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  • So let’s talk about boundaries. People really like categorizing things, sorting them into

  • little boxes: chocolate or vanilla, horse or zebra, hot or mild. But not everything

  • can get nicely solved in this way – a lot of things in the world exist along a spectrum.

  • It might seem like deciding what counts as a language should be an easy question, but when it

  • comes down to it, it’s often more a matter of politics than of science. I’m Moti Lieberman,

  • and this is the Ling Space.

  • So defining what exactly language is can be quite a challenge, but one approach is to say

  • that it’s a consistent way people have to communicate with each other. If someone speaks

  • the same language as you, then you should be able to understand what theyre saying without

  • too much trouble. But even within what we’d consider the same language, there can be lots

  • of variation in how it’s used: so, between people in one place or another, or in one socioeconomic

  • class or another, or even of one gender or another. We call sub-types of the same language

  • dialects, but actually, the border that divides a language from a dialect isn’t really clear.

  • So, for example, Norwegian and Swedish are pretty unanimously thought of as

  • different languages. But speakers of these twolanguagesare totally able to understand

  • each other! Same thing with Hindi and Urdueach language is intelligible to the people

  • who speak the other one. On the other hand, you have Mandarin and Cantonese, which are

  • often thought of as twodialectsof the Chinese language. Except that the speakers

  • of one can’t understand the otherthe phonology, the vocabulary, the syntax, it’s

  • all quite different. Mandarin and Cantonese have way less in common than Norwegian

  • and Swedish.

  • So what’s going on with these pairings? Well, it turns out that whether a particular

  • variety of speech is called a ‘languageor a ‘dialectisn’t strictly speaking

  • a matter of linguistics. There’s no council of linguists that gets together and says,

  • hey, look how different this dialect is! We better break this dialect off and make it a new

  • language! No, usually, it’s determined by socio-political criteria. As Max Weinreich

  • famously said, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.

  • But keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at what a linguist might actually say about

  • classifying dialects and languages. Every dialect - every way of communicating - is

  • based on an internal grammar, stored in the brain, with a full-fledged set of rules for

  • how to structure its sounds and sentences. So in that sense, every single dialect could

  • be thought of as a separate language. But using the worddialectthat way would

  • be confusing, and it wouldn’t capture the connections between the different varieties

  • in question. So instead, linguists use the worddialectto mean closely related

  • varieties of a language, those with significant overlap in the words they use, and also in

  • their phonology, morphology, and syntax. Even if theyre different, if they have that

  • much in common they should be mutually intelligible, which is how we should define dialects.

  • Looking at it more broadly, dialects are the sum of the linguistic characteristics within

  • a given community. But there are a lot of different ways to define community. Age

  • can enter into it - most of us don’t sound like our grandparents when we talk. Or pick

  • up a book from 100 years ago, or even 50, and youll see that

  • the way that we say things has changed a lot. Many languages also have real differences

  • in the way men and women tend to speakdifferent vocabulary and pronunciation and even syntax.

  • Even the way you refer to yourself can be differentJapanese speakers might say

  • “あたし” if theyre female, but “俺” if theyre male. And a lot more factors

  • also can come into play - race, class, religion, or even what you do for a living. But for

  • now, let’s focus on one really important factor in what makes a dialect: geography.

  • You might have seen those cool maps that show how people vary in their pronunciation and

  • word choice. So, large regions of the US saycar-melwith two syllables,

  • except for a big swath of the east coast and southeast, where they saycaramel”. Or, the wordmiracle”,

  • which is pronounced the way I just said it except in unconnected areas like Houston,

  • Boston, central Georgia, and most of Utah, where they saymIracle”. You can have

  • hours of fun looking at these! But the point here is that a widespread language like English

  • (or Spanish, or French, or whatever) literally has hundreds of dialects. Linguists still

  • end up calling them dialects, because a speaker of English from, like, New Jersey can still

  • understand one from California, or even one from Newcastle, with a little bit of practice. But

  • even though theyre mutually intelligible, each dialect of English - and of every other

  • language - has its own fully developed, fully functional mental grammar. Each one is a complete

  • version of the language.

  • Now, there’s no reason why any speaker should be limited to only having one dialect.

