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Linguistic discrimination

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It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
—George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Pygmalion (1916)

Linguistic discrimination (also known as linguicism) is the act of discriminating against someone because of their language, dialect or accent. This can manifest itself in a belief that people who speak a certain way are less intelligent or otherwise inferior to speakers of a preferred or standardised language.

The social dimension of language[edit]

Languages of all societies exist in a variety of forms characterized by social prestige and formality. Even in relatively unstratified or small linguistic communities, prestigious and colloquial varieties exist. There is often a separate ritual speech, used in religious or ceremonial gatherings, marking them as a social space apart from ordinary conversation. All languages have some form of poetry or similar linguistic art; this often uses separate vocabulary and grammar. Some languages have gendered forms, different vocabularies or pronunciations for male and female speakers; others express social rank in separate pronouns or lexicons.[1] The study of the social dimension of language is called sociolinguistics.[2]


In more stratified societies, several tiers on this continuum of linguistic status exist. One common terminology, originally deriving from creole language studies, calls the high prestige registers[3] on the top of this scale acrolect, the bottom basilect, with a spread of mesolects occupying the rungs in between.[4] In a literate society an acrolect may also become a standard language[5], defined by codification in dictionaries, prescriptive[6] grammars, and a recognized canon of texts. A standard language may be further canonized as an official language, one that is given formal recognition by law.[7] Indeed, social prestige[8], the self-descriptions of its community of speakers, and the support of a government are about the only meaningful distinction between a language and a "dialect", a distinction that is otherwise too elusive to be used in current linguistics.[note 1][note 2] Nationalist or separatist movements often seek to ordain that the local variant spoken by the groups they claim to represent is a separate language rather than a dialect.

Where this continuum of high and low status variants exist, many speakers will employ a phenomenon called code-switching, modulating their usage towards the high status or low status registers based on the people they speak with. Using the high status varieties where the low is called for is as great a gaffe as the opposite error.[9] The fact that language exists on a continuum of prestigious versus colloquial forms means that, while non-standard or colloquial forms of a language may be described "broadly", by noting how the non-standard forms differ from the standard, this does mean that a speaker of any given rank will use that form. Rather, all speakers will use a varying mixture of standard and non-standard forms.[10]

Language represents other aspects of social identity besides status, class, or rank. Various communities within a larger society may acquire a jargon, argot, or other in-group language. These may be considered generally innocuous by the society at large, such as the lexicon of wine fanciers. But these in-group languages may be perceived as threatening, such as thieves' cant, the specialized vocabulary of a cult, or complicated para-languages like Russian profanity. Cultural minorities may fashion cryptolects or cants: secret languages like Polari or Para-Romani, semi-secret lexicons that can be dropped into the syntax of the majority language. These argots can be used to deliberately exclude outsiders; as such they are inherently spooky and carry a potential to freak out surrounding communities. Local accents and subcultural vocabularies can acquire covert prestige, prestige within that speech community, as opposed to the overt prestige of the high status standard.[11]


Most languages are spoken in a variety of different accents[12], variations in sound realization, prosody, and lexicon. These accents potentially encode information about the speaker's original native language, and regional, social class, ethnic, subcultural, or caste identities. Members of a language community will be able to make many superficially valid inferences about a speaker from their accent, a skill that can be honed with practice.[note 3]

These kinds of paralinguistic information are constantly present in a speaker's language. As social value judgments, the judgments that can be extracted from accent are immediately and involuntarily made by the listener.[13] In other words, you don't have any choice; you will always be aware of any social fact that a speaker's accent and register communicate.

Linguistic prescription and discrimination[edit]

"Ain't I a woman?" — Sojourner Truth, 1851.

**Aren't I a woman? falls flat, and **Am I not a woman? is just wrong.

All human languages, therefore, have a social and even a political dimension. Together with its notional content, human speech continually transmits information about the speaker's class, ethnicity, region, and possibly other information about a speaker's social identity and status. Where class, ethnic, or regional conflict exists, language can serve as a badge that divides between Us and Them.

