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Language or dialect? -- It is not that easy

How do you distinguish between a language and a dialect? This article tries to help

Read this article in: Deutsch, English, Français

Estimated reading time:10minutes

Little Max is the son of a German father and a Swiss mother. He lives in Germany. One day, his friend Laura is boasting that she is able to speak two languages: German and English. Max answers that he can also speak two languages: German and Swiss-Geman. “But these aren’t two languages?”, Laura replies. “Yes”, Max retorts. “Swiss-German sounds completely different”. In fact, when Max is talking in Swiss-German to his mother, Laura doesn’t understand a word. Maybe he’s right, she thinks. So she is able to speak more than two languages? German, English and Swabian?

It might be possible that some of you already asked yourself these questions? Where is the difference between a language and a dialect? Is mutual comprehensibility a crucial criterion to judge whether it is a language or a dialect? If it isn’t, then what is it? A short answer to this question is: “It is not that easy.” A more detailed answer is given in this article.

It is not that easy -- even for linguists

I learned about the language-dialect-difficulty during my Romance studies. Everything began when Friedrich Diez (1794-1876), the founder of Romance philology, explained that there are six Romance languages: Italian, Romanian, Spanish, Portuguese, Provencal and French. About 120 years later Heinrich Lausberg counted ten Romance languages and in 1994 Lausberger et al. counted 15 of them. So, more languages developed over time? Or did the former research just consider them as dialects? How do we differentiate between language and dialect? Which criteria do we use? In order to proceed a bit more objectively, linguists prefer using the neutral term variety, which is also used for sociolects.

One thing before I show you some (pseudo-)criteria which may help to differentiate between a language and a dialect: When I use the term language here, I mean individual languages. In structural linguistics according to Ferdinand de Saussure, the term langue is used for this, opposed to the term langage. The latter denotes the ability to speak. With regard to the language-dialect problem, language is to be used as the superior term, dialect as the subordinate term.

Is a language the language of a nation?

I expect the outcry here to be great. There may be Austrians who will reply that they also speak German, but that Austria is a proper state. They are right with that. However, it is not at all unusual for the term language to be used to collect all the varieties spoken within a state. For example, Serbian and Croatian are very similar and one variety can be considered to be a dialect of the other, and yet each is considered an individual language. But, as I already mentioned, this cannot always be claimed. It is estimated that there are about 3000-5000 languages  in the world, but only about 200 states. This criterion is therefore invalid, but worth mentioning, as it reveals a political dimension of that language-dialect problem.

Is a language always written?

A criterion that is also political, but not necessarily linguistic, is to consider a variety as a language if it is written down.  Ideally, a variety will have a long tradition of written texts. Hmm ... so  Swabian from the introduction is a language after all? Laura already read “Asterix schwätzt schwäbisch”. And her grandmother always used to sing Bavarian children songs to her. But are there biology science books in Swabian? Hardly! So the issue of written texts is also problematic.

Mutual comprehensibility?

I return to the impulse from the beginning, whether mutual comprehensibility is a criterion for language-dialect-distinction. This means that if communication between two varieties is not possible, they are classified as two separate languages rather than as different dialects of one language. Unfortunately, this criterion is also not entirely objective, because whether mutual comprehensibility is guaranteed also depends on the individual competences of the speakers and listeners. For example, I understand some German dialects better than others. Moreover, I know enough people who listen to dialect speakers in a prejudiced way and they do not want to understand them either.

What criteria does linguistics work with, then, if the above-mentioned are that problematic? Now I will show three a bit controversial criteria that can be used to distinguish between language and dialect.


The German term Abstand (distance) is also used in English. It refers to one criterion linguistics works with and it is also called objective component. This lies in the language structure, which means that the greater the distance between two varieties, the more likely they are to be classified as different languages. Even though this component is called the objective component, it is not that objective. How many phones have to be different? How many words (words are generally problematic, but that's another topic)? How big should the grammatical differences be? And how is the whole thing evaluated? Does phonetics count more than syntax? Or less? So this question cannot be answered quite clearly either.


The term Ausbau (expansion) is used for the functional component of this classification. So the question is to what extent a language is written down or standardised. Are there descriptions of the variety, such as dictionaries or grammars? Is that variety taught or used in schools? Or is it used in administration? The bigger the ausbau of a langue, the more likely it is to be classified as a language.

Language awareness 

Another component that can be used to distinguish languages from dialects is the subjective component. How strong is the awareness of a speech community to speak a different language or a dialect of a language?

The components go hand in hand

Ideally, all components go hand in hand in determining whether a variety is a language or a dialect. The less strong the components are, the more likely a variety is to be classified as a dialect and less likely as a language. So much for the theory. Usually the components have different strengths. Incidentally, a good ausbau can compensate for a weak abstand. This is the case with Czech and Slovak. Both varieties have few linguistic structural differences, but are each very well standardised, which is why they are considered languages. This applies, for example, to neighbouring varieties of Franco-Provençal. These are considered dialects, as the ausbau is weak, even though the abstand is clearly greater. The same applies to Arabic dialects, even if the difference in linguistic structure to High Arabic can be very great in some cases. For those varieties, language awareness is also decisive, which is rather weak here. However, this subjective component sometimes seems to be of decisive importance. An example of this is Corsican, which has few differences to Italian and the ausbau is weak, too. However, the language awareness of the speakers is enormous. To clarify this distinction, the spelling differs from Italian. The actual phonemic inventory, however, hardly differs. 

Okay, so language awareness is the crucial component and one should simply ask the speakers whether they speak a language or a dialect? Well, it is not that easy. The Linguist Eugenio Coseriu argues that language awareness is often linked to a certain ideology. This in turn depends on other factors and circumstances and may also change. There is also the question of whether a certain variety has a lobby behind it.

So it is all the more important to emphasise once again that all components must go hand in hand and that, again, it is not easy to assess objectively whether it is a language or a dialect. This classification is therefore not completely arbitrary, but it is not entirely systematic either. It will continue to be a big research topic in linguistics and dialectology. How and with which methods is another topic.


Returning to the beginning: What about Swiss-German? Is it a proper language or is it a dialect? What do you think after having read this article?






Coseriu, Eugenio (1980): "Historische Sprache" und "Dialekt". In: Göschel, Joachim (ed.): Dialekt und Dialektologie. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 106-122

Diez, Friedrich (1836/1882): Grammatik der romanischen Sprachen. 5th edition. Bonn:Weber, 1882

Gabriel, Christoph & Meisenburg, Trudel (2007): Romanische Sprachwissenschaft, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink

Lausberg, Heinrich (1969): Romanische Sprachwissenschaft. vol. 1 Einleitung und Vokalismus. Berlin: de Gruyter 

Lindenbauer, Petra; Metzeltin, Michael & Thir, Margit (1994): Die romanischen Sprachen. Eine einführende Übersicht. Wilhelmsfeld: Egert


Photo credit: Leonardo Toshiro Okubo via Unsplash


Also für mich ist Schweizerdeutsch eindeutig ein Dialekt, der sich aus Südbaden über das Allemannische in Richtung Schweizer Grenze bewegt und sich dabei immer weiter von der „Hochsprache“ entfernt. Aber das ist nur meine subjektive Meinung. Danke an Dich, Lisa Marie, für Deine Analyse, die zeigt, dass auch die Sprachwissenschaft keine eindeutige Antwort liefern kann.

Gerne und danke für deinen Kommentar. Ich glaube, dass die Linguistik hier auch ein bisschen interdisziplinär arbeiten muss.

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