Language, Variety, Dialect


In a comment on last week’s post about ‘snow terms’, John Cowan takes me to task for comparing apples with lemons (a ‘malo-citrine’ comment is how he puts it) when I wrote that ‘lie’, ‘settle’, ‘stick’ and ‘pitch’ were alternative terms in use in various dialects of English. He maintains that while ‘pitch’ is a dialectal word “in this sense”, ‘lie, ‘settle’ and ‘stick’ are “part of the standard dialect”.

This raises the question: where is the boundary between two languages, two varieties or two dialects? To me, if the use of a word with a particular sense is restricted to one or more discrete geographical or social areas, then it is evidence of a particular geographical or social dialect. ‘Stick’ is a case in point: Amy Stoller, in another comment on the same post, admits that she had never thought any other word could be used, because that is what she is used to hearing in New York. To me this is good evidence that it is part of New York dialect, as it is of several North Midland dialects in England. I’m not sure why John thinks that “pitch”, on the other hand, is dialectal: it is a word I’m familiar with, and this sense is simply an extension of that for putting up a tent.

We generally speak of British English and American English as being the two major varieties of the language, but each of them comprises a large number of dialects. To me, a dialect is distinguished by its phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary (including the semantics of individual words). British and American English might be considered “super dialects”, but they certainly have different phonetics, phonology, grammar and vocabulary from each other, some features of which are common to all or many of the dialects within that variety. I am not sure where I stand on the question of when two dialects become separate languages: the famous difficulty is for Swedish, Danish and Norwegian – three languages or one? They are intercomprehensible, but generally reckoned separate languages. The old saw about languages having gunboats determines that they are three, but then British English and American English are still one language despite both having their own gunboats …


  1. I took “malo-citrine” as meaning “apples to oranges” but I guess lemons are okay too? I don’t exactly know the prevalence of stick vs lie vs settle vs pitch, but in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, at least), snow sticks.

  2. I do agree with most of your general points on languages and (or versus) dialects.

    Oranges, which are what I intended to allude to, are also citrus fruits.

    I haven’t done an exhaustive search, but it seems clear that “lie” and “settle” are not regionally restricted. Indeed, the OED quotes Robert Bridges as using both in a single line of a poem which as a whole is certainly in Standard English: “The snow came flying … Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying.” “Stick” is certainly not particular to New York, as a quick googling will demonstrate. It may be mostly restricted to North America, but as I said, Standard English does include regional variations which. however, don’t refute its existence as a single non-regional dialect.

    “Pitch”, on the other hand, is clearly recognized by people in Britain as a local usage (again per Google), provided they even recognize it at all. In the latest OED, the general verb “pitch” (as distinct from the homonymous verb that means to apply pitch) has 24 senses and a vast number of subsenses, none of which seems to have much to do with non-melting snow. Pitching a tent (sense 6a) is derived from the idea of pitching (driving into the ground, sense 2) the tent pegs, it seems: that in no way resembles what snow does when it falls. So I think we’re indeed dealing with a form that is non-standard, in fact the traditional dialect of Bristol (and perhaps other places).

  3. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that references to snow “sticking” were exclusive to the New York metropolitan area, only that the others mentioned were unknown (at least to me) in my neck of the woods.

    I’m not familiar with the old saw about “gunboats.” But it reminds me of Max Weinreich’s comment that “A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot.” (“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”)

    That reveals a commonly held point of view, but I think the idea that there is a “standard dialect” is debatable, unless one first grants that “standard” is a social construct, definable in more than one way. (My opinion is debatable too, of course!)

    Personally I’m fond of the Weinreich quotation, which I find amusing on a number of levels. I even quote it on my website. But I don’t equate it with an immutable Great Truth.

    (I leave it to you to decide whether Weinreich’s comment was made in a language or a dialect. In my opinion, it was both!)

  4. Besides the language, we can conduct an intensive driving test to distinguish between them. They are sure to swear in different languages when they pass each other.

  5. The sense or meaning of a word is determined by the users of a language. The same applies to the speakers of a dialect. Even though the issues that arise from the controversy of what is a dialect as against what is a language are more of political than linguistic; the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwagian being a perfect example, linguists still maintain that there are linguistic standards that determine this difference. During the Soviet era, full-fledged languages accepted to be subsumed under one language (Russian). Same with Chinese, in fact one will hardly know that there are several other languages in China. Mutual intelligibility is still a perfect determiner of what is a dialect of a language or a different language. Kalabari and Nembe, (both Languages of the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria), are mutually intelligible but because they are spoken in two different states in the region they are considered two different languages. While the Nembes agree that they understand Kalabari far more than their other Ijaw speaking neighbours, the Kalabaris deny any knowledge or understanding of Nembe. In Echie (a language of Rivers State of Nigeria), the following words exist depending on the dialect. They are: ugbu, udu, udula, udulaka, all mean ”now” yet all speakers understand each other without the slightest prejudice.

  6. An easier way to understand or decode meaning of words better is not by trying to interprete words in isolation but by applying them to context. In other words meaning is better determined in use in the sentence or in discourse rather than in isolation. So whether the word is stick, lie, or pitch, mutual intelligibility is better enhanced through the context of use of a word.

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