Prescriptive traditions[6] in a language arise partly as an attempt to defuse these sources of conflict by promoting a particular variety as a standard, meant to be free from regional or ethnic cues, and current, accepted, and understood everywhere. The prescriptive tradition, as noted above, will frequently if not always be chosen from upper-class speech, and in a national language is often but not always based on the speech of a capital city.[note 4] The choices made by the prescriptive tradition, though, may cause resentment if your ethnic group's speech habits are not the ones chosen for the standard.

Some note, as an argument against these prescriptive traditions, that the field of linguistics has for some time held that there is no such thing as an objectively "correct" way of speaking. Every language, except perhaps in the cases of those endangered ones with too few speakers, is a group of dialects, none of which are inherently superior to or "more correct" than any other.[10] A standard language is simply a dialect that has had the prestige[8] — read, political and economic power — to impose itself on all the other speakers of the language.

This is to misunderstand both what linguists do, and the actual source of sociolinguistic prestige. Linguists study the phonological, syntactical, historical, and social aspects of human languages. Their task is to describe and explain them as they are, not to tell them what they ought to be. It's not a linguist's job to correct your grammar. It might be a teacher, an editor, or an orator's job to do just that. Language communities decide which varieties of language enjoy the highest prestige and social status. Linguists only record that fact.

The supposed objectivity of non-standard inferiority[edit]

The idea that no form of speech can be objectively correct does not mean that languages have no rules, and that one can string words in whatever way one chooses. Languages do have their own grammatical rules regarding what is correct and incorrect within their own systems. However, what is meant by the statement that there is no "correct" form of speaking is that no language or dialect can be in itself objectively "superior" than any other; they all have their own grammars and phonological rules.[note 5] For example, there is nothing about the Standard English word "don't" that makes it "better" than the non-standard "ain't"; they are both, after all, only combinations of sounds. A sentence like "I ain't got no time" may indeed be grammatically incorrect Standard English, but it is perfectly grammatical in many other dialects. All people learn language in the same way: by taking in the speech of those around them in childhood. From this input, every person forms an internal grammar (their "idiolectWikipedia's W.svg"), which has its own correctness conditions of what is and isn't correct in that idiolect. Different varieties can be more or less prestigious, but this is a result of sociopolitical factors and has nothing to do with "correctness." Because of this, a given linguistic feature may be both prestigious and non-prestigious depending on the context. For instance, non-rhoticity is prestigious in Received Pronunciation, but stigmatized in New York and Boston accents. Prestige may also change over time. The modern Standard French pronunciation of the word moi is /mwa/, and the regional pronunciation /mwe/ is stigmatized, but before the French Revolution, the situation was exactly the opposite; /mwe/ was the prestigious pronunciation used by the aristocrats,[14] and /mwa/ was used by the lower classes. As linguist Peter Trudgill notes:[15]

To read the BBC news in a 'broad' London, Birmingham or Glasgow accent Language and Contact would provoke laughter, anger and ridicule. The same kind of reaction could be expected to the introduction of Jamaican Creole into unexpected contexts. It could be done, however, if a political decision were made to do so: English would have sounded ridiculous in a law-court in the Middle Ages, and would have been considered out of place in a scientific treatise at a much later date than that; a piece of literature in Finnish would have been considered most unusual until comparatively recently; the use of Macedonian as a parliamentary language would have been felt to be absurd until this century; and until very recently it would have been laughable to put a job advertise­ment in an Irish newspaper in Ulster Scots.

