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The very first definition of dialect: Aristotle (384-322 BC) classifies the animal kingdom

Dialect is the articulation of the voice by means of the tongue.

This definition may sound like gibberish at first glance, but Aristotle actually meant the opposite. To the Greek philosopher, an eager collector interested in the great diversity of nature, dialect was articulated speech, speech produced by means of the tongue and other speech organs, destined to convey a clear message. He opposed it to two other types of animal noise: sound and voice. Articulated speech (dialect) was typical of mankind, but could also be found in some bird kinds, according to Aristotle (I can’t help but imagine the Greek scholar with a pet parrot on his shoulder). Sounds were produced by, among others, insects (think of that awful chirping cicadas produce), whereas mammals, for instance, had the ability of voice (imagine the frightening roar of a lion). This natural interpretation of the term dialect is miles away from later conceptions, in which the notion of linguistic difference and diversity takes center stage. For Aristotle, the division into sound, voice, and articulated speech (dialect) was not the cornerstone of a linguistic theory but rather a way to classify zoological diversity. Indeed, his definition of dialect, the earliest one we have, did not feature in a work on language but on the animal kingdom.



Original Greek at Historia animalium 535a: διάλεκτος δ’ ἡ τῆς φωνῆς ἐστι τῇ γλώττῃ διάρθρωσις.

Click e.g. here for more information.

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To the Greek roots: Diogenes of Babylon (ca. 240–150 BC)

Dialect is written voice bearing an ethnic and Greek stamp, or written voice of a certain region, that is, having a certain quality according to a dialect, as thálatta [‘sea’] in the Attic and hēmérē [‘day’] in the Ionic.

This is the earliest definition of dialect we have. At least, if you don’t count the rather odd one by Aristotle, to which I’ll return in a later post. The definition is formulated by a Stoic philosopher known as Diogenes of Babylon. Diogenes came from a town in Babylonia near present-day Baghdad and studied in Athens, where I’m writing this post. He was a pupil of Chrysippus, a philosopher some believed to have died from laughter, who greatly influenced him. Diogenes became head of the Stoic school in the Greek city and towards the end of his life he spent some time in Rome as part of a philosophical delegation. Diogenes’ work has suffered the fate of many ancient writings, unfortunately. None of it has come down to us. Luckily, a namesake of his, Diogenes Laertius, found his work interesting enough to summarize it in his Lives of the philosophers. Among other things, he quotes some passages of Diogenes’ essay on the human voice, including the definition of dialect.

So what is a dialect according to Diogenes of Babylon? His definition is not very clear, I must say, but let me try to explain it a bit for you. Diogenes apparently thought of dialect not as a regional variety of a language, as we usually do, but rather as a concrete feature of a language specific to a certain region. The examples he provides suggest this. For instance, the Greek word thálatta, meaning ‘sea’, is a dialect, because this word is characteristic of the inhabitants of Attica. It is not used by other Greeks, who say thálassa. Two other aspects of his definition might seem rather surprising to us. Firstly, a proud Greek, Diogenes sees dialect as something exclusive to his people. It occurs only among the different tribes of Greece, which was ethnically and politically diverse. That is what the phrase “bearing an ethnic and Greek stamp” means. Secondly, dialect refers only to speech that can be written by means of letters. This might not be immediately clear from the original definition, but the Greek word which Diogenes uses in his definition, léxis, and which I have translated as “written voice”, suggests that this is indeed what he means. As a matter of fact, his biographer tells us that he defined this word in this manner.

So a dialect is both Greek and written down, and it refers in the first place to uncommon word forms rather than to a variety of a language. Why should Diogenes want to explain the word dialect like this? The answer is somewhat complex, especially because our sources are very fragmentary. Yet the explanation should probably be sought in the reason why Greek intellectuals such as Diogenes were interested in the dialects of their language at all. Dialects such as Attic, Ionic, Doric, and Aeolic were used in the literary works of the great Greek poets and prose writers. So it was love of literature with a touch of ethnocentrism that gave shape to Diogenes’ idea of what a dialect is.



