Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dialects

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.

4 comments:

Anna said...

Brett, when my Norwegian-American husband and I were travelling in North Norway a couple of years ago, I found a book called "Den store dialektboka" (The Big Book of Norwegian Dialects). It is extremely interesting. As you undoubtedly know, Norwegian has many dialects, largely because of its geography (most villages are isolated from one another by water or mountains).

(Although my Norwegian is weak, my linguistics training allowed me to understand much of the book's notation. When my husband and I got up to the cash register, the clerk asked me an unintelligible question. I replied in halting Norwegian: "Could you please repeat that?" He did so; no use. The clerk then leaned across the counter and said in dead-on accurate English, "If you guys can't speak Norwegian, how come you're buying these books?")

---Anna Primrose Bendiksen, Bryn Mawr '91

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Anna!
One Norwegian woman we spoke to while in Norway claimed that there were over 400 distinct dialects there! It seems like a huge number for such a small country (population: 4.5 million), but of course you're right about the geography causing that. The main two dialects, as you certainly know, are bokmål and nynorsk. I found this page that explains the difference between them, in case any other readers are interested: http://home.unilang.org/bb/index.php?n=21&t=6
That book definitely sounds interesting and I hope you've enjoyed it, even if you "can't speak Norwegian"! I just did a very perfunctory search and could only find an 80-page dictionary of Swedish dialects and a book from the '70s about Swedish dialects. If there is no "Big Book of Swedish Dialects," there should be!

Best wishes,
Brett

Anonymous said...

hey brett! could you please give me the names of those 2 books (80-page dictionary of Swedish dialects.... '70s about Swedish dialects)please please! I recently moved to sweden from australia and im learning the language :)

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Well, I can't recommend the books, since I haven't read them. I can recommend that you try to watch Fredrik Lindström's tv show called 'Svenska Dialektmysterier.' As for books, see what your local library has. In Helsingborg, for example, there is 'Svenska dialekter' by Bengt Pamp, and a book with CD called 'Lyssna på svenska dialekter!' (See http://www.bokus.com/b/9172290234.html?pt=search_result for more info on that one.)
If you're just learning Swedish, though, I think you should learn rikssvenska (standard Swedish) first and then try to learn more about different dialects.
Good luck!

Best wishes,
Brett