Obviously, if the "correctness" of linguistic features depended on objective linguistic criteria rather than social factors, such variation in social acceptability would not be possible. All dialects, including non-standard ones, are equally capable of expressing human thought. The difference between a "correct" language and a subordinate, "inferior" dialect is essentially political. Linguist John McWhorter, in his book The Power of Babel, said, "Dialects are all there is: the ‘language’ part is just politics."[16] One wouldn't say that Spanish is just the result of people failing to speak proper French; they are separate systems. Similarly, Cockney is not a corrupted form of Received PronunciationWikipedia's W.svg; rather, they both evolved in parallel, and over time Received Pronunciation happened to become the more prestigious variety.

Non-standard dialects are often criticized for being "illogical", or for being spoken by uneducated people. Both are flawed arguments.

For one thing, no language is perfectly logical. Consider the Standard English word "himself". Interpreting the word literally, one might argue that it is illogical, through prescriptivist reasoning somewhat like the following. "When one is using a reflexive pronoun, one is speaking about a self. Whose self? Well, the self of somebody: my self, or your self, or our selves. But to speak of him self is ludicrous — one would not say 'You are speaking of you self'. Clearly, the solution is to do away with this monstrosity and replace it with the vastly superior 'hisself'." Similar arguments could be made for sentences like "I am going to stay" or "I am going to think about it," yet nobody seriously argues that the phrase "going to" should only be used to refer to actual physical motion (which was, indeed, its original meaning). A common motif of prescriptivist arguments is that prescriptivists, in their quest to denigrate all forms of speech which they have decided are "incorrect", will say that some feature not only is not, but can never be correct because it is objectively wrong, when the said feature is in reality a totally uncontroversial (and "correct") part of many other standard languages. One such nonstandard feature often derided by prescriptivists is the use of double negatives. They claim it is inherently incorrect, because two negatives logically make a positive. Such people, however, fail to take into account the fact that the majority of Europe's standard languages use double negatives. The absence of double negatives in Standard English is in fact an anomaly. Another "argument" is that prepositions cannot be used to end sentences because prepositions by definition have to come before something. This is an example of the etymological fallacy; words belonging to the class in question are called prepositions because they generally occur before other words, but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. By the same "logic", the use of separable prefixes at the end of sentences in German (which is totally uncontroversial) would be "wrong" because prefixes "by definition" must be attached to the beginning of a word. Not to mention that "preposition" is a Latin loanword that entered English only in the 14th century.[17] Claiming that prepositions can only occur before other words because of the etymology of the word would be like deciding that nouns should henceforth be called "thingwords" and objecting when they are used to refer to abstract concepts rather than physical "things".

As for the second argument, the speakers of a dialect may even conceivably be all poor and uneducated, but this does not mean they are grammarless individuals who "talk wrong." If this were true, all the endangered or not-widely-spoken languages of isolated tribes or impoverished ethnic groups would be chaotic, "primitive" forms of communication with no rhyme or reason, as compared to their more "civilized" neighbors. Of course, few would take this reasoning to its logical conclusion.

In the English speaking world[edit]

Linguistic discrimination is sometimes justified by its perpetrators on the basis that a given pronunciation or dialect is "not proper", but judging a non-standard English dialect by the standards of Standard English is not realistic: they are two different things, with different pronunciations and (often) grammars. Many people who would never think to call Hiberno-English or Scottish English wrong would find it perfectly acceptable to say that Cockney and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are just "slang" or "broken" forms of English that must be eradicated. This is because the tendency to judge the value of a dialect results not from any inherent features of the dialect in question, but from a negative attitude against the group that speaks it.[18] (It is for this reason that a given linguistic feature can be non-prestigious in some contexts and prestigious in others. For instance, the non-rhoticity of Boston or New York accents is stigmatized, while that of Received Pronunciation is considered prestigious.) When someone calls someone's dialect "wrong", they are really making a value judgment about the group the dialect speaker belongs to, though the accuser may not realize this. (In the case of AAVE, the group is African-Americans; in the case of Cockney, it is working-class Londoners.) The person is used to hearing a dialect being spoken by people he does not approve of, and unconsciously transfers this dislike of "bad people" to the dialect they speak, when in reality, there is no such thing as a "bad" dialect. In other words, linguistic discrimination is often (though not always) racism,[19][20] classism, or some other form of prejudice.

