A Level English Language Website
What is the difference between a language and a dialect?
By Mark Sebba
This question is as much a political as a linguistic one. Linguists have a saying: "a language is a dialect with an army". What this means is that there is no systematic linguistic difference between a language and a dialect. Both are linguistic systems with grammar and vocabulary and are or can be learnt natively by their speakers. There is nothing inherently better, more systematic or more logical in a "language" than in a "dialect", or vice versa. However, if we go to the dictionary to see how these words are generally used, we find there is a clear notion of a difference between "language" and "dialect": "language" always has associations of statehood or nationhood. "Dialect" on the other hand is defined as a "subordinate variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or idioms." (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1982), or "a form of a language that is considered inferior." (Collins Concise English Dictionary 1985) or "a peculiar manner of speaking." (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary 1972).
The association of language with a "country" or "nation" and of "dialect" with an inferior or non- (i.e. sub-) standard variety of speech is very strong. This is what is meant by "a language is a dialect with an army." We can see from this that what are called languages are often standard languages, which are associated with nationhood, with centralised power, with statehood. Nonstandard varieties of language are often termed dialects, implying that they have less status and prestige. But historically, standard languages are just dialects which have acquired a special status, and nonstandard dialects were just language varieties which lay far from the centres of power. Looked at as linguistic systems, languages and dialects have the same characteristics; but looked at from a social point of view, we can say that a language has higher status than a dialect.