Original in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the philosophers 7.56: Διάλεκτος δέ ἐστι λέξις κεχαραγμένη ἐθνικῶς τε καὶ Ἑλληνικῶς, ἢ λέξις ποταπή, τουτέστι ποιὰ κατὰ διάλεκτον, οἷον κατὰ μὲν τὴν Ἀτθίδα θάλαττα, κατὰ δὲ τὴν Ἰάδα ἡμέρη.

Clement of Alexandria († before AD 215/21)

Dialect is speech exhibiting a property characteristic of a place, or speech exhibiting a property peculiar to, or common to, a tribe.

Clement of Alexandria was an Early Christian theologian and philosopher active in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Inspired by Stoic philosophers such as Diogenes of Babylon (see earlier post) and by the strong philological tradition present in his hometown, Clement formulated a definition of the Greek word diálektos which was to wield profound influence on later scholars trying to define the word, including the Swiss humanist Conrad Gessner (1516-1565). The close link Clement saw between dialect and the region where it is spoken as well as the people speaking it, laid the foundation of most later understandings of the word dialect. Up to this day, the term is still very much connected with regional variation in a language.



Greek original in Stromata 1.21.142.3: Διάλεκτος δέ ἐστι λέξις ἴδιον χαρακτῆρα τόπου ἐμφαίνουσα, ἢ λέξις ἴδιον ἢ κοινὸν ἔθνους ἐπιφαίνουσα χαρακτῆρα.

For more information on Greek definitions of dialect click here.

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Roger Bacon, ca. 1268

For an idiom is a property of a specific tongue, which a nation employs according to its usage.

Roger Bacon (ca. 1214/20–ca. 1292) was the first Western scholar to make a clear distinction between the level of languages and that of dialects. Bacon was in a unique position to do so, because he mastered not only his native English and Latin, the scholarly lingua franca, but also French, Ancient Greek and its dialects as well as Hebrew and a little Arabic and Aramaic. For a medieval scholar this was truly exceptional. Knowing that English, French, and Ancient Greek had different dialects, he intuitively concluded that there must be two levels as it comes to language diversity. On the one hand, there were distinct languages. On the other hand, languages could be further divided into dialects, which he called with a Latin term borrowed from Greek: idioma. He associated idioma with the usage of a specific nation or tribe, which Bacon likely identified with an ethnically homogeneous group of people such as the Picardians in France or Dorians in Greece.



Original Latin: Idioma enim est proprietas linguae determinatae, qua una gens utitur iuxta suam consuetudinem. 

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Niccolò Perotti, by 1478: Dialect diversity is not universal

Yet lingua (‘tongue’) is not only this little part of the body, about which we have spoken, but it is also difference of speaking, whence we say the Latin language, Greek, Jewish, Arabic, Aramaic. What is more, in one language there is sometimes diversity of speech, which is likewise called lingua, as in the Greek language there is a language which is called common as well as Attic, Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic.

The Italian humanist Niccolò Perotti (1429–1480) wrote an impressive commentary on the Roman poet Martial, in which he discussed nearly every Latin word in great detail. This included the Latin word lingua, ‘tongue; language.’ At this stage, dialectus had not yet become a Latin word, which is why Perotti felt compelled to use the word lingua both for language-level variation and for dialect-like diversity. Interestingly, Perotti assumed that not all languages were characterized by dialectal diversity (“there is sometimes diversity of speech”), probably because he thought that Latin was exempt from it.



Original Latin (Perotti 1489: fol. 85r): Est autem lingua non solum haec, de qua locuti sumus, particula corporis, sed etiam differentia sermonum, unde Latinam linguam dicimus, Graecam, Iudaicam, Arabicam, Chaldeam. Quin etiam in una lingua est aliquando sermonis diuersitas, quae similiter lingua dicitur, ut in lingua Graeca est lingua quae communis uocatur et Attica et Dorica et Ionica et Aeolica.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466/67/69–1536)

For the Greeks, dialect is a property or kind of language. For example, among the Greeks, though there is one language, there are nevertheless five dialects, so that he who is versed in Greek can directly recognize whether a speaker is Attic or Doric, Ionic or Lacedaemonian.