For instance, a person hearing an African-American speaking AAVE to a friend may discriminate against her and consider her intellectually inferior, even if she can also speak flawless Standard English, for the mere reason that she speaks AAVE at all. Other American accents considered "inferior" include Southern Midlands and New York City English.[21] In the UK, a report found that the top 5 accents (not dialects) discriminated against in job interviews include those from Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Cockney.[22] In these cases, discrimination is not based on the individual's command of Standard English grammar and spelling, but merely on pronunciation, even if it is completely comprehensible. Among the general public, linguistic discrimination is not regarded as wrong, because the fact that dialects/accents are not incorrect and inferior forms of Standard English that should be eliminated, but separate, different ways of speaking with different grammatical or phonological rules, is not generally recognized.[23]

Linguistic discrimination in the English-speaking world does not just include different dialects and accents of the English language. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Wales, schoolchildren overheard speaking Welsh would get a piece of wood called a "Welsh Not" hung around their necks. It could be moved from pupil to pupil if they were heard speaking the language, and whoever was wearing it at the end of lessons would receive a beating.[24] Other examples include persecution of indigenous languages in the North American education system.

Talking white[edit]

Within the AAVE speech community itself, a similar but oppositional dynamic is at work. The use of standard English is condemned by some as "talking white", a perceived betrayal of the Black community by becoming assimilated to White culture. Success in education is seen as selling out.[25] This, too, is a form of linguistic prescription; AAVE forms are held to be authentically Black and therefore prestigious within that community, while a different set of forms is held in low regard.

African Americans are apparently expected to perform an intricate linguistic balancing act. U.S. Senator Harry Reid accused President Barack Obama of being a "light skin" and "token" President "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one".[26] But Rush Limbaugh has accused Obama of using "black dialect" while addressing the National Governors' Association, and moreover observed that "Obama can turn on that black dialect and turn it off."[27] Limbaugh is as usual eager to make sure we are aware that Obama is, in fact, Black. Reid and Limbaugh's accusations may be racist, but they are true: this is called code switching, as noted above, and speakers of every language and every race have some range of formal and colloquial styles to use in different social settings.[9] It apparently surprises some white Americans that President Obama possesses this basic linguistic competence, and they don't notice themselves doing the same damn thing several times a day. For example, the way you speak at a job interview or to your parents is likely to be different than the way you speak to your friends.

Politics and the English prescriptive tradition[edit]

The English prescriptive tradition has always had a strong political dimension. At the start of the twentieth century, The King's English (1906) and Modern English Usage (1926) by the Fowler brothers[28] dripped with scorn for the United States and its English. Fowler wrote that "Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated;" and his definition of "Americanisms" was broad enough to compass such standard words as "placate" and "antagonize".[29] The Fowlers went as far as to mock the "barbaric" taste of place names like "Pennsylvania" and "Minneapolis".[note 6] Americans, still under something of a cultural inferiority complex, swallowed their pride and took the Fowler's prescriptions to heart.

All hell broke loose with the 1962 publication of the third edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary. This edition deigned to acknowledge the existence of ain't and irregardless as forms that readers might encounter and that wanted explanation. Even though the dictionary still flagged them as colloquial or nonstandard, for some, including reviewer James Macdonald, the admission of these words and senses meant that the barbarians were at the gate. The controversy was aggravated because it mapped onto 1960s political rhetoric with disconcerting ease. The prescriptive tradition got to portray itself as the defender of social standards against beatniks, rock musicians, racial minorities, and pointy headed professors who sought to tear them down. In the USA, the prescriptive tradition took on a decidedly Republican cast. Nixon-era stalwarts such as William Safire and James Kilpatrick wrote prescriptive usage handbooks that took up the cudgels against "permissiveness". The end result was to floridly overstate what was at issue in these usage wars: the usages appropriate for a formal style.[30][31]

On the other hand, George Orwell's Politics and the English Language[32] is a masterpiece of the English prescriptive tradition. Orwell here judges bullshit, and finds it wanting:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from ECCLESIASTES:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Orwell's bad example seems fairly modest and unassuming at this point. And Orwell reminds us that linguistic prescription is not necessarily 'conservative' nor an arbitrary judgment of taste.[note 7]

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.


