Re: Off-topic : Linguaje (was Re: Peking/Beijing)

Date: Tue Oct 19 1999 - 09:58:29 EDT

>When differences between two "languages" are only explainable
       by slight vocabulary and pronunciation differences and not by
       grammar differences, I think that one can speak about dialects
       of the same language. When grammar (I'm not talking about
       individual mistakes but about systematic variations) or
       vocabulary are totally different, I believe that one can talk
       about different languages, whether or not there is a specific
       army attached to the "dialect". But I am not a linguist, so
       don't trust me, it's just my personal understanding of the
       notion of "language".

       Linguistically, there is no sharp boundary between a language
       and a dialect.

       In reality, there are always continua of variation in how
       people speak. Anecdotally, I've heard that one can walk from
       Paris to Rome, and that in each pair of villages along the way,
       people in one will understand those in the other, but obviously
       the people in Paris don't speak the same language as those in

       There are also some marked jumps in variation, such that
       someone can say, "the people here speak the same as the people
       in the next village; the people in the next village speak a
       little differently, but we can all understand one another".
       I.e. within the first village and also between the first and
       second, there are minor variations that are either unobserved
       or considered insignificant, while there is a noticeable jump
       in the third that causes people to say that speech is
       different, even though it's still understood. So, there are
       noticeable differences in the way my wife and I speak English,
       but we still understand one another 99.9% of the time. There
       are even greater difference between my Texan neighbor and me,
       but we still understand each other. Then there are the really
       big jumps in variation, like that between Paris and Rome.

       As long as people still understand one another, the different
       forms of speech would be considered dialects. (Again, I'm
       talking in terms of pure linguistics; armies are irrelevant
       here, but become a factor when we shift to sociolinguistics.)
       The problem is, there are degrees of understanding. My wife and
       I understand each other 99.9% of the time; my Scottish
       colleague (who has also been living in Dallas for a few years
       now) and I understand each other 98% of the time. If I were to
       speak with his Glaswegian parents, we'd probably understand
       each other 96% of the time. If I were to speak to an Auzzie,
       depending on the topic, I might only understand 90% depending
       on the choice of vocabulary they're using. (The level to which
       two parties understand each other are not necessarily equal, by
       the way; they might understand more or less of my speech than I
       do of theirs.) If I spoke with someone from Inverness, I might
       only understand 60% at first, but as they adjusted their speech
       to avoid certain lexical items and as I adjusted to the
       different phonology, I might be able to understand 95%, but I'd
       be having to work hard. Are these all merely dialectal

       As has been mentioned, there can be many areas of variation:
       syntax, morphology, phonology, lexicon. It doesn't necessarily
       take grammatical differences to signify a language distinction
       rather than a dialect distinction, though. There can be a lot
       of lexical and phonological differences that merit saying that
       there is a language distinction. For example, my Eastern
       Canadian speech is probably different enough from Inverness
       speech that there is potential justification to say that these
       are different languages. The criterion being applied is that of
       intelligibility, and we simply have to make an arbitrary
       decision about what level of intelligibility to use as the
       cutoff. In this particular example, though, not many will
       actually say that there is a language distinction because in
       practice the Scot is clever enough to understand my speech well
       enough to get along, and is clever enough that they also master
       other varieties of English and can accommodate their lexicon to
       something I can understand much better. I still struggle with
       the accent, by with my counterparts help, I can get by. In
       other words, there are other complicating factors that affect
       our decision. And this is where sociolinguistics becomes

       I won't get into a long discussion of that topic. I'll
       summarize by saying that the primary (socio)linguistic
       criterion to be applied in saying that there is language
       distinction is that of intelligibility, but there are a lot of
       other factors that affect whether or not people recognise two
       varieties of speech as being distinct languages.


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