The great Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus was one of the first to actively use the word dialectus as part of the Latin language, the scientific lingua franca in Western Europe during the Renaissance. Erasmus still regarded the term as applying mainly to the Greek language, the dialects of which were best-known, and he refrained from using it with reference to any other language context. The humanist formulated his definition in 1519 as part of his new edition of his revolutionary notes on the Greek New Testament, as he wanted to explain a biblical passage (Acts 2.6-8) in which the Greek word diálektos (διάλεκτος) was used. He was one of the first scholars to explicitly oppose the terms language and dialect—or lingua and dialectus in Erasmus’ Latin.



Original Latin: Graecis dialectus est linguae proprietas aut species, uelut apud Graecos cum una sit lingua, quinque tamen sunt dialecti, ut qui Graece calleat mox possit agnoscere, Atticus sit qui loquatur an Doricus, Ionicus an Lacedaemonius.

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The first English definition, 1538

Dialectus, a maner of speche, as we wolde saye diversities in englysshe, as Northerne speche, Southerne, Kentyshe, Devenishe, and other lyke.

This is likely the first English definition of the word dialect we have. It features in the 1538 Latin–English dictionary of Sir Thomas Elyot (ca. 1490–1546), an English knight, diplomat, and humanist scholar. Partly an autodidact, Elyot made career as a diplomat in service of the English king. He was for instance part of a mission responsible for convincing Charles V that it was a good idea for Henry VIII to divorce Charles’ aunt Catherine of Aragon. He was a friend of the famous humanist Thomas More, at whose school he met his wife and who was executed while Elyot was on a mission. It is, however, for his remarkable oeuvre that he is nowadays remembered. He published mainly on ethical, medical, and theological subjects, and he also enriched the English language with new words, among other things through his translations of Ancient Greek texts into his native tongue. Another major contribution to scholarship was his already mentioned Latin–English dictionary, which had the very straightforward title: The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. The work was modeled on the influential and successful Latin dictionary of the Italian humanist Ambrogio Calepino, first published in 1502. This too included a definition of dialect, and Elyot’s “maner of speche” may very well be his translation of Calepino’s Latin phrase genus loquendi (“kind of speaking”). Calepino had referred to the Greek dialects to exemplify what he meant by dialect. Elyot, however, knew that the average Englishman would have no clue about the dialects of this distant and difficult language, so he decided to offer a different example, with which his readers were surely familiar, the “diversities” of their native English language.

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John Amos Comenius, 1648

What is a dialect? And how easily it changes again into new dialects.

Dialect is, in fact, a peculiar manner of speaking or at any rate of pronouncing or enunciating in the same language; accordingly, they speak the language differently or with a different accent here from elsewhere. For the tongue is a highly mutable body part, which can be transformed into boundless sound forms. Whoever lives in different places, soon also sounds differently. Surely the judgment of the ears is very delicate, it even notices the smallest of differences. This is why Germans, Frenchmen, Poles etc. who live a little further from each other, barely understand each other sufficiently; like a Swiss does not understand a Silesian, a Silesian does not understand a Pomeranian etc. Each region, nearly each city, has its own dialect, i.e. its peculiar character of speaking, at least with regard to some words, which are not used elsewhere, or with regard to pronunciation, deviating from the usage of others. Among the dialects of the Slavic language one counts Sorbian, the vernacular speech of Lusatia (a tiny region incorporated into Bohemia); and there is such a great multitude of particular dialects that the officials of the churches are forced to remain pinned down, as it were, to their positions, since if one is transferred about three or four miles, he is already barely able to be understood by the people. (I recall hearing this from a pastor from Muskau in the year 1626.)

The great Czech pedagogue John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) was very much into languages and the way they should be taught. In his Newest method of languages, Comenius focused on Latin, as he considered this the most useful language to learn at his time of writing. Nowadays he would likely have chosen English or Chinese. He did, however, accord considerable attention to other languages too and discussed the nearly universal phenomenon of dialects, which Latin lacked, but most other languages like Greek and German did not. He linked dialect to the concept of idiom, which he held responsible for the differences between distinct languages, whereas dialects cause variation within one and the same language. For Comenius, dialectal variation mainly appears on the level of the lexicon and pronunciation. The differences can be great, since speakers of related dialects do not necessarily understand each other, as Comenius’ statement on the Sorbian dialects reveals. Comenius apparently deplores the great difficulties of communication caused by dialects.



Original Latin: Dialectus quid? Et quae facile in nouas rursum dialectos abeat.