"Speak French. Be clean". Painted on the wall of a schoolhouse in southern France.

In other countries, "linguistic discrimination" of various sorts is a national policy. Standard languages are aggressively promoted as vehicles for cultural unity in some places. Some languages, including minority languages, are protected by law. In some places this is done to assuage ethnic unrest. In others, the languages are considered cultural patrimony worth preserving. Government policies to foster or discourage the use of various languages go under the rubric of language policy. It seems safe to say that the charge that such policies constitute "racism" would not be well received, and may not be understood.[33]

The endangered Irish language is given pride of place in the Republic of Ireland, despite the fact that the language itself is spoken at home only by 3% of its citizens. Irish is a compulsory school subject there, for now,[34] a fact that draws some controversy due to perceptions that the language has little practical value; requirements that lawyers pass an exam in Irish proficiency have been recently abolished. The language continues to be held as culturally important, and the government subsidizes publishing and broadcasting in the language fairly heavily. Attempts to revitalize an endangered or even revive a dead language are one particular kind of language policy. The most striking success along these lines is Israeli Hebrew, which went from a religious language of the educated at best to an everyday language including (borrowed) cursewords spoken by millions of people - including non-Jews. Other attempts have been made, with varying degrees of success, at reviving Native languages in the United States such as Hawaiian or Haida.

A comparable situation prevails in Finland, where a small Swedish speaking minority, concentrated in the Åland Islands, makes up under 6% of the country. There, too, Swedish is a resented compulsory school subject; there are other languages beside Swedish young Finns could be studying, languages that will take them further. The policy originated out of ethnic unrest in the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to being acquired by the Russian Empire, Finland was a Swedish possession for centuries and thus the speakers of Swedish were often resented as an "elite" even though there were considerable numbers of rural and poor Swedish speakers even during Swedish rule.

Interestingly, in Norway, there is no "official" standard for spoken Norwegian (there are, however, two competing standards for written Norwegian), and dialectal diversity is celebrated, so that, unlike the situation in many other countries, it is socially acceptable to use regional varieties in public contexts (such as "in the media, in university lectures, and in Parliament").[35] Not only that, Norway's Education Act specifically states that: "the teacher 'should pay due attention to the vernacular used by pupils, and that he or she should not attempt to make them abandon their home dialect.'"[36]

France and French[edit]

Other language authorities have been harsher. France strongly promotes Metropolitan or Parisian French as the standard language in all French territories. This policy began under the French revolutionary government. Based on their experience with royalist and Catholic rural insurrections in the Vendée and elsewhere, the French government held local usages in very low regard; and in 1794 the Abbé Gregoire published a manifesto calling on the revolutionary government to suppress all local dialects, given the condescending name patois. The drive to impose a standard French language was given an ideological dimension; a single common language was necessary to achieve the revolutionary ideal of equality before the law, and that the language of equality would be the French of Paris was simply assumed. The traditional French attitude is that all variant forms of Romance language spoken in France are merely ungrammatical dialects of standard French.[note 8]

In the Occitan and Provençal speaking areas of southern France, these policies became known as la vergonhaWikipedia's W.svg, "the shame"; the process of enforced conformity to Parisian French told students that they should be ashamed of their parents and their speech. The only language allowed in schools was Parisian French; the use of others was severely punished, even in the schoolyard. Other casualties of this policy include the Breton language, a Celtic language once spoken throughout Brittany, but now spoken by less than two hundred thousand mostly elderly people. Not until the 1950s did the French government acknowledge the right of languages beside French to exist, and France has not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.[37]

