Language vs. Dialect



What do you think the difference between a language and a dialect is? Have you ever questioned it before? For most people when they are asked which languages they speak they will answer something like “Spanish, Portuguese, and a bit of French.” How often does a Colombian Spanish speaker say that they speak the coastal Colombian dialect of Spanish, or a Brazilian say that they speak a certain variety of Brazilian Portuguese? Not very often. Though, as many Latinx know, vocabulary, and sometimes even the grammar of Spanish, differs from region to region. A Venezuelan speaker may not understand every word of a Chilean speaker, even though they are both speaking Spanish.

If we change the lens to Europe, we would say in Norway they speak Norwegian and in Sweden they speak Swedish, when in actuality these two languages can be mutually understood. Why is it then that Venezuelans and Chileans speak Spanish, while Norwegians and Swedes speak the same language with different names?

Historically, standard languages came about with the rise of the nation-states. Before the French Revolution, for example, there were many languages spoken in France, like Alsatian and Breton. After the Revolution, in search of égalité, the government took the language of the elite in Paris, French, and spread it around the country. This idea of the language uniting the people of a nation is why we say (especially in Europe) “In Spain, they speak Spanish. In Italy, they speak Italian. In Norway, they speak Norwegian.”

A standard language is what you read in your grammar books, as well as almost all other print. This language is said to have more prestige and power, since it is written. I am writing in standard American English, yet I speak a variety of Miami English. Why is something so abstract as a standard language given more power over the language which is really spoken and used, namely a dialect? Is there really a difference between a language and a dialect?


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