How a dialect differs from a language

The Economist explains

How a dialect differs from a language

Feb 16th 2014, 23:50 by R.L.G. | BERLIN

HONG KONG’S education department caused a furore last month by briefly posting on its website the claim that Cantonese was “not an official language” of Hong Kong. After an outcry, officials removed the text. But was the claim correct? The law says that “Chinese and English” are Hong Kong’s official languages. Whereas some people say that Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, others insist that it is a language in its own right. Who is right—andhow do dialects differ from languages in general?

Two kinds of criteria distinguish languages from dialects. The first are social and political: in this view, “languages” are typically prestigious, official and written, whereas “dialects” are mostly spoken, unofficial and looked down upon. In a famous formulation of this view, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Speakers of mere “dialects” often refer to their speech as “slang”, “patois” or the like. (The Mandarin Chinese term for Cantonese, Shanghaiese and others is fangyan, or “place-speech”.) Linguists have a different criterion: if two related kinds of speech are so close that speakers can have a conversation and understand each other, they are dialects of a single language. If comprehension is difficult to impossible, they are distinct languages. Of course, comprehensibility is not either-or, but a continuum—and it may even be asymmetrical. Nonetheless, mutual comprehensibility is the most objective basis for saying whether two kinds of speech are languages or dialects.

By the comprehensibility criterion, Cantonese is not a dialect of Chinese. Rather it is a language, as are Shanghaiese, Mandarin and other kinds of Chinese. Although the languages are obviously related, a Mandarin-speaker cannot understand Cantonese or Shanghaiese without having learned it as a foreign language (and vice-versa, though most Chinese do learn Mandarin today). Most Western lingists classify them as “Sinitic languages”, not “dialects of Chinese”. (Some languages in China, like Uighur, are not Sinitic at all.) Objective though it may be, this criterion can annoy nationalists—and not just in China. Danes and Norwegians can converse, making some linguists classify the two as dialects of a single language, though few Danes or Norwegians think of it this way.

In China the picture is further confused by the fact that one written form unifies Chinese-language speakers (though mainland Chinese write with a simplified version of the characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan). But this written form is not a universal “Chinese”: it is based on Mandarin. The confusion arises because many people consider written language to be the “real” language, and speech its poor cousin. The same reasoning can be used to classify Arabic as a single language, though a Moroccan and a Syrian, say, cannot easily understand each other. Ethnologue, a reference guide to the world’s languages, calls Chinese and Arabic “macrolanguages”, noting both their shared literature and the mutual (spoken) unintelligibility of many local varieties, which it calls languages. For the most part, linguists consider spoken language primary: speech is universal, whereas only a fraction of the world’s 6,000-7,000 languages are written. This is behind the linguist’s common-sense definition: two people share a language if they can have a conversation without too much trouble.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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