More Tireseome Stuff About Languages Versus Dialects

A commenter, who speaks Chinese and English and who apparently insists that all Chinese can understand each other notes:

I am a native English speaker who grew up in America, and a lot of varieties of English must be classified as separate languages by your standards. If you can understand 90% of Texan, a lot of others can’t.

And tongues that require slow, repetitive speech into the ears of the average American in order to achieve 90% understanding, if that’s even possible, are Jamaican English, Scottish English, Irish English, Australian English, New Zealand English, the Cockney dialect of London, and I’m sure a whole bunch of others.

I would say that a lot of dialects are actually entities that are in-between language and accent/dialect. To this goes the relationship between Jamaican English and Californian English, for example, as well as SW Mandarin and NE Mandarin, and Portuguese as it relates to Castilian and Italian.

The whole notion of comparing the extremely divergent Chinese and German dialects to the dialects of English is utterly insane. As the Chinese and Germans say, we don’t have dialects in the US, we have accents. People from these places are amazed at how Americans sound so much alike.
Commenter Lafayette Sennacherib has also noted that the dialects of Scots and even the rest of the UK are dramatically more divergent that what is found in the US. LS says that everyone in the US seems to sound the same, whereas in Scotland, you go 10-20 miles down the road, and you seem to encounter a whole new language. This is a common perception with the speakers in the gigantic dialect chains that stretch across Germany, China and other places.
There is a group of speakers, typically extreme nationalists, who tend to insist that divergent dialects are not separate languages, but that they are only “dialects.” They usually add that “everyone can understand everyone.” There is also a typical and profoundly tiresome analogy that is constantly made comparing the extremely divergent Chinese, German, Italian and British dialects to New England, Midwest, Southern, New York, Texan and Californian dialects of US English.
This is truly ridiculous. The dialects of US English are extremely close compared to the wildly diverse dialects of Chinese, German, Italian and even Scotland. I would even hare to add British English.
One thing that we need to note is that with the Chinese, Italian and German dialects, there are often profound differences in syntax, morphology and what we call grammar. German dialects have incredible differences in vocabulary, and in many cases, the majority or possibly near all of the vocabulary is replaced from dialect to dialect.
This is a strong clue that we are dealing with true dialects (often really separate languages) and not just “accents”. With accents, only the phonology, intonation and stress differs. Grammar and vocabulary is generally preserved. In Chinese dialects, not only are the phones and stress patterns different in addition to all the rest, but the all-important tones differ too, often wildly.
It’s true that there are a few dialects in the US that are hard to hear. But Americans are understood all across the US by almost all other Americans. No American has problems with Texan, Midwest, New England, broad New York or Californian dialects – I have never met one in my life. The very idea is absurd and bizarre.
I live in California in a major tourist spot. We get people from all over the world here, and from all over the US. I have never in my entire life met one single American native speaker of US English who I had a hard time understanding in face to face speech. I never had to ask one American to slow down, repeat stuff, or whatever. It doesn’t happen!
There are some odd cases. A guy from Queens came out to town for a while recently and no one could understand his strong Queens accent. And he could not adjust it either, which is a strong clue that we are dealing with a language and not a dialect. After 3 months or so, he learned to talk like we Californians do and everyone understood him.
In the intervening 3 months, almost no one was yet able to comprehend his dialect, even those who were hearing it almost every day. This is another clue we are dealing with a language and not a dialect. People can’t figure it out after months of exposure.
It’s true that I can’t understand some Blacks speaking hardcore AAVE or Black English. There is a big movement to have this declared a separate language, and I would support that. I would also support making the very strong New York accent (“Queens” to us) a separate language, but it seems to be dying out anyway.
Almost everyone else we Americans can understand.
Louisiana Cajun English is very weird and maybe deserves separate status. Southern US English accents are generally intelligible if difficult; the Southern tourists you actually meet in the West are completely understandable. Appalachian English is kind of hard too, but the ones we meet out here in real life are fine.
Oklahoma English is kind of strange. I heard people speaking hardcore Oklahoman at a doctor’s office recently and for a minute, I thought it was a foreign language like Russian. After a minute, I figured out it was Oklahoman and then I understood it all. One minute incomprehension does not a language make.