Dialectus uero est peculiaris loquendi aut certe eloquendi seu enuntiandi ratio in lingua eadem: prout eam aliter, aut alio accentu, loquuntur hic, quam alibi. Volubilissimum enim membrum est lingua, in infinitas sonorum formas transformabilis: quicumque diuerse habitant, mox etiam diuersum sonant. Aurium uero iudicium admodum est delicatum, exiguas etiam notat differentias. Hinc est, quod Germanus Germanum, Gallus Gallum, Polonum etc. uix satis intelligat, qui paulo remotius ab inuicem habitant: ut Heluetius Silesium, Silesius Pomeranum etc. Quaelibet regio, propemodum urbs, propriam habet dialectum, peculiarem scilicet dicendi characterem: saltem respectu dictionum quarundam, alibi inusitatarum: uel pronuntiationis, a consuetudine aliorum recedentis. Inter Slauonicae linguae dialectos numeratur Sorabica, Lusatiae (regioni inter Bohemiae accorporatas minimae) uernacula: ubi particularium dialectorum tanta est multitudo, ut ecclesiarum ministros locis suis uelut affixos manere necesse sit: quia translatus ad tria uel quattuor milliaria, uix iam satis populo intelligi potest. (Quod ex ore pastoris Musquensis, anno 1626 audire memini.)

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Georg Stiernhielm, ca. 1650: Language as substance and dialect as accident

Languages differ from each other in terms of substance, in their foundation as it were, but dialects in terms of accident.

According to the Swedish philologist Georg Stiernhielm (1598–1672), the difference between language and dialect is crystal clear. Distinct languages exhibit substantial divergences as to the roots of words, whereas related dialects are mere variations on one and the same language. They differ from each other in terms of accent, pronunciation, case, letters, syllables, syntax, and the meaning of words, but only slightly so. Yet they preserve the same words and roots as the language from which they derive. Stiernhielm was one of the first scholars to devote extensive attention to the distinction between language and dialect; he did so in the preface to his edition of the Gothic Bible, published in 1671. Yet he developed his views on language and dialect already around 1650, when he came into contact with other great philologists like Christian Ravis and Claude de Saumaise, both of whom also expressed a great interest in the concept of dialect.



Original in Georg Stiernhielm, Preface on the origin of languages (1671: c.4r): “Linguae inter se substantia, ceu subiecto; dialecti uero accidenti differunt.”

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Johann Leonhard Frisch, 1741

Some use Mundart to translate the word dialectus, but it is no good for that. Mundart is a kind of mouth, not of language. That’s why Sprechart seems to come somewhat closer to the word dialectus.

The German scholar Johann Leonhard Frisch (1666-1743) was a jack-of-all-trades, who had a fascination not only with natural history but also with language. He studied his native German language, Slavic tongues as well as the classical languages Latin and Ancient Greek. In one of his last works, an impressive Latin-German dictionary, he tried to define the German word Mundart, which had been deliberately introduced a century earlier as the pure German alternative for the foreign loan word dialectus (people and their xenophobia, right…). Mundart was coined in 1641 by the purist author Philipp von Zesen (1619-1689), pictured below. Frisch apparently did not agree with Zesen’s proposal. “Mundart? What is that? A kind of mouth… That doesn’t make sense!” He suggested Sprechart instead, but, alas, the mischief had been done, and now the Germans are saddled with Mundart, this inadequate word for ‘dialect’. To top it all, some Germans could not resist the appeal of the learned Latin word dialectus and also introduced the word Dialekt into their language. Mundart, Sprechart, Dialekt… The result? A Tower of Babel-style confusion of words!



Original German: Mund-Art, gebrauchen einige das Wort Dialectus zu übersetzen, aber es taugt nicht dazu. Mund-Art ist eine Art des Mundes, nicht der Sprache. Daher scheint Sprech-Art dem Wort Dialect. etwas näher zukommen.

Philipp von Zesen (1619-1689)  *drawing  *pencil and brush *c. 1700

From academic backrooms to the general public: A Scottish solution from 1783

To Query XV.—“What are the causes of a difference in dialect among people who speak the same language?”

