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Language or Dialect?

Popular culture usually thinks of a dialect as a substandard, low status, often rustic form of a language, usually associated with the peasantry, the working class or other parts of the community lacking in prestige. Dialects often being thought of as being some kind of erroneous deviation from the norm — an aberration of the 'proper' or standard form of language.

The fact is that all speakers of any language are all speakers of at least one dialect — Standard English for example is as much an English dialect as is any other form of English. No dialect is in any way linguistically superior to any other.

Linguistically speaking dialects are usually regarded as dialects of a language, that is, subdivisions of a particular language

The Parisian dialect of French
The Lancashire dialect of English
The Bavarian dialect of German

But — What is a language?

"A language is a collection of mutually intelligible dialects" — A definition which conveniently characterises a dialect as a subpart of a language, and provides a criterion for distinguishing between one language and another.

Another criterion for distinguishing languages from dialects is the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache framework developed by the linguist Heinz Kloss. Under the terms of that framework Kloss considered Scots to be a Halbsprache (half language). Ausbau referring to a variety having its own standardised form which is used autonomously with respect to other related languages. The Abstand refers to the distance between the languages as regards mutual intelligibility. A Dachsprache is usually a standard language which 'roofs' different dialects in a dialect continuum.

Take for example, the Scandinavian languages, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Those are usually regarded different languages because they each have their own autonomous standardised form. Speakers of those three languages can, with little effort, understand and communicate with one another. Those languages have little Abstand and are mutually intelligible.
Take for example German, usually regarded as a single language. There are varieties of German which are not understood by speakers of other varieties.

What does the above prove? One thing for certain — 'language' is not a particularly linguistic notion at all. The reason why Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and German are thought of as single languages has as much to do with political, geographical, historical, sociological and cultural reasons, as with linguistic ones.

Therefore the term 'language' is relatively 'unscientific'. Linguists usually refer to 'varieties of language'. Therefore Norwegian Swedish and Danish could be referred to as varieties of Scandinavian.


Accent refers to a variety which is phonetically or phonologically (pronunciation) different from other varieties.


A dialects is a variety which is grammatically (and perhaps lexically different) as well as phonologically different from other varieties.

Dialects and accents frequently merge into each other without any discrete break.

Geographic Dialect Continua

A dialect continuum is a chain of mutual intelligibility across geographical space. Adjacent dialects are usually intelligible but dialects which are further apart may not be mutually intelligible.

An example of such a dialect continuum is the Romance dialect continuum stretching across the Iberian peninsula through France and parts of Belgium down to the southern tip of Italy. From one place to another across this area there would be some linguistic differences distinguishing one place from the another. Sometimes the differences would be greater sometimes less, but with distance they would be cumulative. The further apart the places the greater the differences would become. As the distance increases between places communication becomes increasingly more difficult and eventually impossible. In places far apart the 'dialects' spoken are mutually unintelligible, though all across the dialect continuum a chain of mutual intelligibility exists.

In this example the continuum includes Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian. Where did one language end and the other begin?

Europe has many other dialect continua. The west Germanic language continuum includes Frisian, Dutch (Flemish), Low Saxon, German and Swiss German. The varieties spoken in Ostend in Belgium and Zürich in Switzerland are not mutually intelligible but are linked by a dialect continuum. Low Saxon is often regarded as a dialect of Dutch in the Netherlands and a dialect of German in Germany. The same 'language' a dialect of two different ones? Low Saxon is regarded by many as a marginalised language not a dialect of either Dutch or German.

Another dialect continuum is the north Slavic dialect continuum including Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian

As elsewhere in Europe a language continuum exists in the British Isles. Stretching from Cornwall to Shetland. Beat Glauser's research into the Scots/English linguistic border showed that the linguistic and political borders where almost identical. One of the most marked borders in a European language continuum. This of course has to do with historical and social factors. Before the union of 1707 people in Scotland looked to court Scots as their linguistic standard whereas in England people looked to London. After the Union people in Scotland continued using Scots as an expression of their identity. To a large extent it seems as if English stops at the border and Scots Begins.

Autonomy and Heteronomy

As described above, the Low Saxon varieties spoken in the Netherlands are often regarded as dialects of Dutch while those spoken in Germany are often regarded as dialects of German. This is due to the relationship those varieties bear to their respective Dach or standard languages Dutch and German. This is simply because many people in the Netherlands believe they are speaking Dutch, that they read and write Dutch and that the standardising influences on their variety will be towards Dutch, and on the whole they will look towards Dutch as the standard language which normally corresponds to their vernacular. Similarly with the varieties in Germany.

Since heteronomy and autonomy are the result of political and cultural rather than purely linguistic factors they are subject to change. For example, until 1650 part of what is now southern Sweden was part of Denmark. The dialects spoken there were then considered to be dialects of Danish. As a result of war and conquest this area became part of Sweden. Forty or fifty years later these dialects were considered dialects of Swedish although no linguistic change had taken place. These dialects had become heteronomous with respect to Standard Swedish rather than Standard Danish.

Until the beginning of the 19th century the official language used in Norway was Danish. It was only with the reemergence of Norway as an independent nation that a distinct, autonomous Standard Norwegian was developed — with two orthographies — Bokmål and Nynorsk.

It was only in the 1920s that what we now call Afrikaans became an independent language with the acquisition of its own name, orthography and standardised grammar. Before that is was regarded as a variety of Dutch.

