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Dialect or Language – What’s the Difference, and What Difference Does It Make?

I recall a childhood vacation on the coast of northwestern Jutland, the Danish peninsula that borders Germany to the south and the only part of Denmark that is not entirely surrounded by water. I was fishing off a pier with my father when I heard some people speaking in what to me sounded like a foreign language. “What are they saying?” I asked my father. Laughing, he told me that they were speaking the same language I spoke—Danish. But it didn’t sound anywhere close to the Danish I spoke in Copenhagen, the capital city in the opposite end of the country (yet only a day’s journey away).


Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon one of Denmark’s many dialects—variations of Danish caused by centuries of relative geographical isolation, among other factors. (Personally, I speak the Copenhagen dialect, which of course I always considered “standard Danish”.) Interestingly enough, my father, who was originally from Long Island, delivered his explanation to me in a thick New York accent, which I regarded as “normal” English, unlike the drawl of the likes of John Wayne.


Years later, in Utah, I found myself assigned as a Spanish/English interpreter in juvenile court for the mother of an underage defendant. Though the mother was from Mexico, I quickly realized that she was not fluent in Spanish. Her native language was Otomi, and she had difficulty understanding even basic sentences in Spanish. Eventually, I had to inform the court that they would need to hire the services of a qualified Otomi interpreter.


In the case from Denmark, the issue at hand was a dialect that differed from my own dialect. Meanwhile, the case from Utah dealt with a separate language that was completely unrelated to Mexico’s official language of Spanish.


What, then, is the difference between dialect and language—and what difference does it make?


Many people refer to the various indigenous languages of Latin America as “dialects”. Even many Spanish-speaking citizens of Mexico and other Latin American countries use the Spanish term dialecto to refer to indigenous languages that (incorrectly) are perceived as inferior to the dominant language. This is typically because speakers of indigenous languages tend to have a comparatively lower socioeconomic and educational status.


My wife is originally from the Mexican city of Oaxaca, the state capital of Oaxaca State. Though Spanish is the official language, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mixe are widely spoken in Oaxaca State, as are several other indigenous languages. In areas around Mexico City, the Nahuatl language boasts over a million speakers. Each of these indigenous languages is an individual language in the same sense as English, French, and German are.


From a linguistic standpoint, a dialect is simply a specific variety of a language. Webster’s refers to it as “a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dialect). Thus, American English and British English are two dialects, or versions, of English, each consisting of various subdialects. These subdialects are what account for the significant difference in how people speak in New York, New England, the southern United States, and even the state of Utah.


Many dialects are regionally based. Others, such as in the case of African-American English and Chicano English, . Though most Americans refer to these dialects as “accents”, a dialect has more than phonological differences; grammar and vocabulary differ as well.

Some dialectsare mutually intelligible (I can converse just fine in English with someone from England); others, such as Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, are not. The vernacular of elderly fishermen from the western shores of Jutland can sound incomprehensible to a city boy from Copenhagen.


Some languagesare also mutually intelligible. For example, Danes and Norwegians can typically converse using their respective languages, and reading comprehension of one another’s languages is even higher. Swedish is also relatively easy to understand for Danes.


Translation

When it comes to translation, language and dialect are important factors to take into account.


I receive numerous requests for a translation from one of my source languages into English. Often, however, I have to inquire about the intended dialect of English, typically American English vs. British English. In some cases, the choice of dialect does not make a major difference. This largely depends on the subject matter and the intended purpose of the translation. In the medical field, the vocabulary is largely the same, albeit with some differences in spelling: tumor vs. tumour, edema vs. oedema, anesthesiavs. anaesthesia, etc., depending on whether the author was American or British respectively.


In the legal field, the differences become more complex. This is largely a result of differences in legal systems (in fact, even within the U.S., different jurisdictions use different legal terminology).


The choice of dialect becomes crucial when translating marketing texts. In marketing, one size does not fit all. It will make an enormous difference whether the target audience is in Australia, the United States, Canada, or South Africa. Likewise, marketing texts targeted for Mexico may look different from a text aimed for use in Argentina. In fact, this is where localization plays an important factor—the process of adapting a text for use in a particular location. Localization considers not only dialect, but also local culture and other factors. Translating marketing copy for Spanish-speakers in the U.S. can be even more complex since the target audience hails from a variety of countries.


Norwegian is a language with two major dialects: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Not only are the differences obvious to the ear; in written form, the two dialects employ vastly different spelling conventions as well. In fact, some Norwegian websites have both versions. Deciding which dialect to use in a Norwegian translation is important. When choosing a translator to translate a text from Norwegian to English, ensuring that the translator is familiar with the dialect of the source text is crucial.


Interpreting

Like in the field of translation, dialectal differences also make a difference when it comes to interpreting (oral interpretation of spoken language). In the legal field, the interpreter can speak any variety of Spanish but must be cognizant of, and comfortable with, the different dialectal differences.


International audience

Sometimes, translations or interpretation services are aimed at a multinational audience. In those cases, the translator will typically strive to use words and expressions that will sound familiar to everyone. Where spelling varies depending on dialect, the translator will typically choose one spelling convention and use it consistently.


Conclusion

Language and dialect are two different terms with different meaning. From a linguistic standpoint, no language is inferior or superior to another, whether it is Norwegian or Nahuatl, Turkish or Tzotzil, or Mandarin or Mixe. When acquiring the services of a translator or interpreter, however, it is crucial to identify the exact language – and, if necessary, dialect – that is needed in order to find the most suitable linguist.


At WTS Translations, we always take dialect into account when selecting translators for our translation projects.

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