VARIETY of dialect may originally and unavoidably arise, in some instances, from difference in the conformation of the organs of speech. The pronunciation of several consonants is affected by this circumstance. But the following causes, which it is unnecessary to illustrate, are sufficient to account for that diversity of speech which is observable in every nation:—Inattention to the pronunciation of others, and the retaining of mistaken pronunciation; the licence of poets; the affectation of novelty in curtailing, lengthening, and compounding of words; borrowing from foreign languages, with a view to adorn or improve; the arbitrary invention of words by those who are unacquainted with many already in use; the rejection of vulgar, and the re-admission of obsolete terms. The effect of these causes becomes remarkable in proportion to the want of acquaintance between the inhabitants of distant provinces. Though, at the building of Babel, diversity of languages was the cause, it is now the effect of separation among mankind. The language of North America will, in a few centuries, become unintelligible to an inhabitant of Great Britain.

Before the 19th century, discussions of what a dialect is and what separates it from a language were largely restricted to academic backrooms. In fact, even the word dialect was a technical term mainly used by scholars. Symptomatically, it figured in dictionaries for difficult words you could encounter while reading. In the 18th century, the market for knowledge opened up, and many newly created magazines popularized scientific research. Readers could also send in questions on all kinds of intellectual themes, to which the responsible editors tried to formulate sound answers. The redaction of The Edinburgh Weekly Magazine received the following query in 1783: “What are the causes of a difference in dialect among people who speak the same language?” In the September 11 edition of that year, it was answered by means of the brief paragraph quoted above. It is not exactly a definition of dialect, but it offers an interesting window on late eighteenth-century ideas about what causes regional variation within a language. And it demonstrates that the matter gradually evoked interest outside the confines of academia too. In conclusion of his answer, the author also made a rather interesting prediction about the fate of English in North America; it was bound to develop into a language distinct from that of Great Britain on account of its isolation. This remark moreover suggests that the person replying thought that speakers of related dialects can understand each other, whereas speakers of distinct languages cannot.

William Dwight Whitney, 1867

It will be noticed that we have used the terms ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ interchangeably, in speaking of any given tongue; and it will also, we trust, have been clearly seen how vain would be the attempt to establish a definite and essential distinction between them, or to give precision to any of the other names which indicate the different degrees of diversity among related tongues. No form of speech, living or dead, of which we have any knowledge, was not or is not a dialect, in the sense of being the idiom of a limited community, among other communities of kindred but somewhat discordant idiom; none is not truly a language, in the sense of being the means of mutual intercourse of a distinct portion of mankind, adapted to their capacity and supplying their needs.

Grammarians have been using the distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ ever since the Renaissance, often unquestioningly so. Even when linguistics was institutionalized in the early nineteenth century, scholars were initially not at all suspicious about it. The American linguist William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894) was one of the first to voice skepticism over the arbitrary distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect.’ In a 1867 article on the topic, Whitney claimed that every language is a dialect and vice versa, defining ‘dialect’ from a social and ‘language’ from a functional perspective. This is not a coincidence, as Whitney was also one of the first linguists to consider human language from a social perspective and suggested that it is a conventional system based on arbitrary symbols. In fact, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson declared themselves to be indebted to Whitney’s ideas. Despite explicitly identifying ‘language’ with ‘dialect,’ Whitney nonetheless used the traditional distinction between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ throughout the rest of his work. Old habits die hard!

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Ferdinand de Saussure, ca. 1906-11

Languages do not have natural limits.

It is difficult to say wherein the difference between a language and a dialect lies. A dialect often bears the name of language because it has produced a literature; this is the case with Portuguese and Dutch. The matter of intelligibility also plays its role; one will easily say about persons who do not understand each other that they speak different languages. […] In the same way as dialects are merely arbitrary subdivisions of the total surface of the language, the limit that is deemed to separate two languages can only be conventional.

For the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), usually considered to be the father of structural linguistics, it was impossible to find an objective manner to distinguish a language from a dialect, since linguistic difference is a question of gradation. Elsewhere, Saussure argued that dialects do not actually exist, but are merely abstractions made by speakers and linguists, an idea which he adopted from the French dialectologist Paul Meyer (1840-1917).



French original: Les langues n’ont pas de limites naturelles.

