LINGUIST List 6.1295

Fri Sep 22 1995

Disc: Dialect

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. benji wald , Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect
  2. Ole Ravnholt, Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect

Message 1: Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect

Date: Thu, 21 Sep 1995 02:44:00 Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect

Anthea's reaction to the "dialect"/"language" dichotomy was interesting.
As I understood it, she exclaimed "What! Before writing there were no
LANGUAGES?" This is about words. As linguists, we have our ownn under-
standings of the dichotomy, and Lass's message is representative of that.
Language is something of an absolute term. Dialect is a term with relative
or relational implications. There might (though there isn't) be only ONE
language, but there cannot only be ONE "dialect". It's only a dialect when
it can be compared to another one (whether the other one is considered a
"language", e.g., Danish, or a "dialect" e.g., Swiss-German -- which of
course Moulton has informed us has many dialects itself -- but that's what
we expect.) Anthea did not seem to take into account that the discussion
intended to create links between our technical use of the dichotomy and the
popular distinction, which is different. A related subject, which has often
provoked a similar reaction, has to do with the distinction between "history"
and "prehistory". For some historians, particularly during colonialism,
"history" meant WRITTEN documents about the past. Otherwise, it was
pre(-)history, oral traditions and whatever. So the exclamation of many,
especially those who were excluded and recognised the implications, was
was "What! Since it isn't written down, we don't have a history?"
This was a technical use of the word "history" but it conflicted with the
popular use, and was denigrating. Somewhere along the line, the technical
use of the term "history" has backed off that position, as far as I can see.
But it seems to linger in that "history" is that span of the past starting
when somebody, even though not everybody, had writing. "Pre-history" is
"before anybody wrote anything". I guess that solved one problem, e.g.,
that the Mayans didn't have a history until their glyphs were deciphered as
a writing system, and then they had "history" -- instead of the fanciful
prehistory that the glyphs meant to most scholars before the script was
recognised and deciphered.

One never knows. Someday "dialect" may suffer a similar fate. Meanwhile,
I see no danger in using the word technically as we have been using it.
After all we're only talking to ourselves (digression: see why reciprocals
and reflexives are the same in many languages?) My original caution was
about how we talk to, and, more importantly, UNDERSTAND outsiders.
In other words, I don't think Alexis's suggestion that maybe we should
avoid the term "dialect" for the sake of PR is necessary or would even
work. Whatever we say, we will be misunderstood unless we talk the
language of OTHER people. And if we do that, we have relinquished
control over terms of discourse in our own field. That's not possible.
Is the OED even scanning our theoretical publications for neologisms? Benji
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Message 2: Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect

Date: Thu, 21 Sep 1995 13:37:04 Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect
From: Ole Ravnholt <>
Subject: Re: 6.1277, Disc: Dialect

As a native speaker of Danish, I was somewhat surprised (it possibly hurt
my feelings a bit, also; after all, Danish is not just my first language,
it is my Mother Tongue) to read in Mark Lewellen's recent posting that:

>even though Danish and Swiss
>German are equally distant from the standard =13high=14 German,
>Danish is viewed as a separate language while Swiss German is
>considered a German dialect, due to sociopolitical
>considerations and being "linked" by a greater number of
>intermediate gradations of dialects (Bloomfield 1933:42-56,
>Hockett 1958:321-330).

Hockett was not at home in the library, but Bloomfield was: what he
actually says is a bit different (and less disturbing): the Danish dialect
spoken in southern Jutland (on the Danish/German border) is no more distant
from the German dialect spoken just south of the border than that German
dialect is from Swiss German, which is of course quite considerable. I
suspect that while the northern German dialect and the Swiss one may be
mutually unintelligible, Standard High German is intelligible to speakers
of both. Danish and German are not mutually intelligible, even though some
of us have learnt German in school, and on both sides of the border many
people understand and even speak the other language.

Ole Ravnholt
Institut for Kommunikation
Aalborg Universitet
Langagervej 8
DK-9220 Aalborg =D8

phone: +45 98 15 42 11 - 7114
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