Sociolinguistics and Dialects

Sociolinguistics and Dialects


So let’s talk about boundaries. People really
like categorizing things, sorting them into little boxes: chocolate or vanilla, horse
or zebra, hot or mild. But not everything can get nicely solved in this way – a lot of
things in the world exist along a spectrum. It might seem like deciding what counts as
a language should be an easy question, but when it comes down to it, it’s often more a matter
of politics than of science. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. So defining what exactly language is can be
quite a challenge, but one approach is to say that it’s a consistent way people have to
communicate with each other. If someone speaks the same language as you, then you should
be able to understand what they’re saying without too much trouble. But even within what we’d
consider the same language, there can be lots of variation in how it’s used: so, between people
in one place or another, or in one socioeconomic class or another, or even of one gender or
another. We call sub-types of the same language dialects, but actually, the border that divides
a language from a dialect isn’t really clear. So, for example, Norwegian and Swedish are
pretty unanimously thought of as different languages. But speakers of these
two “languages” are totally able to understand each other! Same thing with Hindi and Urdu
– each language is intelligible to the people who speak the other one. On the other hand,
you have Mandarin and Cantonese, which are often thought of as two “dialects” of
the Chinese language. Except that the speakers of one can’t understand the other – the
phonology, the vocabulary, the syntax, it’s all quite different. Mandarin and
Cantonese have way less in common than Norwegian and Swedish. So what’s going on with these pairings?
Well, it turns out that whether a particular variety of speech is called a ‘language’
or a ‘dialect’ isn’t strictly speaking a matter of linguistics. There’s no council
of linguists that gets together and says, hey, look how different this dialect is! We
better break this dialect off and make it a new language! No, usually, it’s determined by
socio-political criteria. As Max Weinreich famously said, “A language is a dialect
with an army and a navy”. But keeping that in mind, let’s take a look
at what a linguist might actually say about classifying dialects and languages. Every
dialect – every way of communicating – is based on an internal grammar, stored in the
brain, with a full-fledged set of rules for how to structure its sounds and sentences.
So in that sense, every single dialect could be thought of as a separate language. But
using the word “dialect” that way would be confusing, and it wouldn’t capture the
connections between the different varieties in question. So instead, linguists use the
word “dialect” to mean closely related varieties of a language, those with significant
overlap in the words they use, and also in their phonology, morphology, and syntax. Even
if they’re different, if they have that much in common they should be mutually intelligible,
which is how we should define dialects. Looking at it more broadly, dialects are the
sum of the linguistic characteristics within a given community. But there are a lot of
different ways to define community. Age can enter into it – most of us don’t sound
like our grandparents when we talk. Or pick up a book from 100 years ago, or even 50,
and you’ll see that the way that we say things has changed a lot.
Many languages also have real differences in the way men and women tend to speak – different
vocabulary and pronunciation and even syntax. Even the way you refer to yourself can be
different – Japanese speakers might say “あたし” if they’re female, but “俺”
if they’re male. And a lot more factors also can come into play – race, class, religion,
or even what you do for a living. But for now, let’s focus on one really important
factor in what makes a dialect: geography. You might have seen those cool maps that show
how people vary in their pronunciation and word choice. So, large regions
of the US say “car-mel” with two syllables, except for a big swath of the east coast and southeast,
where they say “caramel”. Or, the word “miracle”, which is pronounced the way I just said it
except in unconnected areas like Houston, Boston, central Georgia, and most of Utah,
where they say “mIracle”. You can have hours of fun looking at these! But the point
here is that a widespread language like English (or Spanish, or French, or whatever) literally
has hundreds of dialects. Linguists still end up calling them dialects, because a speaker
of English from, like, New Jersey can still understand one from California, or even one
from Newcastle, with a little bit of practice. But even though they’re mutually intelligible,
each dialect of English – and of every other language – has its own fully developed, fully functional mental grammar. Each one is a complete version of the language. Now, there’s no reason why any speaker should
