Dialect continuum

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Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics.
—John McWhorter[1]

A dialect continuum is a group of related dialects spoken in a contiguous area. In dialect continua, contrary to the popular notion of languages with sharply defined boundaries, the spoken vernacular changes gradually as one gets geographically further away from a given starting point, with there being no definite point at which one "language" ends and another begins.

Dialect continua and "languages"[edit]

A language is a dialect with an army and navyWikipedia's W.svg.
—Max Weinreich

Dialect continua are prone to politically motivated fragmentation into arbitrarily defined "languages" (that is, dialect groupings). These "languages" are created by nation-states in order to justify their existence, by claiming the dialects within their territory are somehow separate from the rest of the dialect continuum. As a result of the constant territorial bickering and transfer of land between states, nation states in a dialect continuum will often also claim dialects outside of their borders (generally including regions that used to be controlled by the nation state in question) as "actually" being part of their language, with each group naturally claiming the largest slice of the linguistic and territorial pie for itself. Since, of course, the vernaculars in dialect continua form a gradient and do not have clearly defined boundaries, such arguments are based on politics, and have more to do with issues of identity than any actual objective linguistic criteria. For instance, some dialect continua, such as, notably, the South Slavic continuum in the Balkans, have become politically fragmented into many "languages",[2] while others no less diverse, such as Arabic and Chinese, are considered by their speakers to consist entirely of "dialects" belonging to only a single "language".[3][4] As linguist Victor Friedman notes:

From the point of view of language as a means of communication, the vast majority of South Slavic dialects form a single continuum from northern Yugoslavia and adjacent parts of neighboring countries all the way into northern Greece and to the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria in the south and east, respectively. At any given point along this continuum speakers can understand speakers from contiguous points. As the distance between points increases, however, so do dialectal differences, albeit not at a steady rate. Isoglosses tend to cluster in some regions and fan out in others. Nonetheless, there does not exist a single location where one can draw a line between mutually unintelligible dialects. The definition of “language” under such circumstances is made on the basis of other criteria, e. g. ethnic or religious self-identification, geographical or political boundaries selected for extra-linguistic reasons as definitive, etc.[5]

Often nation-states, in their attempt to create a linguistically homogeneous population, pursue policies to stamp out dialect continua and unrelated languages and replace them with a standard language[6] (an artificially created norm based on spoken dialects), such as in the vergonhaWikipedia's W.svg in France, in which the French government tried to eradicate Occitan and other forms of Romance languages on the basis that they are merely incorrect forms of French.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kamusella, Tomasz, Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium, 2015. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot.
  • Kamusella, Tomasz, The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe, 2009. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Power of Babel, Dialects Are All There Is.
  2. Language in Central Europe's History and Politics: From the Rule of Cuius Regio, Eius Religio to the National Principle of cuius regio, eius lingua?, Tomasz Kamusella, page 50
  3. The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe, Tomasz Kamusella, pages 27, 33.
  4. Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium, Tomasz Kamusella, page 14.
  5. Victor Friedman, "Macedonian Language and Nationalism During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries", page 160.
  6. Nation-States vis-a-vis Ethnocultural Minorities: Oppression and Assimiliation, Dimostenis Yağcıoğlu.