What's the Difference Between a Dialect and a Language?

The best answer to any question.
Feb. 3 2014 9:07 AM

What's the Difference Between a Dialect and a Language?

This question originally appeared on Quora.


Answer by Marc Ettlinger, Ph.D., linguistics, UC–Berkeley:


The pioneering sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich had a quote:*

אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
a shprach eez a deealekt mit an armee un flot
A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

His point being that the difference between a language and a dialect was ultimately a political distinction and had little to do with linguistics per se. Thus, German and Dutch are separate languages, but Mandarin and Meixian Chinese are supposed dialects.

Linguists, however, do make a distinction between the two based on the concept of mutual intelligibility. Two languages where speakers can understand each other are considered dialects of the same language, whereas two languages where the speakers cannot understand each other are, indeed, separate languages.

This often isn't black and white, since understand can be a hard criterion to pin down. There's no well-established way this has been operationalized.

There is also the notion of a dialect continuum, wherein languages A and B are mutually intelligible and languages B and C are mutually intelligible, but A and C are not. This is very characteristic of the Bantu languages in Africa, for exampe. So which are the languages and what are the dialects in this case? It's not completely clear.

Historically, when two dialects are in close enough continuous contact with each other, they will often remain mutually intelligible. With enough separation in time and space, though, dialects will eventually turn into separate languages as the two become more and more distinct.

More questions on Linguistics:

Correction, Feb. 6, 2014: This post originally misattributed a quote by Max Weinreich to his son Uriel Weinreich.


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.