I know pretty much what constitutes a dialect for native speakers of a language, but I wonder if countries that don't speak it as a primary language, but have a large segment of the population that is required to speak it for one reason or another — can it be said of such countries that they speak a dialect of English? Swiss English, for example?

How about Indian English? Even though English is pretty much universal in India, it is not the primary language that children grow up speaking. Indian speakers of English seem to use constructions they get from their true native language — saying "today morning" for "this morning," for example. Would Indian English be a dialect of English, or a series of dialects? Or would it [they] be something else?

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    Indian English is certainly a variety (where that is a non-technical term for a clear subset of the main idea). If a dialect is a variety that you must be an L0 speaker of, then I don't know (I wouldn't be surprised if in households with parents speaking different languages, the children might have English as their first language and in an Indian English accent. Of course, define 'dialect' and then the answer should come easier.
    – Mitch
    Aug 7, 2012 at 16:43
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    I think both Mitch and legatrix have a big point here: if we had a definitive, black and white definition of "dialect," this question could be answered in one sentence without justification; unfortunately, we don't. Aug 7, 2012 at 17:27
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    Indian English also introduces novel verb forms such as "I am knowing what you are saying". I'd also like to include Hong Kong English as comparable to Indian English. Again, like everyone else has been saying: this question is impossible to answer without a clear definition of "dialect". Personally, I'd say "yes" but often these distinctions have political motivations (such as how Cantonese is merely a "dialect" of Chinese despite major differences and a mutual unintelligibly with Mandarin, another Chinese "dialect")
    – acattle
    Aug 7, 2012 at 17:55
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    I'm pretty sure that for many Indian people, English is in fact their primary language growing up. I'd like to see this confirmed or otherwise though. Aug 8, 2012 at 14:17
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    I think about this a lot lately, having been drifting around various bits of Europe (geographically and/or culturally) for over a year now. Is "EuroEnglish" a dialect? I'm starting to think it really is, with lots of subdialects. "A camping" (campground) is pretty universal as is "autostop" (hitchhiking), but lots of terms and construction only occur in one country or group of countries associated by either proximity or national language. Aug 8, 2012 at 14:20

2 Answers 2


It's certainly possible to classify Indian English as a dialect of English. I feel that you would be more likely to see 'Indian English' used as a label than 'Swiss English'. This suggests that social and cultural factors play a large role in determining the answer to your question, making it irrelevant for explanatory linguistics. (I hate to sound dismissive in such a Chomskyan fashion, apologies!)

Mitch tacitly hit the nail on the head with his final sentence. Questions of labelling (and to some extent definition - think of the largely fruitless, not to mention ongoing, 'what is a word' question) are subject to endless debate and therefore not especially helpful for actual discovery or explanation.

Examining the actual use of English in India, on the other hand, might provide fascinating insights, as with the substrate influence you mention. I personally feel it is a pity that so many linguistics papers include lengthy preambles relating to definitions of words like 'dialect', 'bilingualism', etc. At most, they need a sentence or two directing the reader to previous literature on the topic.

  • Hawaiian Pidgin has constantly had people try to classify it as a dialect of English when it was not based on English from the start. It was a mix of various languages of the workers, few of which spoke English at all. About the only people who spoke English were the bosses. It has since been HEAVILY influenced by English after becoming a state, but it was developed into a proper creole before that. People can still define it as a dialect, even when it was not developed from English, that is their decision, as long as they can back it up when needed.
    – BillyNair
    Aug 10, 2012 at 19:03

I think the standard definition of dialect makes this fairly clear: mutually intelligible varieties that differ in systematic ways. So 'Indian English' (if there is a single such entity and it is spoken as a complete linguistic code) is a dialect of English. I don't see why it has to be a L1 to be a dialect of English.

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