I was recently in Norway, and I found that for the most part, it was perfectly possible to use Swedish to communicate with Norwegians. After all, the two Germanic languages are closely related and some people even claim that they aren’t distinct languages, but are instead, along with Danish, simply dialects of a Scandinavian language.
Dialects can be difficult to define, and not just because of linguistic reasons. There can also be cultural, political, and historical reasons for why some people prefer to believe that their language is very different from another. For example, I’ve taught students who identified themselves as Bosnian, Serbian, or Croatian. They admitted that their various languages are mutually intelligible, but they firmly insisted that the languages were nevertheless distinct and that this fact should not be misunderstood.
So there are a lot of fascinating and difficult questions to consider. What makes something a language rather than a dialect? How many words or pronunciations have to be different before one language is said to now be two or more? How must the cultures behind the languages distinguish themselves so that the native speakers start to see themselves as separate? And who decides what is a dialect and what is a language?
Here are a few interesting sources of information about dialects:
I recommend Fredrik Lindström’s tv show about Swedish dialects, Svenska Dialektmysterier.
You can listen to 100 different Swedish dialects on SweDia.
In the US, PBS ran a show on American dialects, entitled Do You Speak American?
For more on American dialects, there is the American Dialect Society.
Finally, to learn about dialects in the UK, see the BBC Voices site.
The next post will look at translating dialects.
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