I understand that a recent documentary on US TV showing poor older Blacks from the Mississippi Delta needed English subtitles in order to be understandable.
We Americans can understand almost all Canadian English. However, a friend of mine has heard “Newfoundland fisherman’s dialect”, which was a dialect of Newfoundland Canadian English spoken by a fisherman on the coast of Newfoundland. She said she heard a few minutes of it and could not understand even a single word.
I’m a strong supporter of making some of the British accents separate languages.
We can start with Geordie, Northumbrian and Scouse (Liverpool), the most outrageous of them all, and move on from there. Carlisle Cumbrian is also very strange and is probably hard to understand.
One native English speaker spent five years living in Liverpool and still could not understand Scouse, especially when spoken by women. Northumbrian is not even intelligible to speakers from southern England. Geordie is unintelligible to anyone outside of the UK. Geordie and Northumbrian are close to the Lallands dialect of the Scots language. There are quite a few folks advocating for Geordie to be called a separate language.
It is important to recognize that we have lots of Brits coming here to the US to visit this tourist trap near me and lots of them living here too. They come from all over the UK on vacation and never once have I met one that I had a hard time understanding.
The really hardcore British English accents must be poor people, rural people, or marginal to working class people who don’t travel much. Once you have the money to get on a plane and come to the US, your British English is probably intelligible to all of us.
New Zealand English and Australian English is intelligible here in the US. These people come here a lot and we can understand them just fine. Whether there are hardcore accents that we can’t hear, I don’t know, but the visitors are no problem.
Irish English (Hiberno-English) is kind of a tough one. I can understand Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, and that’s about as hardcore as it gets.
Scots is already a separate language. Glaswegian often cannot be understood in Glasgow itself by those who were not brought up speaking it.
I’m an advocate of making Scottish English a separate language too. Scottish English is not even intelligible in Southern England; it is not understood even in the south of England without quite a bit of adjustment. This is without any Scots mixture. Scots cannot be understood at all down there.
So why don’t we create new languages out of (hardcore) New York dialect, Newfoundland fisherman’s dialect, AAVE, Geordie, Scottish English, Northumbrian and Scouse?
Probably politics. Much of the English-speaking world has gone insane with outrage after we linguists decided Scots was a separate language.
Can you imagine the outcry from your average Moronican, the outraged editorials from the nattering nabobs, the flood of insults from the boobeoisie directed at us linguists, and probably calls from Boobus Americanus to cut off our funding if we call hardcore New York dialect and/or AAVE a separate language? Who wants to receive that abuse?
Jamaican English is a creole and it’s already recognized as a separate language, as are all of the other Caribbean creoles.
Portuguese and Spanish have 50-60% intelligibility. That’s clearly a separate language. Spanish and Italian are probably even worse – around 30% intelligibility.
Intelligibility testing with SW Mandarin and the rest of Mandarin would be interesting. I bet intelligibility comes out very low, maybe as low as 20%.
As SIL is clear that Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Scots and Jamaican Creole are all separate languages, the argument that they are “just dialects” holds no scientific merit. SIL is the last word on the subject from Linguistic Science (yes, we are scientists) as they give out ISO codes, and the debate ends with them.

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7 thoughts on “More Tireseome Stuff About Languages Versus Dialects”

  1. Dear Robert
    Since I can’t pick any faults in what you said, I’ll pick on your grammar. You wrote “Most everyone else we Americans can understand.” That should have been “Almost everyone else…”. “Most everyone” is a cross of “most people” and “almost everybody”. It is like saying ” revert back” or “repeat again” which are respetively crosses of “revert” and “go back” and of “repeat” and “say again”.
    Regards. James

  2. Looks all right to me. So Scotland has three languages to itself: Scots, Scottish English, and Scottish Gaelic.

  3. The only time I’ve really had trouble understanding other Americans was talking to old people in the Missouri Ozarks in the 80s. And the people who talked like that are probably dead by now.

  4. Thx RPS, that’s really interesting. I heard some poor people from Deep Appalachia on the radio the other day talking about mountain top removal coal mining. I kept turning up the sound but I still couldn’t really get all of it. I wonder if it would be different in person.

  5. You forgot Yam Yam.
    Geordie takes a few seconds for me to process, but it comes out pretty well. I can understand David Tennant Scottish English, but drunk Glaswegian? Definitely Scots.
    Ah can undahstand Appalachian English, but ah groo up in de South.

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