the page should be “Kuku language” or “Kuku (dialect of Bari),” where “Kuku” is the name of the language, and “Bari” is the name of a related and much larger language spoken by about 500,000 people spread over the region.

This isn’t that surprising to me.  From the perspective of linguistics, there isn’t actually a formal definition for language and dialect that would let you make a principled distinction between the two.  The most common criterion that you hear people talk about is mutual intelligibility: if speakers of two varieties of something can understand each other, then they’re two dialects of the same language; if they can’t understand each other, then they’re two separate languages.  However, there are a number of issues that make the mutual intelligibility criterion not actually work out in practice.

  • Intelligibility can be unidirectional.  There are situations where speakers of variety A can understand speakers of variety B, but speakers of variety B can’t understand speakers of variety A.
  • There are dialect continua.  A “dialect continuum” works like this.  You’ve got a place, A-ville, where the people speak differently from the people in the adjacent place B-ville, but they understand each other just fine.  The people in B-ville and the people in the adjacent place C-ville understand each other just fine, and so on, up to Z-ville.  However: get the people from A-ville and Z-ville together, and they can’t understand each other.  Just in Europe alone there are a number of dialect continua: a Romance dialect continuum, a Germanic dialect continuum, and a Slavic dialect continuum.  There is an Arabic dialect continuum, a Chinese dialect continuum, and many others.
  • Mutual intelligibility is often a matter of degree.  (American) English is my native language.  I can understand some speakers of English from the south of England almost completely.  I can understand most speakers of English from the northwest of England to a limited extent, but definitely not entirely.  Are my variety and the variety of the northwest English speakers mutually intelligible?
  • Even within speakers of a single variety, judgements about mutual intelligibility might depend on who you ask.  My baby brother and I speak essentially the same variety.  My baby brother never understood people who spoke the local variety of English in the Tidewater area of Virginia, despite many visits there.  I had almost no trouble understanding them.  Is our variety mutually intelligible with the Tidewater variety, or not?

The use of the mutual intelligibility criterion is also made difficult by the fact that judgements about whether or not two varieties are mutually intelligible are typically affected by issues that seem to have less to do with language than they do with social factors.  It’s not uncommon for people who are trying to maintain some political or social unit to claim that they understand some other group with whom they’re trying to maintain that unity, while people from a group that is trying to break away from that unity claim that they don’t understand the other.  For example, around the time of the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to hear speakers of Serbian say that they could communicate with speakers of Croatian just fine, while speakers of Croatian would talk about how incomprehensible Serbian is.  Social context: the Croatians were in the process of seceding from Yugoslavia, while the Serbs were trying to keep it together.  It’s also not uncommon for a lower-prestige social group to say that they understand the way that members of a higher-prestige social group speak, while members of the higher-prestige social group say that they don’t understand the way that members of the lower-prestige social group speak.  There doesn’t seem to be anything linguistic going on here–it’s an issue of social structure and power.

What’s a linguist’s take on all of this?  Linguists like to say that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.  (The observation is credited to Max Weinreich.)  What does that mean?  It means that you tend to call something a language, rather than a dialect, when the people who speak it have some sort of political autonomy.  It’s not a linguistic criterion at all, but rather an issue of social structure.  “Chinese” is actually many different languages, and they are most definitely not all mutually intelligible–not by a long shot.  But, many Chinese have a very strong national identity, and they all share a written language, and Chinese speakers who can’t understand each other will widely insist that they speak the same language.  Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers do understand each other, as a rule; however, Bulgarians will often mention (at least to me) how very similar the two are, while Macedonians insist that Macedonian has a language of its own that is most definitely not Bulgarian–it’s a different country, right?

As recently as 1900, 50% of the people in France didn’t speak French.  What did they speak?  Some people spoke (and some still speak) things that are clearly different languages, such as Breton (a Celtic language) and Basque (a language that is not related to any other language that we know of).  Other people speak things whose identity–a dialect of French?  a related Romance language that is not, however, French?–might depend on who you ask.  Here’s some vocabulary related to the whole language-versus-dialect issue.  (My definitions, derived from the French Wikipedia page on dialect continua.)

  • le continuum linguistique: dialect continuum.
  • le dialecte: dialect.
  • intercompréhensible: mutually intelligible.
  • le patois: a “regional language.”

So: the next time someone says to you at a cocktail party but that’s just a dialect, right?  …feel free to give them a lecture on the subject, or to just politely realize that you need to freshen up your drink and then go find someone else to talk to.


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

  1. South Sudan? Chapeau! that’s unusual. I always feel one’s treading on delicate terrain when talking about language vs. dialect, so this is helpful. The social factors for intelligibility you mention are gems. I lived in Zagreb and can confirm your Croatian vs Serb issues. I’ll add that when I went to live there (ex-Yugoslavia) I spoke Russian. I started learning Croatian. But the locals would refuse to understand my “Croatian” because they could hear the Russian accent in my pronunciation… The funny thing is, they were perfectly willing to speak German with me – memories of an imperial past!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s so funny about the Russian accent in your Croatian–I saw something similar in Prague once when a Russian-speaking friend was helping me shop for something.


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