When I tell people that my mother tongue is Malayalam, first they look at me like I am playing a tongue-twister game and then a good % of them follow up with ” Oh, so that is an Indian dialect”. And I ever so patiently try to explain that Malayalam is not a “dialect”, it is a “language” on its own. Regardless of whether they nod in agreement after or without further discussion, a nagging thought always lingers in my mind whether they really agree that my beloved Malayalam is a language and not just a dialect.
For people who are more familiar with Chinese dialects ( they are usually the ones who have a problem accepting that India has several languages), I often present the argument that contrary to Chinese dialects, Indian languages don’t share the same script. This used to close the argument before. But yesterday I had a similar conversation with a colleague, who insisted that that is not a good enough reason. So, I decided to do some “research” on this and after some primitive googling came up with this.
Webster defines language as “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings“. Dialect is defined as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language“.
The Linguitsics department at University of Delaware teaches that “A criterion of mutual intelligibility is often applied as a test of whether a pair of speakers is speaking two different languages or one or two dialects of the same language: if the two speakers can understand one another, then they must be speaking the same language.“
While I can prove that Malayalam and say, Hindi are two distinct languages based on the definition above, it does not help my case that the North German German and South German and Bavarian German are just dialects, not distinct languages. So, further reading revealed that “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” (Uriel Weinreich, eminent sociolinguist). Aha! I guess an attempt to define languages and dialects through logic is not going to take me too far. And not just that, languages can not only be languages, but also be dialects. So, while French and Italian are widely accepted as mutually unintelligible language, they both are also “Romance” dialects (Webster).
It also got me thinking, if we apply the rule of intelligibility, C and C+ and C++ (hmm..and many others) must be programming dialects and not programming languages.
If the rule of mutual intelligibility or different scripts or geographical boundaries does not work, what does? And who decides? And if the distinction is not so clear, is being labeled a dialect as much a stigma as we often associate it to be?
I am left with more questions than I started with.