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You don't speak a language! >:-)

What do we mean by “language” and “dialect”?

Well, when someone says “I speak Spanish”, it’s clear they don’t mean Galician or Catalan. Most people view the acrolect (the “standard version”) as “the language”, and other versions as “dialects”: variations of the acrolect – or worse, outright corruptions (examples of low-status "dialects" in AmEng are the southern accent, the New York accent and African American vernacular English)

I’m here to propose something quite radical, but by the end of this I hope you’ll agree with me:

It’s impossible to “speak a language”, one can only ever speak a dialect of a language. In other words, the acrolect is nothing more than a simple dialect (often a previously low-status one) that just got lucky.

Try this (impossible) quiz. Read the sentence pairs below. Each set are word-for-word identical in meaning. Don’t worry about what the languages are or what the sentences mean, all you have to do is decide, based on how the sentences look: are they considered separate languages, or different dialects of a single language?


تمام آدمان آزاد به دنيا مى آيند و از لحاظ منزلت و حقوق با هم برابرند

Тамоми одамон озод ба дунё меоянд ва аз лиҳози манзилату ҳуқуқ бо ҳам баробаранд


heoi gan leoi haang, zung ho ji jat jat update, zi ging hai nei.

qu jin lü xing, zhong ke yi ri ri update, zhi jin xi ni


Han sade att han inte kunde komma

Han sagde at han ikke kunne komme

Han sa at han ikke kunne komme


Scots (or "Lallans", a poetic spellins for lawlands) is ae Wast Germanic leid thit's spaken en the Lawlands an Northren Isles o Scotland an en the stewartrie o Ulster en Ireland (whaur it's kent as "Ulster-Scots", "Scotch", or "Ullans"). En maist airts, it's spaken anent the Scots Gaelic an Inglis leids.

Scots (or “Lallans”, a poetic spelling for lowlands) is a West Germanic language that’s spoken in the lowlands and northern islands of Scotland and the province of Ulster in Ireland (where it’s called “Ulster Scots”, “Scotch”, or “Ullans”). In most areas, it’s spoken alongside the Scottish Gaelic and English languages.


Menapa pandjenengan bade dahar sekul kalijan kaspe samenika?

Apa kowe arep mangan sega lan kaspe saiki?

The answers (and explanations) are here. I got a bit carried away with the research, as you can see:

Sep 10, 2016 10:38 AM
Comments · 19

@zaeanderson: normally I ignore such comments but I can't abide being personally attacked as a bigot. Would you call this statement "offensive"?: African Americans have traditionally held a lower status than white Americans in American society. Your answer would be extremely telling either way.

Here are the facts: given surveys, Americans identify these "dialects" as "bad English" more than others. I suggest you watch the podcast I posted and educate yourself further.

As for your "there's no such thing as African American Vernacular English", again: I suggest you educate yourself further. Here's a start:

September 13, 2016

I feel this thread has been "dirtied" now, and I truly regret it, since I put a lot of work into it and was looking forward to other comments (it was slow to start, but it got interesting towards the end!)

I've had vicious, ignorant and defamatory comments in my discussions before and normally ignore them but simply draw the line at being accused of racism. I won't be responding to zaeanderson anymore and have blocked her.

In any case, if anyone feels like adding anything positive to add please do me a favour and lift this discussion out of its current quagmire. Otherwise, well...I guess we'll have better luck next time!

September 13, 2016
Yes, we have many ”trolde” here.

I don’t mind calling it Danish, but the Swedes and Norwegians would go nuts if we did that. I don’t have any better word for it than the Nordic languages.

You happened to pick sentences that perfectly illustrate the similarities between the languages. In terms of vocabulary Danish and Norwegian are extremely similar. In the past, there was no difference between written Danish and Norwegian except for small differences in vocabulary. Swedish differs by having a lot more uniquely Swedish words.

Compare the following two sentences, which I constructed in order to show the differences between Danish and Swedish. Since my Swedish is only so-so, I may have written an incorrect Swedish sentence:
Husk at drengene og pigerne stadig mangler at vaske deres tøj. (Danish)
Kom ihåg att pojkarna och flickorna fortfarande inte har tvättat deras kläder. (Swedish)

In English the sentences mean ”Remember that the boys and girls still haven’t washed their clothes.”

The lack of comprehensibility is partly to do with vocabulary and partly to do with pronunciation.
Danish is a lot less phonetic than Swedish and Norwegian and the pronunciation is less distinct. To a Swede or Norwegian Danish sounds slurred. I understand Swedish quite well, it’s the Swedes who can’t understand me. My wife who is Russian
and is learning Danish understands me better when I (try to) speak Swedish than when I speak Danish. She has difficulty telling the different words apart when she listens to Danish. To her it sounds like a stream of indistinguishable sounds.
September 13, 2016

I wouldn't say that New York or Massachusetts have their own dialects either. I would call them accents (which I would define as a distinctive pronunciation). I'm not sure that I would even call American English a separate dialect: the difference really isn't that big. Perhaps "variety" would be the right word.

It's interesting that learners seem so obsessed with the differences between American English and British English, because really the main dichotomy is that between Scots (which is either a separate language or a dialect, depending in your point of view, and of which Scottish English is a watered-down version) and everything else, which renders the term "British English" rather meaningless.

September 13, 2016


For your edification. 

1. " I can't abide being personally attacked as a bigot". I do not resort to name calling in a discussion.  Your statement is very offensive and you put little thought into that statement and tout it out as fact.  According to you, in essence every person who is lives in New York, the South or is an African America is ignorant cannot speak English or responsible for the corruption of American English. 

2. African American Vernacular English.  Your source is Wikipedia. That is to be taken with a grain of salt since it is notoriously wrong. They have even admitted to their errors.    

3.  "African Americans have traditionally held a lower status than white Americans in American society" Yes, I agree with that statement, historically it true. Due to the fact that the Civil Rights Act was 52 years ago and Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954 and integration was not completed until the mid-seventies.  African American were not allowed to have the same books and education materials as their white counterparts. The books they had were the cast offs and outdated.   

September 13, 2016
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