What is a dialect? / 方言とはなにもの?

By James [Bilingual version; 日英対照]

My curiosity towards dialects grows after one professor of mine, also a native Cantonese speaker, explained to his other students in Japanese, “I have just talked to him in a Cantonese dialect.” My thoughts have then never ceased as to what on earth a dialect is and what differences lay between a dialect and a language.

Linguistic scholars Halvor and Rolf understand language variations through the geological and sociological contexts. Both deny evidentially that Korean is a dialect because it is “a language by distance” (p. 7; Chapter 7), which means that Korean language bears only little affinity from its Asian counterparts.

Indeed, the distance between any two languages is determined by words and expressions employed in various regions. For instance, in Japan, even though one talks to a Kansaijin – a person born and raised in Kansai region – in a Kumamoto dialect, they can probably communicate well with one another since the two dialects are said to be in a system of “dialect continuum” which is defined as a variety of dialects articulated across some geographical area that only varies slightly from one and other between neighbouring areas. However, when people from the two opposite ends of the dialectical spectrum come together, neither dialects will become communicative as differences accumulate beyond the level of mutual understanding.

Ways of expressions in a dialect also differ with time due to migration and interaction with other peoples. For instance, despite Shōdoshima’s being an island within Kagawa prefecture, its geographical vicinity to Okayama and Hyōgo ones leads to close similarity of its dialect with a Kansai one.

Upon closer examination into Chinese language, it is found to be problematic to define the term of language, and it is equally challenging to do so in the language of Hindu and Arabic, as Halyor and Rolf also pointed out. In spite of being equivalently defined as Chinese, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Pekingese are fundamentally orally incompatible with one another because of their immense differences in terms of intonation and pronunciation. Therefore, from my personal perspective, it may be more precise to consider Chinese as a macro-language and to sub-categorize Cantonese and others as languages.

So far, I have come across a few who only honour the so-called ‘standard language’, despise their mother tongue or dialects spoken, and even feel inferior and ashamed when they are discovered not to be a speaker of the pure official language. Yet, a ‘standard language’ is merely created for the sake of convenience so that citizens from across the nation can communicate with one another with ease. It is thus unnecessary to be embarrassed just because your native language is not standard enough. Why don’t you pride yourself, instead, on being able to speak both dialect(s) and official language(s)?


Elfring, Halvor and Theil, Rolf “Chapter 7: Language and variation” in Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages

[This article is originally written in Japanese, and is rewritten into English on 1st February, 2016]

[Featured image taken by James Au on 6th April, 2015 at Osaka Castle, Japan]




ではその距離がどのように判定されるのであろう?地域によって言葉使い方が異なるか、ただし地域の異なる二人をお互いに話せば、意思表示できるということである。例えば、熊本弁を使って関西人の方に話してかけると相手も分かるはずである。要するに、熊本弁も関西弁は「方言連続体」(dialect continuum) の体系にはいている。






注1: Elfring, Halvor and Theil, Rolf “Chapter 7: Language and variation”in Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languagesに参照。

注2: http://ejje.weblio.jp/content/dialect+continuum



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