be limited to only having one dialect. In fact, most people end
up trying to match whoever they’re talking to, and whatever they’re talking about – either
on purpose, or not. Think about how you talk to your grandmother or your boss, compared
to how you talk with your friends, or your tiny little cousins. So even if we’re not bilingual, most of
us are probably bi-dialectal, at least. But even if you speak more than one dialect,
you probably think one of them is “better” than the other. People talk a lot about
dialects deviating from the standard. Even the term “dialect” is often seen as less
prestigious. Some languages have a formally defined standard, like French or Hindi or
Arabic. The varieties that are not that standard version get called dialects, and they usually come
with less social prestige. Social attitudes about language really come out when we start
looking at dialects. Language prejudice is a form of discrimination,
and can sometimes act as a “shield for racism”. As a society, we’ve rightly decided that
singling someone out for the colour of their skin, or for what they believe in, is
wrong, but often discriminating against how someone speaks feels safer. Just look
at the tumultuous histories of African-American Vernacular English and the Quebec variety
of spoken French. Fortunately, our societies have been developing a broader understanding
of the linguistic richness of these dialects. Unfortunately contempt and prejudice towards
these non-standard varieties is still surprisingly common. There are still lots of people who
think of African-American Vernacular English as “grammatically deficient” or “sloppy
and lazy speech”, or that people in Quebec don’t speak “proper French” or “lack
grammar”. But from a linguist’s perspective, this is completely super wrong. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Quebec
French. Now, Quebec French differs from standard European French in a bunch of interesting
ways: so, vocabulary, of course, but also in its phonology and syntax. For example, when you get [t] or [d], and it’s followed by a vowel like [i] or [y] that’s pronounced high up and front in the mouth, that [t] or [d] turns into either [ts] or [dz]. So let’s say you want to inform
your friends that T-Rex is stepping on a little house. In France you could say [tireks pil
syr yn pɛtit mɛzõ]. In Quebec, though, it sounds like this: [tsireks pɪl sʏr ʏn
pɛtsɪt mɛzõ]. This is a process called affrication, and it happens in a lot of languages!
Japanese doesn’t even natively have the sound combinations “ti” and “tu”; instead, it uses the affricates
“chi” and “tsu”. Or look at how Quebec French makes questions.
Let’s say you want to ask about whether the Devil is playing video games. In European
French, you would say “Est-ce que le Diable joue aux jeux video?”. But in Quebec French,
the question isn’t made that way. It’s made using a question marking particle that
comes after the auxiliary verb. So that’s like, “Le Diable joue-tu aux jeux video?”. Now, that
might not be okay to standard French speakers, but it’s a totally legitimate grammatical
option! If you look at other languages, you see lots of them using question marking particles like that, like in Korean or Mandarin. And we’d never say it’s wrong to do it there. From a linguist’s
perspective, Quebec French is every bit as complex and “correct” as any other version
of the language. Let’s just put it very simply: There is no scientific basis for valuing one dialect of a language over any other. Just like our decisions about what qualifies as a language or as a dialect, these decisions are social and
political. When we think about who decided what is “standard English” or “proper
French”, we can see it’s those with the power and prestige in society.
But when we look at the variation within a language, we see all dialects are valid, all of them are complex and interesting and worthy of our study. To a linguist, all languages are beautiful.
It’s a wonderful linguistic world out there, for all the flavors of language. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you weren’t hung up on linguistic prejudices, you learned that deciding
what’s a language and what’s a dialect is more political than linguistic; that if
we gave a linguistic definition of dialects, it would be different versions of a language
that are comprehensible to each other; that languages vary by age, class, gender, and
region; that all varieties of language are built on the same foundations of grammar and
are all equally valid; and that to think otherwise is a form of prejudice. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Élise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our production
assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics
team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over
to our website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter
and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. [ta ‘leme ‘sindoma]!

