What’s the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

You might have noticed yesterday that when I mentioned the word bairn, I referred to its use in both Scots and Scottish English. And you might have asked yourself: what’s the difference?

I’m not an expert, and not going to go into all the details, but suffice it to say that they’re quite distinct.

Scottish English is basically an umbrella term for the variety of forms of English spoken in Scotland, equivalent to American, British, Hiberno-English etc. It certainly features words and expressions whose meaning might not be readily apparent to people outside Scotland, but it’s also recognisably English (to the average native English speaker).

Scots however, is often considered a distinct language. It shares English’s Germanic origins, but diverged from Middle English centuries ago, and is notably distinct from modern English (though some elements of it have of course found their way into modern Scottish English). Have a listen to this gentleman telling a story in the Doric dialect of Scots from northeastern Scotland:

You’ll notice a lot of words, and a general structure similar to English, but still, quite a different beast altogether.

As I mentioned earlier though, it’s often considered a distinct language, but there’s no official consensus, and others consider it a dialect of English. And this will probably remain the status quo, as there’s no standard method for distinguising a dialect from a language.

That might sound surprising, given the depth in which languages are studied, but it’s also not so surprising given how languages develop. Most modern languages have developed from older forms, with multiple languages often sharing a common ancestor. As time advances, and as peoples grow geographically apart, different dialects of the language emerge, which later might evolve further into distinct languages.

Pinpointing where and when this precisely happens though, is tricky, which is why there’s no fixed method to determine when a dialect becomes a full-blown language. Think about the clear similarities between the Romance languages, for example, or the Nordic languages.

A good rule of thumb for me is comprehensibility. If you immediately understand someone to be speaking a language that you speak, even if there are some differences, then that’s probably a dialect of that language. If you understand some of it, and it seems familiar, but has a significant number of unique elements, then that’s probably a distinct language. This of course all depends on the languages involved, but if you’re a native English speaker, you would more than likely recognise a Scottish-English speaker to be speaking English. Scots however, might sound like English, but you’d probably not understand everything, and certainly not recognise every word.

As well as shedding some light on the distinctions, or lack of them, between languages and dialects, thinking about Scots and Scottish English is also a useful reminder that though English now dominates the UK and Ireland, it was far from the first language spoken in that corner of Europe, and still isn’t the only one. In addition to Scots and Scottish English, Scotland alone is also home to Scots Gaelic or Gallic, another entirely different language similar to Gaelic/the Irish language.

Even if the numbers of speakers of these languages, and others such as Cornish or Welsh, are lower than in the past, they still survive alongside English, and have influenced different forms of English, a process we can see mirrored in other parts of the world, in the relationships between regional dialects, ethnic languages, and national languages.

It’s always useful to remember that languages and dialects are always in communication, and always evolving together, and we can often find more to connect different languages than to separate them.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect?

  1. I enjoyed your analysis. Perhaps another marker of dialect as opposed to language is the written form. Sometimes a speaker can read the written form of another dialect but has a lot more difficulty with the spoken form. For example, my mom, who is from Donegal, may be able to read something written in Gaelic by someone from more southern parts of Ireland but wouldn’t necessarily understand them if they were to speak Gaelic to her. However, I would guess that now the language has become more homogenized than when she was a girl (she is 90 now).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point actually. With my Connacht Gaelic I can usually understand the other dialects fine when I read then, but can certainly think of quite a few situations where I found someone from Donegal speaking the language much harder to understand!

      Liked by 1 person

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