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Language And Dialect Distinction Notes

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Olivia Alter


Discuss the difficulties which arise in drawing distinctions between a 'language' and a 'dialect'. 'Language' and 'dialect' are problematic terms, since common usage tends to utilise historical derivations, and bases their definitions on social factors, such as class (a 'cockney dialect') or location (a 'rural dialect'). Our modern usage of the two words also considers size and prestige as factors in defining them, designating a kind of superiority to language over dialect. This could account for some sort of structural criteria or scientific definition, but these two means of distinguishing imply division, whereas it may be more useful to regard the linguistic items as part of a continuum. If we do so, however, 'language' and 'dialect' may not, in fact, be true linguistic terms, and this essay aims to examine this idea. 'Dialect' is often defined as being subordinate to language, since 'language' can imply either a single variety (where 'variety' is used as a neutral term for a linguistic item), or a group of related varieties, consisting of one autonomous variety, and all the varieties which are heteronomous, or dependent, on it (in other words, dialects). Nevertheless, taking 'language' to mean a collection of related varieties, and considering 'dialect' as subordinate, suggests a definition based on size, and as Hudson (1980) shows, claiming that a particular variety is a language (based on size) is actually meaningless; it is entirely subjective: one variety could include all the languages spoken by a multilingual speaker, or it could represent a language used only in one village. There is no way of making a distinction between 'language' and 'dialect' based on size less relative, because the criterion one might use, that of 'mutual intelligibility' is in itself too problematic, since it advocates a division and clear-cut distinction between the terms, and is also entirely subjective. Mutual intelligibility states that if the speakers of two varieties can understand each other, those varieties belong to the same language. However, one can see how, in the case of Scandinavia for example, popular usage does not always correspond to this; Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are three separate languages, but they are also mutually intelligible. There may be degrees of more or less intelligibility, for example Swedes can understand Norwegians, but will understand other Swedes to a greater extent (Chambers
& Trudgill, 1998); yet this is too arbitrary, and does not allow for dialect continua, for

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