  • In fact, most people end up trying to match whoever theyre talking

  • to, and whatever theyre talking about - either on purpose, or not. Think about how you talk

  • to your grandmother or your boss, compared to how you talk with your friends, or your tiny little cousins.

  • So even if were not bilingual, most of us are probably bi-dialectal, at least.

  • But even if you speak more than one dialect, you probably think one of them isbetter

  • than the other. People talk a lot about dialects deviating from the standard. Even

  • the termdialectis often seen as less prestigious. Some languages have a formally

  • defined standard, like French or Hindi or Arabic. The varieties that are not that standard

  • version get called dialects, and they usually come with less social prestige. Social attitudes

  • about language really come out when we start looking at dialects.

  • Language prejudice is a form of discrimination, and can sometimes act as a “shield for racism”.

  • As a society, weve rightly decided that singling someone out for the colour of their

  • skin, or for what they believe in, is wrong, but often discriminating against how

  • someone speaks feels safer. Just look at the tumultuous histories of African-American

  • Vernacular English and the Quebec variety of spoken French. Fortunately, our societies

  • have been developing a broader understanding of the linguistic richness of these dialects.

  • Unfortunately contempt and prejudice towards these non-standard varieties is still surprisingly

  • common. There are still lots of people who think of African-American Vernacular English

  • asgrammatically deficientorsloppy and lazy speech”, or that people in Quebec

  • don’t speakproper Frenchorlack grammar”. But from a linguist’s perspective,

  • this is completely super wrong.

  • Let’s look at a couple of examples from Quebec French. Now, Quebec French differs from standard

  • European French in a bunch of interesting ways: so, vocabulary, of course, but also in its

  • phonology and syntax. For example, when you get [t] or [d], and it's followed by a vowel like [i]

  • or [y] that’s pronounced high up and front in the mouth, that [t] or [d] turns

  • into either [ts] or [dz]. So let's say you want to inform your friends that T-Rex is stepping on a little

  • house. In France you could say [tireks pil syr yntitzõ]. In Quebec, though,

  • it sounds like this: [tsireks pɪl sʏr ʏn pɛtsɪt mɛzõ]. This is a process called

  • affrication, and it happens in a lot of languages! Japanese doesn’t even natively have the sound combinationsti

  • andtu”; instead, it uses the affricateschiandtsu”.

  • Or look at how Quebec French makes questions. Let’s say you want to ask about whether

  • the Devil is playing video games. In European French, you would sayEst-ce que le Diable

  • joue aux jeux video?”. But in Quebec French, the question isn’t made that way. It’s

  • made using a question marking particle that comes after the auxiliary verb. So that's like, “Le

  • Diable joue-tu aux jeux video?”. Now, that might not be okay to standard French speakers,

  • but it’s a totally legitimate grammatical option! If you look at other languages, you

  • see lots of them using question marking particles like that, like in Korean or Mandarin. And we’d never

  • say it’s wrong to do it there. From a linguist’s perspective, Quebec French is every bit as

  • complex andcorrectas any other version of the language.

  • Let’s just put it very simply: There is no scientific basis for valuing one dialect of a language over any other.

  • Just like our decisions about what qualifies as a language or as

  • a dialect, these decisions are social and political. When we think about who decided

  • what isstandard Englishorproper French”, we can see it’s those with

  • the power and prestige in society. But when we look at the variation within a language,

  • we see all dialects are valid, all of them are complex and interesting and worthy of our

  • study. To a linguist, all languages are beautiful. It’s a wonderful linguistic world out there,

  • for all the flavors of language.

  • So weve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. If you weren’t hung up on

  • linguistic prejudices, you learned that deciding what’s a language and what’s a dialect

  • is more political than linguistic; that if we gave a linguistic definition of dialects,

  • it would be different versions of a language that are comprehensible to each other; that

  • languages vary by age, class, gender, and region; that all varieties of language are

  • built on the same foundations of grammar and are all equally valid; and that to think otherwise

  • is a form of prejudice.

  • The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèlelise Prévost,

  • and it’s written by both of us. Our production assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and

  • sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. Were down in the comments

  • below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra material

  • on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding

  • your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And well see you next Wednesday. [ta 'leme

  • 'sindoma]!

So let’s talk about boundaries. People really like categorizing things, sorting them into

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Sociolinguistics and Dialects

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    Lu Monya posted on 2017/04/21
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