It has been argued that Scots was an autonomous Ausbau variety before 1707 with its own 'standardised' orthography and grammar. At the time no language in Europe was as standardised as they are today. The orthographic variation of the time was no different than in contemporary England. Therefore, it can also be argued that that was simply polycentric standardisation. It was the result of the southern Standard replacing the Scots one that eventually caused Scots speakers to think of Standard English as the Dachsprache to which their vernacular was heteronomous. Scots did not cease to be spoken, or written, in 1707.

The Scandinavian Languages Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are considered languages because they have distinct, codified, standardised forms, with their own orthographies, grammar books, and literatures; that correspond to three separate nation states.

Is Scots a dialect or a language?

Product information taken from the packaging of a Philips energy saving lamp, in Danish, Norwegian, Czech and Slovak.

Kan ikke brukes i forbindelse med dimme utstyr eller elektronisk av og på mekanismer. Ikke egnet til bruk i helt lukkede armaturer.

Kan ikke bruges i forbindelse med lysdæmper og elektronisk tænd-sluk-ur. Ikke egnet til helt lukkede armaturer.

Nevhodné pre stmievanie, elektronické spínanie, pre fotobunky casové spínanie a senzory snímania intenzity svetla. Nevhodné prevádzkovat‘ v úplne uzavretých svietidlách.

Nevhodné pro stmívání, elektronické spínání, fotobunky. Casoá zarízeni a stmívací cidla. Nevhodné k použití do hermeticky uzavrených svítidel.

Which is the language, which the dialect?

Although it may seem that one of each in those pairs appears to be a deviation from the other, each variety is used as a medium of instruction with a standardised written form that is systematically taught in schools and ubiquitously used by the speaker community in all spheres of life.

Arguments put forward by those who argue that Scots is a language are:

Scots has at least five dialect groups and some of these are further subdivided.

The dialects of Scots are, with their differing pronunciation, grammar, lexis and accents, mutually intelligible to Scots speakers. Many speakers of English dialects often find (broad) Scots dialects unintelligible.

Scots has an extensive literature reaching back at least 600 years, latterly without a fully standardised written form, perhaps due to hardly any education taking place through the medium of Scots. Even so, Scots grammars and descriptions of the prestigious spelling conventions have been published over the years so codification or Ausbau isn't completely lacking there.

Most people consider Scotland to be a nation, and not a peripheral region of Britain/England.

Scots is also officially recognised.

From the Scottish Education Department's Scots Language Factsheet (12.08.99) dealing with the Scottish Executive's Policy on the Scots Language:

"The Scottish Executive considers the Scots language to be an important part of Scotland's distinctive linguistic and cultural heritage..."

"The UK Government announced on 4 June 1998 its decision to sign the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This came into effect as of the 1 July 2001. The Scots language will be covered by Part II of the Charter. By applying Part II of the Charter to Scots the Government will be recognising the distinctive nature and cultural value of the language."

"The Consultative Steering Group Report (Section 3.3 §§ 53-64 'Language') has recommended that the normal working language of the Parliament should be English but the CSG Report recognised the strong historical and cultural arguments for facilitating the use of Gaelic and Scots in the Parliament"

"This involves teachers in valuing pupils' spoken language.... This makes children aware of the richness of the language and helps them value the Scots they may use at home or with their peers."

And the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement Approved by referendum on 22 May 1998:

"Rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity.

Economic, Social and Cultural Issues

3. All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland."

And the agreement between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of Ireland establishing implementation bodies:

"Annex 2, DEFINITIONS, Part 5, Language

1.7 "Ullans" is to be understood as the variety of the Scots language traditionally found in parts of Northern Ireland and Donegal. "Ulster-Scots cultural issues" relate to the cultural traditions of the part of the population of Northern Ireland and the border counties which is of Scottish ancestry and the influence of their cultural traditions on others, both within the island of Ireland and in the rest of the world."

"Annex 1, Part 5, Language

Ulster Scots

— promotion of greater awareness and use of Ullans and of Ulster Scots cultural issues, both within Northern Ireland and throughout the island."

Nevertheless, socio-linguistically, Scots functions as part of English as a whole rather than independently from it. Scots is consequently subject to the same dialect levelling and widespread adoption of what is considered the prestigious form of the language as the dialects of English spoken elsewhere in Britain. When written, Standard English is usually the frame of reference. The conventions of Standard English and their perceived sound-to-letter correspondences often being used in, sometimes esoteric, attempts to provide the reader with the Scots pronunciation in much the same way written representation of other dialects of English manifest themselves in popular culture.

Websites promoting Scots, such as this one, perhaps for want of an institutionalised Scots norm, generally do so through the medium of Standard English. The de facto standard form or Dachsprache from which the dialect(s) being presented are thus perceived to deviate. The emphasis is often on Scots words, however, many of those are also used in the northern dialects of England. That emphasis on what are perceived to be particularly Scottish words, indicates that they are regarded as part of an English whole rather than part of an independent Ausbau language with its own spelling conventions, syntax, grammar and idiom etc. In educational environments Scots is also generally treated as part of an English whole. In schools the emphasis is usually on creative dialect writing rather than presenting Scots as a ubiquitous alternative to Standard English.

At the end of the day there is no 'scientific' way to prove whether Scots is a language or a dialect. It boils down to a body's personal opinions and prejudices. That could be argued over until the cows come home — or in Scots: Till the kye comes hame.