Il est difficile de dire en quoi consiste la différence entre une langue et un dialecte. Souvent un dialecte porte le nom de langue parce qu’il a produit une littérature; c’est le cas du portugais et du hollandais. La question d’intelligibilité joue aussi son rôle; on dira volontiers de personnes qui ne se comprennent pas qu’elles parlent des langues différentes. […] De même que les dialectes ne sont que des subdivisions arbitraires de la surface totale de la langue, de même la limite qui est censée séparer deux langues ne peut être que conventionelle.

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Jules Feller, 1912

So what is French? A soldier from the army of the Romance dialects, who has become general, a brilliant mercenary. What is Walloon? A bundle of dialects, a small corps of soldiers who, placed at the outskirt of the battalion, have never had the opportunity to distinguish themselves. They have remained what they were. They have not become Napoleons or Bernadottes, but neither are they degenerated descendants of some imperial Caesar. They are soldiers of the great and honorable army of Romance dialects.

Jules Feller (1859-1940) was a Belgian scholar and, as one can readily see, a proud Walloon, who defended in his Notes de philologie wallonne (1912) the Walloon language against the strong pressure of the French standard language. Feller argued that Walloon should not be seen as a dialect of French but as a separate Romance language likewise descending from Latin, which had, however, never reached standard language status. He explained this difference between standard language and dialect by contrasting the soldier making career as general, “private French”, to the marginal cannon fodder, “private Central Walloon”, “private Eastern Walloon”, and their colleagues like “private Picard”. By developing a military metaphor, Feller prefigured the well-known later saying that a language is a dialect with an army and navy.



Original French: Qu’est-ce donc que le français? Un soldat de l’armée des dialectes romans, qui est devenu général, un brillant soldat de fortune. Qu’est-ce que le wallon? un faisceau de dialectes, un petit corps de soldats, qui, placés à l’extrémité du bataillon, n’ont pas eu l’occasion de se distinguer. Ils sont restés ce qu’ils étaient. Ils ne sont pas devenus des Napoléon ni des Bernadotte, mais ils ne sont pas non plus des descendants abâtardis de quelque César impérial. Ce sont des soldats de la grande et respectable armée des dialectes romans.

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Hugo Schuchardt, 1922: There’s no such thing as a dialect

On the one hand, it is something relative, with dialect next to itself and language above itself; on the other hand, it is something complex, lacking a required coherence of its parts and lacking a fixed delimitation, so not an individual object, no organism, as it has so often been conceived.

The eccentric and influential German linguist Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927) did not believe in the existence of clearly delimited dialects. In Schuchardt’s eyes there were only variable linguistic features, but no self-contained entities called dialects — or languages for that matter. This observation made many of his colleagues uncomfortable, as he questioned some of the most fundamental assumptions of linguists: What is the nature of human language? He shared this skeptical attitude about the status of languages and dialects with numerous French scholars like Gaston Paris, but their nuanced ideas came to be overshadowed by the grand linguistic theories of the twentieth century.

A clever young teacher from the Bronx, 1943–44

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

This is surely the most famous answer to the question “What is the difference between a dialect and a language?” The quote is usually attributed to the great linguist Max Weinreich (1894–1969), who lectured on the Yiddish language in New York during World War II. Weinreich can, however, only be credited with publishing it. In fact, it was first formulated by an auditor of his, a young teacher from the Bronx who after one of Weinreich’s lectures confronted him with the question: “What is the difference between a dialect and a language?” When Weinreich was struggling to give him an adequate answer, the young man stopped the experienced linguist and told him: “That I know, but I will give you a better definition: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.” Overwhelmed by the outgoingness of the young man and impressed by his witty quip, Weinreich recounted this anecdote in a paper on the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) and its problems, written in Yiddish. The original quote reads in transcription: “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot”. Weinreich saw the quip as an excellent formulation of the fate of the Yiddish tongue; mainly spoken by Jews, it is based on German but heavily influenced by Hebrew and other languages and written with Hebrew characters from right to left. This tongue has often received the rubric of dialect because it is not backed by a powerful nation, unlike for instance the German language. The quip explains the distinction between language and dialect in political terms, while at the same time sharply criticizing its arbitrariness and unjustness. Power is what separates the languages from the dialects and not some objective linguistic feature. Such and other critiques have contributed to the suspicion linguists harbor about the term dialect.



Original Yiddish: אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט