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I was wondering what's the difference between a form of a language and a dialect of a language?

For example, Wikipedia states that British English is a form of English and not a dialect of English.

Another page states that "Standard Singapore English" is not a dialect, but a form of English. It also states that "Singapore Colloquial English" is a form of English.

What's the difference between a form of a language and a dialect of a language?

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The technical terms used within linguistics rather than form are variety and lect – hippietrail May 12 '12 at 18:43
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Answering this question requires defining "language" and "dialect". It's easier to do this by using the non-technical word "variety".

Language: speech varieties are different languages if they are not mutually intelligible.

Dialect: speech varieties are dialects of a language if they are mutually intelligible but differ in systematic ways.

Some examples of dialects of English
Britain: Received Pronunciation (or RP), Yorkshire English, Estuary English, Scouse, Norfolk English, etc. Through various historical accidents RP came to be the most prestigious dialect. The USA: General American, North-Central, Midland, Greater New York City, etc. General American is the variety with the fewest obvious regional features, and is used especially in the media. Rick Aschmann has an excellent and detailed introduction to North American English dialectology.

The Wikipedia article that says: "British English is the form of English used in the United Kingdom. It includes all English dialects used within the United Kingdom." is simply using the non-technical term "form" to refer to the grouping of all dialects of English found in the United Kingdom.

As for the Wikipedia article on Singapore English, I can't see where it says that "'Standard Singapore English' is not a dialect, but a form of English". It does say that Singapore Standard English is very similar to standard British English (which I assume refers to RP). Singapore Colloquial English (aka Singlish) on the other hand, while based largely on English (as well as on the other languages of Singapore) is so different from English that it is not usually considered a dialect of English (ie it is not mutually intelligible with any other dialect of English) but a creole.

So in short, referring to a "form" of a language is a non-technical usage that could cover any variety, or grouping of varieties, of a language (ie dialects, idiolects, registers, genres, jargons, etc). But the term "dialect" is a technical term within linguistics.

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Btw regarding your definition of language and dialect.. Since "Hokkien" and "Chinese" are not mutually intelligible, are you saying that "Hokkien" is considered a language and not considered a dialect of Chinese? – Pacerier May 13 '12 at 13:30
No, it isn't wrong. It is using "dialect" in a less finely-grained sense than you are in this question. Your assumption that a particular set of criteria distinguishes the meanings of a set of words for all contexts in which they might be used is what is wrong. – Colin Fine May 16 '12 at 23:29
@ColinFine What do you mean by "less finely-grained"? Re your second comment, perhaps I misunderstand you, but technical terminology has to retain a core meaning across all usages or else it is of no use. – Gaston Ümlaut May 17 '12 at 6:13
@GastonÜmlaut: I don't agree. Some technical words do have one or more precise meanings, but many technical terms, particularly in a "soft" science like linguistics, are subject to endless discussion about their precise meaning, with a result that different writers end up using them in slightly different ways. This is a problem when somebody asks a general question like this, but for most purposes it's enough that the meaning is clear enough in the context in which it is used. So for some purposes it can be useful to describe "British English" as a dialect, and for other purposes not. – Colin Fine May 17 '12 at 8:43
@ColinFine I should add, my view is that the definition of "dialect" in linguistics is reasonably settled and precise; I'm not aware of there being "endless discussion about their precise meaning". The fuzziness (and there is plenty) comes from the difficulties in applying the definition to particular circumstances. – Gaston Ümlaut May 18 '12 at 3:25

Types of Language Forms:

  • Idiolect: language form of the single speaker.
  • Standard Dialect: group dialect that is supported by institutions.
  • Non-Standard Dialect: dialect that is not supported by institutions, and is non-singular. One type of non-standard dialect is a sociolect, which is a dialect associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc.

Though I might be wrong, my guess is that in the examples you provided, the author intended to mean that a dialect was standard or non-standard, and confused a language form as being a standard dialect.

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Do you mean to say that British English is a standard dialect of English? – Pacerier May 12 '12 at 18:06
@Pacerier: Yes, I do, since British English is the dialect of English used by the Government of the United Kingdom, which would mean British English is a standard dialect of English. – blunders May 12 '12 at 18:26
Btw just to confirm, you are saying that American English is also a standard dialect of English, and we have many dialects of British English, and we also have many dialects of American English? – Pacerier May 12 '12 at 18:35
I think at this point we might have to clarify that standard does not imply standardized with regard to British English, American English, etc. – hippietrail May 12 '12 at 18:45
It should also be pointed out that within British English there is another "standard" variety which would be Received Pronunciation. – Danger Fourpence May 12 '12 at 20:19

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