Danny Hutson

50 thoughts on “Sociolinguistics and Dialects

  1. This was really interesting to me. My uncle spent a couple of years in Quebec, previous to this, he'd learned European French. He says that it took him an embarrassingly long time to be able to understand Quebec French, but almost all of the Quebecois could understand him. I don't know much about the Quebecois educational system (or French), so I have no idea if they study European French in school or not or like anything about spoken v written French, but is this normal?
    Do speakers of a less common dialect form usually have an easier time understanding the "correct" dialect, or is it usually the other way around?

  2. At 4:27, you said that Spanish or French 'literally' have hundreds of dialects. Do they actually, or did you use the word as an intensifier? I'm honestly curious.

  3. Cantonese and Mandarin use the same writing, they are only spoken differently. So doesn't this still mean that the two dialects are intelligible to each other? They use different words in different situations but I'm pretty sure it can still be understood in writing. I personally wouldn't say they are close at all to being different languages but that's just me. 

  4. I wholeheartedly believe that no language is more correct than another and that widespread ignorance of that fact entrenches prejudiced attitudes. At the same time, a linguistic barrier in its own right can impede social cohesion. Being able to speak the standard version is a basic requirement for assimilation into the mainstream. So I think it makes sense from a policy standpoint to promote universal competence in the standard version.

  5. Great. It's cool that you brought in so many non-African-American examples, which at least for Americans are less hot-button.

    Question: someone told me a while ago that a lot of the complexities of French, orthography I think was the main point, were basically invented as class gatekeepers, explicitly and purposefully. Is this true?

    Thanks as always.

  6. Fantastic. Thank you so much for the video.
    I was familiarized with almost everything you said after I read a book by Marcos Bagno – I f*cking love him!

  7. As a political scientist, I found this fascinating. The equality of all dialects scientifically makes me wonder about a fairly famous fictional example, Newspeak from Orwell's book 1984. That fictional language had intentionally been stripped of diversity and had been meant to make dissenting speech simply impossible.

    Given that we've had a few examples of totalitarianism since then, and presumably linguists have studied the way refugees speak between the two Koreas and the like. So was Orwell wrong on this and do their languages maintain their richness despite any best effort of ruling regimes?

  8. +Emer Browne Yep, it's an actual servbot! One of the Tron Bonne ones. But it definitely did get around to some of the other Capcom games. ^_^

  9. I was just kind of curious. Where does the Midwestern accent come from? I recently learned that the southern draw originally came from England somewhere and I was curious how the Midwestern accent came to be.

  10. I'm glad I came across your channel. Your explanation of linguistic issues is really coherent, comprehensive and professional. Thank you !!

  11. It's always nice to hear about ourselves sometimes! Greetings from Montréal, Québec

    Tsé qu'j'aime pas mal vos vidéos à vous? Lâchez-pas 😉

  12. I've been seeing your videos since the first and this is the first with which I disagree, there are good English and bad English, good English has to be learn in schools, and bad english what people speak when don't follow the rules. And nothing has to do with talk like robots. American english is an dialect of English and I think that because they are the only superpower economiclly for ego don´t want to learn to speak well.

  13. i think its interesting how in england there are so many different accents/dialects that if you go to another city people speak totally differently. but in russia which is much bigger you dont really have any dialects at all? is there any explanation for that?

  14. Ooooh. That shit just got real. You have managed to make linguistics interesting in the several videos I've seen, but, in this case, you even got political. Very cool.

  15. So, I get that one dialect is not more proper than another, that different dialects are linguistically equal, both being a robust language. BUT, would you say one language is simpler than another? Is Spanish easier than Latin?

    I suspect I am thinking of this in terms of how long it takes a person to pick up those languages as an additional language. I just watched your video on UG and it seems any kid will pick up Latin or Spanish equally fast, so that might be an indication that neither is more simple.

    Still, Latin has all those declensions and cases, surely it's empirically true that such trappings are less simple??

  16. Oh, and I know what else I want to ask…. I'm reading _Teaching English Language Learners" by Wayne Wright, to study for my license to teach ESL/ELL…. and he says we speak Standard English. But I have always maintained that we (educated dominant culture in the US) speak Standard American, or Cronkite-ese (After the speech of "Uncle" Walter Cronkite). How do you weigh in? Thanks!

