Language and Culture
People on occasion will ask me a questions like, "In Kenya, does everybody speak Swahili, or do some people still speak dialects?" Notably, the speaker seems to have the idea that Swahili is a language but the other 85 languages of the 125 or so ethnicities are "dialects."
It is somewhat amusing to occasionally run across popular writing referring to languages and dialects. This would be funny if it were not so sad. For it seems to reflect a discriminatory hierarchical idea of human speech: we rank speech forms from worse to best, or lowest to highest, and the highest forms are the "languages."
It is odd that, with all the information available now, I still see uses of the word "dialect" to refer to a substandard form of speech, perhaps one that does not have a written form, or the speech of a more "primitive" culture. (And of course, the person talking this way always speaks a language -- not a dialect!)
No human speech is inherently inferior to any other human speech form. A late friend of mine, Dr. Thomas Brewster (co-author of Language Acquisition Made Practical, commonly called LAMP) used to say "We believe everybody has the right to speak a language." A good way to put it!
Yes, everybody speaks a language. Put another way, every human, and every human society, has a Speech Form -- a way of speaking. We use the term language to refer to this facility of speech, and to the particular variety of speech. So "speech form" is a better, emotionally-neutral word to use.
And on the other hand, everybody speaks a dialect. For we use the term "dialect" to refer to a form of speech intelligibly similar to another form of speech. Two varieties of speech that are somewhat different yet mutually intelligible we can group together as one "language."
Forms of speech have a genetic relationship -- they "descend" from an earlier form, and changes occur in every generation, for various reasons. Some of the changes take the speech of one family, village, people, etc., through changes different for the "sister" speech or "cousin" speech of related groups of people. These we call languages or dialects, depending on how related they are.
We observe that speakers of most varieties of speech we refer to as English can usually understand each other. But English is comparatively similar to other speech forms in northern Europe. It is, for instance, very close to Frisian and Dutch, more distantly similar to German, farther away from Danish. These and several other languages are very similar to each other, compared to French or Spanish, so they can be called "Germanic," in regard to a shared heritage.
Thus forms of speech that can be mutually understood by their speakers can be referred to as one "language." The varieties, with their differences from other varieties, can be referred to as dialects. If they are not mutually intelligible, generally they are referred to as separate languages.
English or English?
Take a look at Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." That speech was called "English," and was spoken in England. Would you call Chaucer's language English? Is it a dialect of English? And by the way, when did "Anglo-Saxon" become "English"?!
Yes, everybody speaks some language. But then, yes, everybody also speaks a dialect. Everybody's speech is related to someone else's speech.
Yes, many people in Kenya speak Swahili. Yes, many people also speak dialects -- of Swahili or of some other language, like Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, Maasai, etc. It depends on what level you look at. (Everybody speaks a bit differently from everybody else who speaks the same language. A special word used for individual speech is "idiolect.")
Language and Ethnicity
But many clearly different ethnic groups may have the same mother tongue. For instance, look at English around the world. Most nationalities or ethnicities with English mother tongue would not consider themselves the same as another nationality just because they speak English also.
For instance, would Australians think they are of the same ethnicity, that they are part of the same people group, as Americans, or Scots? I think not. Many factors go into ethnicity. Likewise are all Americans of the same ethnicity? What is the difference between ethnicity and nationality?
Ethnicity is a complex concept, entailing self-identity, shared experiences in a specific community or community segment, at various levels, and many other factors. Thus language is only one factor in the ethnolinguistic description of a people, or an ethnic group.
Language is a primary characteristic and an always present characteristic of ethnicity. Without language you would have an incomplete description of ethnicity. Language is the primary component of ethnicity.
Language is tied up with our psyche, as individuals and as a society. Language is a component of thought. Thus language is integral to worldview. Differences in worldview involve differences in thought and language. Yes, language is the primary component of ethnicity. Yet it is still only one component among others.
Speech Forms and a Changing Mosaic
Since we are dealing with "speech forms," the technical designations of "language" or "dialect" are somewhat academic. This means that various communication or development strategies may require more attention to detail than classification strategies. Worldview and decision-making patterns and procedures are intricately tied up with community-language identity.
A leading authority on world languages and a major standard of language classification and description is the Ethnologue, published by SIL International.
What is known and recorded in the Ethnologue, or other language analysis sources, varies in details and clarity, or even accuracy, from one case to another (usually in groupings of regional or ethnic clusters). Also speech forms are always changing -- some die, new ones develop, all change.
Also, keep in mind that the distinction between "language" and "dialect" is a technical and formal distinction. This distinction depends solely on the amount and quality of information we have about the SPEECH FORMS of the peoples of the world.
Dialects and Languages
Thus ongoing investigation leads to changes and updates in designations. As we learn more, a speech form previously understood to be a "language" may be discovered to be so closely related to another speech form that they should be designated as "dialects" of the same language.
Does this mean we want to suddenly lose that bit of critical information about that form of speech within that distinct community? I don't think so.
Likewise a speech form previously designated "dialect" may be discovered to actually be more different than previously thought, warranting redesignation as a "language," and thus assigned a new unique language code.
What if we dumped that previous information? We would lose the continuity of identity, and perhaps the awareness of that people. The full information base is critical, but the codes themselves are a mechanism to dynamically reference that knowledge.
Thus "languages" and "dialects" are variations of a classification that attempts to represent the real-life speech forms of discrete peoples. They are in many cases necessarily arbitrary. This perspective is reflected in the Ethnologue.
In some of the "languages" listed in the Ethnologue, the "dialects" are simply noticeable variations that do not hinder communication. In others the Ethnologue notes that speakers of different "dialects" cannot even understand each other. The levels of distinction and grouping vary due to many factors. Plus there are many bilingual or trilingual "peoples" in the world.
The Ethnologue has many instances of both these cases. This will continue to happen. It is inherent in "the human condition" and our ability to know -- complicated by the ever-changing character of human speech from one generation to another and one location to another.
Philosophy of Peoples Description
I have been involved in recent years in coordinated attempts to come to some common, standard reference points in understanding ethnicity, and referring to it, consistent with the insights of numerous academic disciplines and practical considerations in the complex realities of human societies.
For some time, I have been the Editor of a standard reference database called the Registry of Peoples (ROP), sponsored by the Harvest Information System (HIS). The concept is to provide unique codes for a standard critical list of all the ethnicities of the world, defined in reference to the languages and geographies where they exist.
In the ROP, description of an ethnicity is accomplished by the "triangulation" of three factors:
- Geographical location, and
- "Language" (an identifiable speech form of an identified community).
HIS has accepted as its standard for identifying language the Ethnologue codes published by SIL. For many identified ethnicities, the "language" as defined by the Ethnologue is not sufficient to uniquely describe that ethnic entity or to clarify communication access. More specific lingual or ethnic features need to be considered, interacting here with what we term "worldview."
This is where the speech distinctions described as "dialects" are important. The ROP includes dialect designations where they are significant for ethnic identification or basic communication needs.
Dialects and Ethnicity
Dialects coincide in many significant cases with ethnic boundaries, either totally separate ethnicities, or distinguishable sub-groupings that are socially or geographically significant. The dialects are critical in initial access strategies, for identification and basic access to discrete communities in their heart language.
The community itself determines what is acceptable to them as speech worth hearing, and thus worth considering as a basis of change -- that is, what form of their "language" sounds natural enough that it is accepted as the bearer of trustworthy content.
This has to be considered by such change agents as government health and development workers, missionaries, foreign advisors, etc. It should be considered by diplomats, but unfortunately, they often prefer to muddle through a netherworld of inchoate incommunication.
The form of speech (language) used is often a more critical question than the content to be communicated. Internal decision-making is dealt with in the thinking, feeling, deciding "heart" language" and worldview concepts.
Factors of ethnicity and worldview are dealt with in various articles on this site A basic list of factors considered in determining ethnicity are discussed in "What is a People Group." I link here to my definitive copy on this site. This paper is also found in various forms on several other Internet websites.
ROP Procedure for Dialects
What are dialects, as divisions of broader speech forms called languages? HIS has decided to follow the de facto world standard for languages of the world, the Ethnologue, published by SIL International. The new edition of this authority is now also in the final stages of approval as the official world reference under the International Standards Organization (ISO).
The Ethnologue includes a listing of known (reported) dialects of languages catalogued by SIL. However, SIL is engaged in a long-term process of reviewing and evaluating the reported dialects. No standard coding system exists for the dialects reported in the current or previous editions of the Ethnologue.
The current situation is that SIL is not officially "supporting" the current designations of dialects. While SIL is reviewing and considering how they will handle the varieties of speech currently described as "dialects," meanwhile many databases need to specify ethnic data in the detail that includes dialects.
Many times dialects are associated with ethnic boundaries. There is an "installed base" of literally millions of data entries including, if not requiring, the "dialect" code designations, in order to handle access adequately.
In the ROP we have handled this need in this way. A few years ago, HIS developed a provisional coding system for the dialects reported in the Ethnologue, edition 14 (2000). These are used in the tables of the ROP. Thus we have included designations of dialects in a way that will not compromise SIL's role as the publisher of the Ethnologue language codes.
SIL must remain free to determine two things:
1. How the Ethnologue will account for and report all the important differences in speech forms, and
2. How the Registry of Languages, a shared database, managed by SIL for the HIS community, will report and account for the needed detail for our primary goal of communication access for each "people" and "individual" of the world.
We include a table of dialects, which at this point is simply the last distributed table of SIL dialects. Thus we can interface with the thousands of "installed base" databases covering the millions of critical entries attempting to describe the real-world situation of the human cultural and speech mosaic of our world.
We call this table of dialect "codes" ROP Dialects. This indicates that the dialect codes circulated with the Registry of Peoples (ROP) are referencing the standard installed base of circulated SIL dialect codes. But they are circulated not as part of that codeset, but as a part of the Registry of Peoples for identification of the people entries in our main table "ROP_Peoples."
Meanwhile a steward of HIS is in the process of developing a new, definitive Registry of Dialects that will reference current Ethnologue dialects, and dialects reported by other sources, correlating al these as possible with the languages reported in the Ethnologue. When this Registry of Dialects is final, the ROP will update to this codeset for dialects to enable users to reference the data of other users of this standard coding of dialects.
The ROP Dialects. codeset enables the ROP to support dialect designations, needed by many databases of information on peoples, and especially the media specialists and language learners. Knowledge of specific speech forms of "peoples" (ethnic communities) is indispensable for aspects of change dealing with worldview concepts and community decision-making.
See Related Articles
Accent, Dialect and Language
Classifying Ethnicity: Coding and Comparing Ethnic Information:
How the Peoples and Languages Codes of the Harvest Information System Facilitate a Broader Knowledge Base of World Ethnicity
Ethnicity, Ancestors and Society: Self-Identification in the US
Germanic and Celtic
Language and Identity
Peoples and Languages
Scots, Irish and English
Scots Language and French Influence
Vernaculars, Pidgins, Creoles And Lingua Francas
Race and Ethnicity
Rough Edges of Ethnicity: Determining Ethnicity in the Changing Streams of Language and Culture
What is a People Group?
What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?
See Related Sources
Harvest Information System (HIS)
Based on notes in an email dialogue with other researchers and linguists October 08, 2002
Finalized and posted 10 August 2005
Last edited 10 January 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD