Sociolinguistics and the Language – Dialect Question

My linguistic projects, whereby I split languages like Chinese and German into over 100 different sublanguages, are starting to make some people mad. However, I also have some support from top Germanists and Sinologists.
For German, I am now at 173 languages, and it’s a little embarrassing to have come up with such a large number. But I wanted to split off many more, and only stopped because I lacked a good scientific basis for doing so.
For instance, Ripaurianists regularly speak of “the 150-400 Ripaurian languages.” 125 of the Ripaurian languages are so different that they actually have had dictionaries made for them. I only split off 5 Ripaurian languages. The way I see it is that I am being very conservative instead of very liberal in splitting.
For Chinese, I now have some Chinese informants. If I used them as deeply as I would like to, I would have way more than 343 Chinese languages.
Here is a Cantonese informant:
Me: Is it true that there are many dialects of Cantonese?
Cantonese speaker (CS): Yes, very, very many.
Me: How many?
CS (Shaking his head hopelessly): Thousands.
Me: Thousands? Are you sure? You sure it’s not hundreds?
CS (Shaking his head hopelessly): Nope. Thousands. It must be.
Me: Can they understand each other?
CS (Shaking his head hopelessly): Nope.
Me: Not really?
CS (shakes his head).
Me: How do they communicate?
CS: Mandarin, or Standard Cantonese.
I have only split off 15 Cantonese languages, but I wonder about what this guy said.
In many cases in Europe, you find that speakers of separate dialects find the differences so great that they will simply switch to a large common language such as French or Spanish to get their points across. At the same time, they often continue to insist that they are speaking dialects and not languages. They also say that they can understand each other, but it’s hard and a lot of work, and there are misunderstandings.
This usually means something like 85-90% intelligibility in the real world, right on the border of a language and a dialect.
Speakers of these lects often make comparisons to the US. The differences between Bavarian and German, or Sicilian and Italian, are no greater than between a Texas, Boston, California, Midwest, Southern and New York accents.
The problem is that the comparison is not valid. The differences between most US dialects are miniscule compared to even fairly close European dialects. In the US, dialects generally differ only on phonology. In Europe, they differ on phonology, morphology, syntax and especially vocabulary. The “dialects” of Swiss German almost completely replace the vocabulary of their fellow “dialect”, Standard German.
There is almost no parallel in the US. Can you think of a situation in the US where you tried to speak to another native US English speaker, but his dialect was so strange and incomprehensible that it would make more sense to switch another common language, say German, French, Italian or Spanish? It’s unthinkable.
The sociolinguists also insist that the language or dialect question is strictly political and outside of linguistic science, as there is no scientific way to determine what is a language and what is a dialect. I think this meme needs to be explicitly taken on. Do they really mean that we may as well say that Mandarin and English are dialects of one language and not separate languages? This seems to be what they are saying, and if so, we really need to take this irrationality head on.
Look at the “socio” in front of sociolinguistics. Look familiar? This subfield has long been the hang out of the Politically Correct Brigade afflicted with extreme physics envy and lack of scientific rigor. This is one place where we linguists have let the mushy headed soft science of the sociolinguists get the best of us.
Intelligibility testing, despite the obfuscations of the sociolinguists, at least is solid science. Check out this state of the art paper (download on this blog here) on intelligibility testing if you disagree.
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4 thoughts on “Sociolinguistics and the Language – Dialect Question”

  1. I once read an interview with that illustrious polyglot Ken Hale in which he pointed out (don’t know if he came out with it or was quoting someone else) that “a language is a dialect with an army”. Ken furthermore pointed out that many so called Italian dialects had less in common than the Skandinavian languages.
    I once posed the question: “Is Afrikaans a dialect of Dutch, or a language in its own right?” to a linguist friend. His reply: “South Africa not only has an army, it also has a navy”
    Whilst I agree that intelligibility testing is a useful tool for scientific validation, I think it is similar to the debate on whether Pluto is a planet or not. It may not be a planet, but it is a sizeable chunk of rock none the less.
    Us amateur sociolinguists aren’t all that fussed. Nonetheless I get offended when Australians (including Indigenous Australians) insist on calling Aboriginal languages ‘dialects’ and intelligibility tests could be a useful tool in debunking such widely held perceptions.

  2. That quote is actually attributed to someone else, a famous Jewish linguist. No doubt a lot of those Australian dialects are full languages. I am quite certain that Afrikaans is a separate language from Dutch. Intelligibility is only about 65% between Afrikaans and Dutch.

  3. Thank you Robert.
    Dutch is my mother tongue. I’ve noticed (not measured) that it is much more difficult for me to understand an Afrikaans speaker, than for an Afrikaner to understand my Dutch.
    Similarly with Spanish (my 2nd.language) and Portuguese.
    I recall having read that this is a result of the differing evolution of both languages (one being derived from the other?).
    Briefly: What do intelligibility tests reveal about this (perceived?) disparity.
    Also just quickly, what range of intelligibility defines a language.

    1. To me, >90% defines a language and <90% defines a dialect, but that's just my opinion. It is also the opinion of Ethnologue, more or less that is.
      For intelligibility tests looking at disparity, we take the difference and average them. Portuguese speakers understand Spanish at 58%, and Spanish speakers understand Portuguese at 50%, so the intelligibility is 54%.
      An Afrikaans speaker told me that the intelligibility between Afrikaans and Dutch was ~65%, but I am not sure what he was referring to.

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