  17. To me, and I think to a lot of other French French speakers, Quebec French is not necessarily associated with a lower social status. In fact, I don't think of it as a dialect but more as a variety of French, just like mine. We might just make fun of the way the speakers talk or because of words they use a little bit, but it doesn't go further and I think this is more due to the fact that there is few linguistic and cultural interaction between these "Frenches", for example through movies or TV shows, unlike with Britain and America (in US movies, it's not uncommon to hear British accents, whereas in France, hearing a Quebec accent in a movie is almost unconceivable, and there are even different foreign movies dubbings for each area) than to the belief that Quebec French is "corrupted French". BTW, I never heard anybody say that, and this would sound to me like outright ignorance.
    On the other hand, some accents do carry huge stereotypes, like the Marseille accent, which is associated to the cliché of the racist and narrow-minded middle-class dumb man. It's a shame, but it's deeply anchored in the French society, so I understand why it can be a real hurdle to integration.

  18. I told a friend that AAVE may have come out of a 19th century slaves' cant, combining late colonial English with elements of African dialects. He tried to tell me that AAVE is somehow less legitimate than standard English, and takes it as a sign of stupidity and laziness. I quickly pointed out that although the public education system in the US does tend to leave the most vulnerable members of society in the lurch (mostly low-income inner-city black people), and that is a very real and very serious problem, education and speech have almost nothing to do with each other.

  19. mamma mia! … "teachers, leave those kids alone"
    sudden insight. .. or is it just brought to awareness by language? dialect r adressed refered ..(?) …

  20. I don't know man, English has small variations that are totally intellegibile even though you call them dialects. But think about Italy's dialects. There are a lot, and often if one from the South speaks in his dialect, one from the North will have to struggle a lot even to understand something. Example: my grandpa could say: "Ce sté a ffè ddo?" While in standard Italian that would be: "Cosa stai facendo qui?" ("What are you doing here?").
    And yet it's just considered a dialect, and not a language. Funny isn't it?

  21. Hey man, my native language is a variant of Portuguese in Brazil (it's really not Brazilian Portuguese). We have tones, words e vocabulary much different. However European-Portuguese and Brazilian-Portuguese are completely intelligible to me, nevertheless, this is not the same thing between Brazil and Portugal. For exemple, Portuguese movies don't come in Brazil, cos people can't understand what they speak, but Brazilian movies and music are completely intelligible in Portugal. By writing we can understand each other – our grammar is the same.

  22. I'm from Southern California, where we pronounce exit as "eggs-it" (people in Seattle do the same), and I have a lot of family in Utah, where instead of "Tuesday", they say "toosdee".

  23. One reason to prefer one dialect over the other could be mutual understanding. Take German. German is the official language in three european states, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. However, Depending on where you are, it is spoken totally differently. Swiss German, for example, never underwent the sound shifting that happened in Germany and Austria. If you live in Berlin and go to Zürich, you will probably have trouble understanding the people there. If someone from Zürich goes up to Berlin, they will have a lot less trouble understanding, simply because Berlin German is a lot closer to the standard "High German" taught in schools. This "auxiliary dialect" helps people across the german-speaking world understand each other

  24. I'd like to add that in Norwegian and Swedish there are dialects that are as different (if not more) as Standard Eastern Norwegian and Rikssvensk, and that some dialects might be more similar to another across the border than the "standard dialect" of the language. The orthographies are also interesting, with Norwegian bokmål looking more similar to written Danish than Swedish.

  25. It was kind of disconcerting that the sociolinguistics class I took in college remained totally unjudgmental toward the countless cases of dialect-based discrimination it covered. Perhaps that's the properly academic treatment, but it's much more comfortable for at least one "and we shouldn't do this, agreed?" to come with it, as here.

  26. I didn't really perceive a massive difference in your two pronunciations of "miracle" – was it between a short and long first vowel?

  27. This is such amazing revision for my A level English Language exam! I've been looking for something like this! 😀 Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  28. Hello! Thank you for sharing your knowledge! You bring up very interesting topics and information. Do you have any sources from your presentation that you could share? Thanks again!

  29. Dude you're the man thank you! I'm teaching High School Linguistics and I use your videos all the time to help explain concepts when
    the students need a break from my voice hahaha

  30. Thanks for sharing. I am in interested in sociolinguistics from the perspective of a student and songwriter. Your overview was very helpful.

  31. Love the videos. 🙂 Thanks! But, in case you didn't know or were not aware, there are huge francophone (Canadian French) populations outside of Québec… And we have similar dialectical differences in our language to France French. It is a common mistake to assume all francophones live in Québec, but they are not the only Canadian French. 😉

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