Language VS dialect, a political stand?

Every person I hear about this subject talks about his own as a language, not a dialect.

With this statement, my friend Debora easily summed up years of linguistic debates and quarrels about which language is more important than which other. This discussion has not ended yet, and probably never will. So, what is a language and what is a dialect?

According to Merriam-Webster:

Language is (1 a) the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.

Dialect is (1 a) a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language and (1 b) one of two or more cognate languages .

These two definitions don’t say the same thing for both words, but they don’t differentiate them either. The definition shown for language can also be used for dialect, and the example in definition 1b of dialect includes French and Italian, known languages, as examples of dialects. Are then the two words interchangeable? Yes and no.

It is often said that a language has a tradition of written literature, but many Italian dialects also do, so this reason alone is not sufficient. Quoting a famous statement attributed to Weinreich, we could say that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” and we would be getting closer to the actual explanation.

The Italian language was also a dialect, one of the several spoken in the Italian peninsula, and was then chosen to be the language of the whole territory. It is the same as a region that obtains independence: before part of a bigger state, then a whole political entity itself.

Let’s take Sardinian as an example, in which category should we include it? It is a language, and we can say so because the law recognised that. A regional law dating 1997 gives Sardinian the status of a language. The fact that the charter of Sardinia as an autonomic region, which is part of the Italian Constitution, does not talk of Sardinian as a language should not worry us, considering the fact that, apparently, the Italian Constitution never talks of Italian as the official language of the state either.

Due to his status of co-official language, Sardinian can be taught at school, can be used for bilingual street signs in the island, and to interact with the public services. Moreover, Sardinian citizens can require an interpreter if they are on trial or need to deal with state representatives. Also, as a co-official language of an EU member state, can be used in the Committee of the Regions.

What can be said, then, is that, often, differenciating between language and dialect is more a political stand rather than a linguistic one. If you want to know more, this article is very interesting and lists 3 reasons (linguistic, cultural, and political) that differentiate the two.

I hope you enjoyed this short post, which also served me to correct what I said the other night about which entity recognised Sardinian as a language. Now, to conclude, my best wishes for a naughty Christmas Eve, but wait for naughty Santa to be published!

Until next, and… keep being naughty, Knotty surely will!!!

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