Take the 2-minute tour ×
Linguistics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional linguists and others with an interest in linguistic research and theory. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Are there any cases where two varieties of the same language are treated as separate languages, or where two distinct languages are treated as varieties of the same language. If so, why?

share|improve this question
Those two words, dialect and language, have technical and informal meanings, and also can be fixed in use culturally. Dutch, a language, is in an understandability continuum with Low German (Plattdeutsch), High German (standard German), and Bavarian/Austrian (that is, neighboring communities can understand each other but further along they can't), so Dutch could be considered a dialect of German. Chinese is considered a single language informally, but people who speak what is sometimes called the Cantonese dialect, can't understand Mandarin (and so is really a separate language). –  Mitch Oct 14 '11 at 16:30
I was born in Serbia and I living abroad for 15 years. Totaly agree with @Dan Velleman, its a political question as well as linguistic. As for the Google translate (@hippietrail), I consider its not explained well enough from Googles´ side. The problem is that Serbian language has 2 alphabets - Cyrillic and Latin macthing 100% all letters between them. They have equal status being both oficial alphabets, yet most places on internet would show only one option when you choose Serbian and that is Cyrillic. The closest to use in latin alphabet is Croatian, matching 99% of words with small discrepa –  user1817726 Jan 25 at 0:27

2 Answers 2

up vote 18 down vote accepted

You're using the words "language" and "dialect" as if they were mutually exclusive: as if some people spoke "languages" and other people spoke mere "dialects." But that's not how linguists use those words. Think of them instead as referring to two different levels on the same hierarchy.

  • Everyone speaks a language.
  • Everyone speaks a dialect (or "variety"*) of whatever language they speak.

For instance, I speak the Midland US dialect of English. Asking whether I speak a dialect or a language is like asking whether I was born in Michigan or in the United States. The answer is "both," because one includes the other. Saying "I don't speak a dialect, I just speak proper English" would be like saying "I don't live in a state or territory or in Washington D.C., I just live in the US," which is pretty much nonsense.

So maybe it makes sense to rephrase your questions, like so:

  1. Are there any cases where two varieties of the same language are treated as separate languages for political reasons?
  2. Are there any cases where two distinct languages are treated as varieties of the same language for political reasons?

In both cases the answer is "yes." For #1, look at Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Most linguists consider these all to be local varieties of the Serbo-Croatian language, but native speakers will insist that they're different languages. For #2, look at the language situation in China, where for instance Mandarin and Cantonese are treated as varieties of the same language even though they're distinct languages by any non-political standard.

*Most linguists wouldn't consider "dialect" to be derogatory. But in non-technical talk, it is often used derogatorily — as in "That's not a real language, it's just a dialect." So I like to use the word "variety" just because it makes it clear that I don't have any derogatory meaning in mind. That's just a personal preference, though, and as far as I'm concerned if you want to say "dialect" that's fine too.

share|improve this answer
+1 @Dan Velleman: Thanks, I'll make an edits to the question. FYI, the source of the question was this article first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hooked on Ebonics -- which is a linguist response to the how at the end of 1996, the Oakland, California school board inspired nationwide debate with its endorsement of Ebonics as a separate language. –  blunders Oct 14 '11 at 16:48
Yeah, that's an interesting case. There are a lot of grammatical subtleties to African American Vernacular English, a.k.a. Ebonics, that other English varieties don't share (e.g. the distinction between he working and he be working). And acknowledging them might have been a good thing. But calling AAVE a separate language was clearly incorrect from a linguistic point of view, and, yeah, probably politically motivated. –  Dan Velleman Oct 14 '11 at 17:37
Also, while I'd agree that most linguists wouldn't consider an existing "dialect" to be derogatory as a reference, in my opinion they would consider a language becoming a dialect a downgrade in the "linguistic value" of that variety, or an upgrade if the dialect became a language. –  blunders Oct 14 '11 at 18:05
@blunders, it seems to me that your opinion is founded on a misunderstanding of "language" and "dialect". A language can't become a dialect, nor can a dialect become a language. Any particular variety isn't a "language" or a "dialect" in isolation, but only compared to other varieties. What I speak is a different dialect compared to British English, but it's a different language compared to Dutch. There's no way to classify it as a language or a dialect in isolation. –  Joe Oct 14 '11 at 19:08
I've just been travelling in the Balkans and people seemed happy to talk about Serbocroatian in Serbia and when I remarked that Google Translate only did Croatian because Serbian had to be Cyrillic, they insisted it's the same. This surprised me a bit too. Now the situation between Bulgarian and Macedonian is a different matter. Highly charged and contentious! –  hippietrail Oct 25 '11 at 22:51

"A language is a dialect with an army and navy" (a famous saying)

share|improve this answer
Would you like to elaborate your point? –  Louis Rhys Oct 25 '11 at 18:10
Politics (and power) trump linguistics when it comes to some things. –  hippietrail Oct 25 '11 at 22:52

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.