Quick summary:

Languages vary along all the different dimensions a language can have: in their sounds, their words, their syntactic structures, their interpretations. But how different do two versions of a language have to be to qualify as separate languages? In popular discussion, the answer turns out to not have to do with measuring the amount of difference, but instead to political and social factors. If you're two different countries, it's probably two different languages; if you're in one, maybe you'll have two dialects of the same language.

From a linguistic standpoint, though, a good working definition of dialects are linguistic systems that may differ, but are still mutually intelligible. That means speakers of Dialect A can understand speakers of Dialect B, and vice versa. We can find dialectal differences driven by geography, but also by age, class, gender, religion, and a bunch of other factors. But whatever dialect we're talking about, language is always still built on the same foundation of grammar. From a linguist's perspective, all dialects are equally good. Where they vary from the "standard" version of the language, they use features that are regular, accepted features of other languages, rather than being deficient in any way. To think that one version of a language is superior to other ones isn't rooted in linguistic science.

 

Extra Materials:

We mention in the video about the dialect maps, and so we wanted to show you some more about how those work here. There's a lot of information in these, but that gets more clear the more you look at them. So let's first take a look at the maps for the ones we mentioned in the video. These maps are taken from the Dialect Survey Maps collection by Joshua Katz, at North Carolina State University, based on the Harvard Dialect Survey by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. You can look at Vaux's current survey work and even take part here, and an overview of the connections between the maps at Language Log here. And if you want more world maps, try this article here that's chock full of them!

With all that done, let's take a look at the distribution of caramel:

We can see a pretty clear border here for distribution between these two pronunciations. And the darker the color is, the more likely that someone from that place will pronounce it one way or the other. So someone from Atlanta is a pretty good bet to say it with three syllables, and someone in Kansas City is likely to go with just two.

But what happens at the borders? At the lighter areas, it's not that we see people using the two forms interchangeably. Instead along the red/blue border for the two dialects, you're about as likely to get one pronunciation as the other. At the base, the border between two geographic dialects in sociolinguistics is the place where you're just as likely to one pronunciation as the other. So in western Kentucky, you'd be as likely to get "carra-mel" as "car-mel."

Now, let's look at the one for that first sound in miracle:

So we can see here that there's less variation across the country, but that there are these isolated pockets of different pronunciations. Why are these here, in these places particularly? This is the sort of question that it's difficult to answer! For a lot of variation, there isn't necessarily a principled reason behind it. Language norms just shift over time for a given community, and then everyone there pronounces it that way.

Okay, but of course, it's not just sounds that differ from place to place. We can find similar maps for word choice, like for this one here about what you should call a long sandwich:

So you can see that almost the whole country for the US has sub, except for around Philadelphia, which has hoagie, and New York City and Long Island, which has hero. And that a couple of other places, like Louisiana and Connecticut, have "other," so there are more sandwich terms than we can cover!

And finally, we can also see syntactic variation. Here, you want to look at whether using "anymore" in a place like that is grammatical for you or not.

Anymore is in a class of words that usually need to be put in a negative environment in order for it to be used. For some of the country, a sentence complaining that pantyhose is too expensive gives you enough negativity, and for the other half, it doesn't. And feelings about this are strong: one of our graphics team says they will fight anyone who likes this sentence. (But no actual fighting: please don't mangle our graphics team.)

Geography isn't the only way that language can vary, of course. We can see big changes in gender, like in the gendered speech in Japanese, or the development of the Nushu script used by women in China. Or the development of hiragana, one of the main alphabets of Japanese, is thought to be derived from women's writing; men's writing at the time was just kanji, or Chinese characters, but for women, who had access to less education, they ended up morphing kanji into more of an alphabet, that then got more co-opted by the men.

There's also age: if you think about the slang you use, versus the slang your grandparents or parents use, you'll probably be able to notice some changes. Or sexual orientation: for example, there are entire dialects, or argots, in South Africa for the gay community there... and there are actually different ones for if you're from a Bantu background or a Germanic one.

So dialects can vary in a lot of ways! And since language keeps changing, and the links between and makeup of communities keeps changing, too, we'll never run out of variation to study. Which is pretty exciting. Vive la difference!

 

Discussion:

So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about dialects, language variation, prejudice, and all the factors that can influence us. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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