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Interaction Between Language and Society

One of the most difficult abstract issues in linguistics that is still an issue today is to distinguish between language and dialect. At first glance, when two people are speaking differently, there seems to be two obvious possibilities. If they understand each other, they must be speaking dialects of the same language, if not, it can be said they are speaking different languages. However, in some cases, it is not so simple to distinguish between the two elements. By shedding light on this latter issue, this article will then focus on some cornerstones of sociolinguistics, like the difference between dialects and accents and the concepts of register and style.

Figure 1: Communication in society

Language vs. Dialect

What is the difference between a language and a dialect? Is there a wide distinction between traffic circle or roundabout, or between a rabbit and a hare? Most linguists would agree that it is problematic to give general definitions to distinguish languages from dialects, yet the subject has long fascinated experts and non-experts alike. While there are numerous definitions of a language, language can be defined as a means of communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional manner, used by a particular community or country. Generally, this concept can be applied to any type of language.

What is the definition of a dialect? Dialect is defined as a particular form of a spoken language in a specific region or area or spoken by a specific group. Simply put, it is a subordinate variety of a language. It can be distinguished by grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary. When travelling, one can observe people from different countries speaking a particular language but in different dialects. For example, British English, American English, Canadian English are just some of the dialects of the English language. It is estimated that over 160 different English dialects exist around the globe (Knetemann, 2018). Although there are that many, one can distinguish them from one another by looking at certain features like grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

Figure 2: Some English dialects across the world

Being significantly different in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary does not necessarily define dialects as separate languages. One of the most common ways of identifying the difference between language and dialect is a concept called mutual intelligibility. It is most commonly found among languages that are closely related to one another; however, closely related languages are not always mutually intelligible. Specifically, if the speakers of group A can understand the speakers of group B without difficulty or without intentionally learning the other language, then A and B must be the same language. Ideally, if two dialects are mutually intelligible, they belong to the same language, but if two dialects are not mutually intelligible, they belong to different languages.