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Is that a Dialect or Language?

At CyraCom, one of our major claims is that we provide Over-the-Phone Interpretation services in over 200 languages. However, if you were to look closely at our list of languages, you might see that we have some listed that are traditionally classified as dialects of each other, such as Cantonese and Mandarin.

What constitutes a language is hotly contested, even amongst linguists, so let’s check out what they mean.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of a language is “The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.” And the definition of a dialect is this: “A particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”

The Oxford Dictionary keeps these definitions decidedly vague because even sociolinguists can’t decide on an exact difference between the two. One could argue that if two speakers have mutual intelligibility, i.e., they can understand each other, then the tongues that they speak are actually dialects, not languages.

However, Danish and Norwegian speakers have pretty close mutual intelligibility, but very few people would dare to argue too strongly that Danish and Norwegian are dialects of each other. The Economist explains why: One of the criteria for deciding the difference between languages and dialects is “social and political: in this view, ‘languages’ are typically prestigious, official and written, whereas ‘dialects’ are mostly spoken, unofficial and looked down upon.”

To suggest that Danish is just a dialect of Norwegian could be considered offensive to the Danes because it would take away from the Danes’ cultural identity.

In truth, the difference is actually more of a point of view than hard science or clearly defined categories. The sociolinguist and Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich said, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This is the reason why Cantonese and Mandarin are considered dialects of each other by the Chinese government even though they are not mutually intelligible: China considers itself one country made of Chinese citizens.

So even though there are some in our list that could technically be defined as a dialect over a language, we have kept them on as necessary languages for cultural reasons, and because they may not have universal mutual intelligibility across all dialects.

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