A language – what is that?

Why Dutch is just weird German and everybody in the Balkan speaks five languages. But really it is about language and how, and if, it is different from a dialect.

That‘s easy, isn‘t it? It is what people use  to communicate with each other. And different nations have different languages, easy! Well, but consider Bosnian and Serbian or Swedish and Norwegian, they can understand each other perfectly, yet they speak different languages?  Or consider Arabic, a speaker from Syria will have a hard time understanding someone born and raised in Morocco, yet it‘s the same language?
And have you ever heard a Swiss speaking German …?

Let‘s ask a linguist, shall we? Surely they will know what that is, a language. The funny thing is, linguistics, the study of language, does not really have a clear cut definition of „language“.  Well, they do, in some way. But the whole story  is a little more complicated. Linguists prefer  to talk about dialects or about speech varieties. Dialects are not understood as being different from a standard language but as different from each other. Everything is a dialect. Standard German as much as Bavarian German or Saxonian German. And here it starts to become interesting. German dialects close to the Dutch border are pretty close to their Dutch dialects on the other side. Closer to them than to standard German in fact. So, why is the one German and he other Dutch, and isn‘t Dutch just a dialect of German  (or vice-versa if you ask them)?

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

(Usually attributed to the linguist Max Weinreich)

This quote shows that language is, after all,  a political and societal category. It is, somewhat arbitrarily, defined by politics, religion or society. Arabic, is Arabic and not many different languages because it is considered a holy language. Chinese is only Chinese with several dialects due to a strive for national unity.
Norwegian and Danish are different languages from Swedish, because they don‘t like the Swedes (even though they secretly do).
And Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Croatian are all different for the sake of nationalism and  so that every Balkan Person can say they speak four or five languages.

Even though the boundaries between closely related languages are arbitrary, the standardisation and definition of one dialect as a language does lead to stricter boundaries between them.  Over time in many countries more and more people tend to lose their specific dialects and use the standardised one.
So over time the difference between German spoken one side and Dutch on the other side  of the border will become much more stark.  And our arbitrary national borders will be reflected in a real difference between the languages  on either side.

Understanding ‚a language‘ as just another dialect that has been chosen to be the standard also goes to show that there is no point in judging people that speak differently from that chosen standard. If that‘s just arbitrary, the other dialects are just  as fine, just as sophisticated in their range  of expression. And people who speak a different dialect are not dumb, just have another way  of using the language they are part of.

Like with most things, there is no clear cut and easy answer to what exactly is and isn‘t a language,  but I hope that this article has shed some light  on the issue and maybe struck you with curiosity to learn more about linguistics or to delve into the universe of another ‚language‘ with all the richness of its dialects, its slang and idioms, it‘s naughty and nice words, it‘s literature, music, culture  and traditions.

Mathis Gilsbach

Sources:
https://www.quora.com/Do-Norwegians-and-Swedes-hate-each-other-or-just-like-to-make-jokes-about-the-other-nation-for- fun-How-is-their-general-attitude-toward-Finns-and-Danes

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_language_is_a_dialect_with_an_army_and_navy

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