The difference between a language and a dialect


A number of communities and countries can share the same language, but the geographical distances and differences between the people and their cultures often give rise to different ways of using the language. And it is these differences that lead to “branches” from a common trunk. But, from what point do we make the distinction between a language and a dialect? And, moreover, how might this affect translations and interpreting?

At first glance, it would seem there are few “real world” elements that allow us to make a clear distinction. We might establish some categories, which are subject to interpretation, but which might prove useful for recognising linguistic varieties within a language and the existing connections between different languages.

Generally speaking, linguists set out three categories within a language:

Accent – a purely phonetic variation within a language. This refers to different ways of pronouncing vowels across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom (more open and softer in the north of Scotland, and sharper and shorter in London, etc.). These spoken variations do not result in changes to the written form (given English is a language with established rules of grammar and syntax) nor does it cause much misunderstanding between native speakers.

Dialect – when, in addition to the phonetic differences, there are differences in vocabulary and grammatical structure between groups speaking the same language, we can begin speaking of dialects. For example, the English spoken in the United Kingdom is different from that spoken in the United States or Australia, which make use of different idiomatic expressions and vocabularies and which tend to employ different syntactic norms (for example, in the spelling and meanings of certain words and in the use of older verb forms in the United States that have fallen out of use in the United Kingdom). However, speakers of these versions of English have very little difficulty in understanding each other. Generally speaking, as with accents, dialects are regional variations.

Language – a structured system of communication (verbal and/or written) that is used within a group or community – or a number of groups or communities. A language can contain variations (dialects and accents) that are the result of social, historical and geographical forces; however, they share a common root that enables mutual intelligibility – that is to say, fluid communication and mutual understanding between two speakers.

However, even the concept of mutual intelligibility can be subjective – because this characteristic can be extended beyond accents and dialects, and can emerge between languages that by all measures (academic, social, geopolitical) are considered to be different. This can be the case where languages are close geographically and historically, as is the case of English and Scots, which have some shared vocabulary and similarities in grammar, which can make it possible for two speakers to communicate. Scandinavian languages are another similar case. Iin an article in The Atlantic magazine, the North American linguist John McWhorther noted that while Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are officially considered to be separate languages, because of their common historical origins, the native speakers of these languages are often able to engage in fairly complex conversations with each other. From this the idea of a linguistic “continuum” emerges, in which the boundaries between language and dialect become blurred.

To successfully translate a project involving dialects (or little-known languages), a professional translator must have the following essential skills:

– The translator must have a profound technical understanding of the source and target languages. This will ensure the translator has an empirical knowledge of the variations in the dialects and accents of the language.
– The deep understanding must extend to the history of the language and its culture (or cultures in the case of transnational languages) so they understand the peculiarities and more obscure references derived from the differences between dialects. Not understanding these matters can lead to problems in interpreting the message.
– Familiarity with the subject being translated or interpreted: interpreting a debate or conference in which dialect idioms are being used can be tricky. The same is often also true for translations of technical terms.
– A good “ear” and a refined linguistic sensibility that gives the translator the ability to decide when to use a more literal translation or when to be more creative and adopt linguistic solutions specific to the language variant.
– A well-defined idea of the concept of linguistic “continuum” between languages and their varieties: this can often make the task of translation more complicated – for example, homophone words in Romantic languages that have different meanings in each language – or more simple – for example, when there are expressions belonging to different dialects that are easily understood by all speakers of the root language.

Recognising this linguistic richness helps translators become better professionals who are more aware of the nuances and contexts within languages and their variations.