The power of dialects


Ever been told to speak your language “properly”? Ever been told that you’re speaking your language the “wrong” way? Ever been made fun of in class because of the way you speak: different accent, different word, different pronunciation or say something considered grammatically “wrong”?

Well, either you were really speaking the language “improperly” or you were speaking a dialect. Is a dialect a wrong way of speaking a language? More importantly, how does one speak a language “properly”?

As we delve into that topic we need to make a distinction between a language and a dialect.

Language vs. dialect

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy” – Max Weinreich

A lot of people seem to confuse the difference between a language and a dialect.

Language – “a system of communication consisting of sounds, words, and grammar, or the system of communication used by people in a particular country or type of work” [source]

Dialect  “a form of a language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar, etc.” [source]

A common way to distinguish a dialect from a separate language is that if the two speakers of the two different languages can understand each other in a conversation despite minor differences (pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.), chances are the two languages are mutually intelligible and are both dialects of one language. However, if they have difficulty understanding each other, the two languages are most likely distinct languages although may share a common origin.

Examples of languages having many dialects include English, French, German, Spanish and even Thai. Mutual intelligibility vary between dialects of a language: some are easy while some are hard to understand between speakers.

How dialects are made from a language

A community would speak one language but when a part of that community separates and migrates far away, certain circumstances in environment or trend will be created within their language thus causing a creation of a dialect. In some extreme cases, it could change into a completely different language especially when the two communities don’t communicate with each other for a long time. An example would be when Romance languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian evolved from dialects of Vulgar Latin. Now some of those language are no longer mutually intelligible with each other.

Settlers from England moved to what is now the United States. Later, a trend happened back in England and every Englishman started speaking with the non-rhotic ‘R’. This trend didn’t really catch on in the United States (some places have the rhotic ‘R’ like Boston). Furthermore, Americans kept some archaic English words like “faucet”, “candy” and the imperial measurement system while adding new vocabulary from indigenous languages and immigrant languages from non-English speaking countries. So no, American English is neither any more antiquated nor conservative than British English nor the other way around.

I won’t talk about pidgins and creoles so I will tackle that topic in a separate article at another time.

Language/dialect dispute

Because languages evolve constantly, determining whether a speech is a distinct language or a dialect is not always cut and dry despite my given definitions above.

One example, Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian) and Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) are both based on Court Malay spoken in Johor. The difference between the two mainly lie in vocabulary due to their respective colonial histories. Indonesian has many Javanese and Dutch words while Malaysian has many Arabic and English words. Speakers of either language can converse fine with each other, yet there would be times when one group would say that the two are dialects of the same language while another wants the two to be separate languages.

Another fiery example is Hindi and Urdu. While they both sound similar, the main differences are that Hindi is written in the Devanagari script and has Sanskrit vocabulary due to Hinduism influence while Urdu is written in the Perso-Arabic script and has Arabic and Persian vocabulary due to Islamic influence. However speakers of both languages can converse easily. However, like Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia, there are those that want to separate the two and those that want to unite them.

Another example includes the many dialects of Arabic in the Middle East and North Africa plus Modern Standard Arabic. Mutual intelligibility between the Arabic dialects is mainly low.

The same can be said for Catalan/Valencian, Romanian/Moldovan, Danish/Norwegian/Swedish, Serbo-Croatian, Luxembourgish and Jeju Korean.

Sometimes, the differences between language and dialect is political. There are many languages and dialects spoken in both China and the Philippines yet they’re all called dialects in their respective countries. In actuality, Chinese is standardised Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect while Filipino is standardised Tagalog based on the Manila dialect.

Some of the above examples are languages defined not by linguistics or mutual intelligibility but by the national identity or political ideology of its speakers therefore creates such controversy.

“Standard” languages

Want to learn Spanish? How about French? Chinese? Korean? Arabic? Ok, it’s great that you want to learn either of those languages. Next question, which dialect of that language?

Just about every single community has a designated standardised language which every citizen of that community adheres to in daily discourse. These standardised languages are usually governed by a separate academic body who decides what is considered standard for society to use.

The standard language, at the end of the day, is still one of the many dialects of the one language. These standard languages are usually based on the “prestige” dialect, which is usually spoken in the capital of the country. When people say you said the wrong word or phrase, you may be incorrect in the sense that what you said is not considered “standard”.

So unless it teaches a specific dialect, almost any language learning resource you use that teaches Spanish, French, Japanese, etc. will most likely teach you the “standard” form of that language.

I might write a separate article about standardised languages later on.

Why dialects/non-standard languages are important

To understand the importance of dialects (and other non-standard languages), one needs to understand how a dialect was created in the first place. As stated earlier, dialects are created within a language due to geographical, historical and/or cultural circumstance. As dialects form, they equally undergo their own development where they either retain or purge certain ways of communication. Having said this, each dialect contains a different culture that reflects the history and heritage of its speakers. For example, Peninsular Spanish is a reflection of the history of Spain while Mexican Spanish is a reflection of the history of Mexico, which also includes its Spanish colonial heritage.

Ultimately, the diversity of dialects and its cultures also reflects the colourful culture of the language and countries the dialects belong to. Each dialect differs in how its speakers use it to express their ideas within their own communities.

Basically, the importance of not letting dialects and other non-standard languages die out is the same importance of not letting languages die out.

How to save dialects

If you want to save a dialect, especially your own, all you have to do is…just speak it. Speak it with your family, friends and other members of your communities. Record every single folk story or poem either on audio or written. If you don’t know much, you can start small by keeping a journal or diary and write every entry in your own dialect.

Acknowledge the diversity of dialects. When you learn a language you will encounter certain nuances present in other dialects of the language. Embrace them. Don’t see them as weird, unintelligent or incorrect. Those differences are reflections of the culture of the people of speak the dialect and ultimately adds to the richness of the language.

The diversity of not only languages but also their dialects is what makes the globe global.


Hickey, R. (Ed.). (2012). Standards of English: Codified varieties around the world. Cambridge University Press

Crystal, D. (2008). How Language Works. Penguin Books.


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