Then there is Canadian French (or Quebec French), which is often considered not to be "real" French, like that spoken in France, but some kind of inferior "twangy" variety. This view is clearly incorrect, for reasons explained above. Ironically, one of the features prominently associated with Quebec French (or the sub-dialect JoualWikipedia's W.svg) and considered incorrect (that of pronouncing the diphthong oi as /we/, as opposed to the Standard French /wa/ (so that the word toi ("you") is pronounced /twe/ instead of /twa/)) is actually derived from the upper-class speech of pre-revolutionary France. The now-standard form /wa/ was itself originally looked down upon:

In Late Middle French the modern lowered pronunciation wa made its appearance in vulgar speech, at first before r. This broad pronunciation, however, found no favour with the educated classes or the grammarians… and was not fully accepted until the upheaval of the Revolution has destroyed the old tradition.[38]


Prior to the 17th century, the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe were a prosperous middle-class group. However, after the 1648—1654 uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, during which tens of thousands of Jews were killed, they underwent a period of economic decline, with more Jews taking up working-class trades; Yiddish began to be associated with poverty, and as a result of this loss of prestige, it was increasingly viewed as merely a "corrupt" and incorrect form of German.[39][note 9] Yiddish is also the language that came up with the truism that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navyWikipedia's W.svg". Contrary to popular belief, Yiddish today is still alive and well and widely spoken among orthodox Jews[note 10] in both Israel and the US.

Latin America[edit]

Strong traditions of linguistic discrimination exist throughout the formerly colonized world, particularly in Latin America. However, contrary to popular belief the Catholic Church and Spain are — mostly — innocent of this. In fact missionaries and monks spread some indigenous languages as local linguas francas, which can still be seen in Paraguay which is 80% bilingual in Spanish and GuaraniWikipedia's W.svg — even those with nothing but European ancestry. A strong decline of most indigenous languages only began after the Independence of most iberoamerican states and it was mostly due to the policies of the white and/or mestizo elites as well as economic factors. To this day public schools often enforce Spanish (or Portuguese) only policies and people who speak "incorrect" Spanish (be it a dialect lacking prestige or Spanish as a second language) are discriminated against both by state and private actors. However, a broad brush would be wrong, as many countries have discovered their indigenous heritage (similar to the Irish example mentioned above) and at the very least pay lip-service to the revival of indigenous languages such as Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Aymara or Quechua (the lingua franca of the Inca Empire). Which of those revival efforts will have success remains to be seen, but the mentioned languages alone have several million speakers each.


Within 19th century Belgium Dutch was also actively oppressed; while in the constitution it was accepted as the language of Flanders, in practice Dutch was the language of the poor and French the language of the rich, as you had to speak French to learn at a university and to work at a public service. While this started to fade out in the 1890's when the right-wing Catholic Party had a wing of Flemish nationalists demanding these rights, the centrist Liberal Party actively opposed it to make sure only French was spoken there and the left-wing Labor Party was not interested and demanded a more international approach. It was only after World War 1, when Germans were popularizing the use of Dutch in the conquered territories, that Dutch was used in national public services.

During most of the 50's and 70's the then recently founded Dutch linguistic union introduced a standardized form of Dutch, called Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands (or in English: General Civilized Dutch) that was used in schools with the direct intention to purge all existing dialects in favor of a uniform homogeneous language. This stopped in the late 60's due to the burgeoning Dutch music scene making more dialect-based songs, making it less and less of a popular position until in the end the term became known as Algemeen Nederlands (or in English: General Dutch). Interestingly, the standardized form used is in itself a mixture of many spoken Dutch dialects, suggesting that it must have been known how tremendous[please explain] it was to do it.

