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.
—Max Weinreich

With the emergence of the ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism, according to which a state must have only one official language, the new nation-states began to classify forms of speech within their borders more or less closely related to the official language as being merely "dialects" of it, even when these dialects may have formerly been considered separate languages.[2][3] Such classifications may also play a part in territorial bickering, as a nation-state may claim dialects not only inside but outside of its own borders as "actually" being dialects of its official language. This is the case, for instance, with many Bulgarians' insistence that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect; this is not merely a linguistic claim, but also a political (irredentist) one, in that its purpose is to provide a justification for Macedonia being incorporated into the Bulgarian state.[4][note 1] Since, of course, the vernaculars in dialect continua form a gradient and do not have clearly defined boundaries, arguments such as those proferred by Bulgarians and Macedonians are generally political, and have more to do with issues of identity than any actual objective linguistic criteria. While some dialect continua, such as the South Slavic continuum in the Balkans, have become politically fragmented into many "languages",[6] 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".[7][8] 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.[9]

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[10], such as in the vergonhaWikipedia 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]

  • Chambers, J.K., and Trudgill, Peter. Dialectology, 2000. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • 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.
  • Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society, 2000. Penguin Books.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Bulgarian nationalists will often claim that (Standard) Macedonian is an artificial mixture of various dialects that was created in the 20th century and therefore not a real language. Of course, by the same logic, Bulgarian is not a real language either, since Standard Bulgarian is itself an artificial mix of dialects that was created in the 19th century.[5]


  1. The Power of Babel, Dialects Are All There Is.
  2. "The Silesian Language in the Early 21st Century: A Speech Community on the Rollercoaster of Politics", Tomasz Kamusella, pages 12-14.
  3. Introduction to Sociolinguistics, Peter Trudgill, page 144.
  4. Dialectology, J.K. Chambers and Peter Trudgill, page 7.
  5. A Concise Bulgarian Grammar, page 5.
  6. 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
  7. The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe, Tomasz Kamusella, pages 27, 33.
  8. Creating Languages in Central Europe During the Last Millennium, Tomasz Kamusella, page 14.
  9. Victor Friedman, "Macedonian Language and Nationalism During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries", page 160.
  10. Nation-States vis-a-vis Ethnocultural Minorities: Oppression and Assimiliation, Dimostenis Yağcıoğlu.