Language secessionism[edit]

Language secessionism occurs when speakers of different dialects of one language declare their dialects to be languages in their own right. The most extreme recent case of this occurred after the Yugoslav Wars between the four main dialects of the Serbo-Croatian language (Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin). With the emergence of the sovereign states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro, these four dialects became codified as four supposedly separate languages. They are still 100% mutually intelligible — a Bosnian Muslim and a Serb can shout abuse at one another with total clarity — but their speakers, particularly the nationalists that want to keep them divided, despise one another too fiercely to share even a language.

Milder versions of this separatist tendency exist. There is controversy over the Malay-Indonesian language, with Malaysians tending to claim that Malay and Indonesian are two dialects of the same language, while Indonesians usually view Indonesian as a separate language. The result of this has been an odd linguistic call-and-response game, with Indonesians finding new ways to distinguish their language from Malaysian, and Malaysians trying to coordinate their language with Indonesian's trends.[note 11] The Soviet Union tried to promote Moldovan as a distinct language from Romanian (with which it is completely identical), even going so far as to rewrite the "language" in the Cyrillic script. This project has ended, much like the USSR itself, although the Moldovan government still officially describes its language as "Moldovan." Within Catalan, a movement in Valencia calls the Valencian dialect a separate language. This position is controversial within the Valencian community, and almost completely ignored by other Catalan speakers.

The opposite trend exists among Kurds. What is sometimes called the Kurdish language is actually a collection of languages: The largest two, Sorani and Kurmanji, differ from one another as much as English and German do, and without acquired bilingualism, a Kurd from Turkey cannot understand one from Iraq. Similar circumstances exist among the varieties of the Chinese language, which are mutually incomprehensible when spoken. However in Chinese understanding is much aided by all forms usually using exactly the same symbols to represent the different words, meaning that they are mutually comprehensible when written. The Chinese government for that matter considers all Chinese languages dialects of one standard.

Another peculiar example is a language that is considered a "dialect" of one language while sharing much more with a completely different language. The best known example of this would be Low German, which shares more similarities with Dutch than with (High-)German, yet is considered a dialect of the latter.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. As an example, all of the varieties of North Germanic spoken on the Scandinavian Peninsula form a dialect continuum and are generally mutually intelligible. The peninsula is divided into three nations, Norway, Sweden, (and Finland, whose chief language is not Germanic). "Norwegian" and "Swedish" are therefore two separate and standard languages (and because of a complicated history, Norway even has two different standards), but there is no reason why the entire territory could not share a language. Linguists do call a spread of mutually intelligible languages a "dialect continuum".
  2. Linguists often say, only half-joking, that a language is "a dialect with an army and a navy."
  3. Members of different communities that share a mutually intelligible language may lose cues from a different community. Without special instruction, speakers of American English often seem to assume that anyone with an accent from the British Isles is quite fancy; an admiration that extends to New Zealanders, South Africans, and some Australians. Scots are set aside in another category entirely; broad Scots stands at one of the limits of mutual intelligibility with American English. One of the authors of this article has heard distinctively Australian accents in the actors playing the "European hairdresser" role in women's toiletry product ads. The unscientific impression of this American editor is that British hoi polloi seem to think all Americans talk like Texans. Odds are they'd be as helpless trying to sort Chicagoans from St. Louis people as he would be separating Liverpudlians from Mancunians.
  4. General AmericanWikipedia's W.svg is an exception; standard American is based on the speech of the upper Midwest. Urban dialects in the area have diverged somewhat from this standard in recent years; but the upper Midwestern dialect fans out and is the baseline speech for the entire West Coast, including California. This version of English, broadly defined, is the one heard from California based media.
  5. Often, the question is not one of correctness, but of situational appropriateness. There is a tendency among some prescriptivists to dismiss any form of language insufficiently formal for academic writing as being incorrect. In reality, different circumstances call for different registers. For instance, while words like "ain't" or "would've" would be out of place in an academic paper, it is also true that speaking in a very formal register in everyday life where informality would be called for (e.g., "I shall endeavor to purchase the items you requested" versus "I'll try to buy what you asked for") would likely be perceived as unnatural or pretentious. Context is everything.
  6. To be sure, places like "Shitterton",[1] "Stow on the Wold", "Wroxeter", and "Grimethorpe" are their obvious superiors in taste and euphony.
  7. Though linguists Geoff Pullum and David Beaver have noted, in "Elimination of the Fittest" and "Orwell's Liar", that Orwell's essay contains several of the latter.
  8. In fact, Occitan and Provençal are sister languages of Catalan, much less closely related to Parisian French.
  9. In fact, with respect to its basic grammar and function words, Yiddish is an ordinary dialect of German, not strongly divergent from other local varieties of German. Yiddish has been extensively relexified by words borrowed from Hebrew and from various Slavic languages.
  10. Many Orthodox Jews consider using Hebrew in non-religious contexts to be blasphemous.
  11. There is a substantial difference in vocabularies (see Times Comparative Dictionary of Malay-Indonesian Synonyms: With Definitions in English by Leo Suryadinata, 1991, ISBN 9812042156), but overall the dialects are largely mutually intelligible.


  1. See generally, and e.g, Marianne Mithun, The languages of native North America. (Cambridge, 1999; ISBN 0-521-23228-7).
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Sociolinguistics.
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Linguistic register.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Acrolect.
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Standard language.
  6. 6.0 6.1 See the Wikipedia article on Linguistic prescription.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Official language.
  8. 8.0 8.1 See the Wikipedia article on Prestige (sociolinguistics).
  9. 9.0 9.1 See the Wikipedia article on code-switching.
  10. 10.0 10.1 English Accents, How Language Works, Indiana University.
  11. Johnson, Local dialects: Signalling group membership, innit, The Economist, Oct 22nd, 2013
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Accent (sociolinguistics).
  13. See, e.g., Jonathan Haidt, "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail" (2001), Psychological Review. 108, 814-834.
  14. [2]
  15. Trudgill, Peter, Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society, page 176.
  16. [3]
  17. [4]
  18. Ten (Socio-) Linguistic Axioms, Peter L Patrick, University of Essex.
  19. Challenging Linguicism: Action Strategies for Counselors and Client-Colleagues, Chen-Hayes, Stuart F.; Chen, Mei-whei; Athar, Naveeda.
  20. Linguicism and Racism in assessment practices in higher education, Ahmar Mahboob, Eszter Szenes.
  21. Language Myth # 17, Language Myths.
  22. Speaking Geordie, Caroline Cook, BBC.
  23. Speak for yourself: The problem of linguistic discrimination
  24. Welsh and 19th century education
  25. See, e.g., Nancy Solomon, Facing Identity Conflicts, Black Students Fall Behind (NPR, 2009); Richard Morin, The Price of Acting White (Washington Post, 2005).
  26. Harry Reid 'Negro' Comment: Reid Apologizes For 'No Negro Dialect' Comment, Huffington Post.
  27. Rush Limbaugh Accuses President Obama of Using the “Black Dialect, Politicus USA.
  28. See the Wikipedia article on Henry Watson Fowler.
  29. H. W. Fowler, The King's English
  30. Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park (Walker, 2009; ISBN 0802717004)
  31. Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Viking, 2014; ISBN 0670025852)
  32. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946).
  33. See the Wikipedia article on Language policy.
  34. http://www.gaelport.com/default.aspx?treeid=37&NewsItemID=4361
  35. Dialects in Norway
  36. The Norwegian language, Norwegian on The Web.
  37. Local language recognition angers French academy, The Guardian
  38. Picard, Mark, La diphtongue /wa/ et ses équivalents en français du Canada, Cahier de linguistique Numéro 4, 1974, p. 147-155.
  39. Claude Hagège, Le Souffle de la langue : voies et destins des parlers d'Europe