Word War: Language vs Dialect

In my Word War post yesterday, I mentioned that bring and take have the same equivalent “in most, if not all, languages in the Philippines.” I have received several direct messages from people saying that there are only two languages in the Philippines—Filipino and English. What about the rest, like Hiligaynon, Bisaya, Waray-Waray, Kinaray-a, Chavacano, Kapampangan, etc.? These are referred by most people as dialects! But are they though?

Most people think that they know what dialect means, and they actually have a different understanding of the word. Most people (especially in the Philippines) believe that it is only a language when the state has declared it as the official medium of communication, otherwise, it is a dialect. This is a big misconception. If so, what really is the difference between a language and a dialect?

What is a language?

Oxford English Dictionary defines language as “the method of human communication, either spoken or written [or signed], consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way” while Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.”

Given these definitions, Hiligaynon, Bisaya, Waray-Waray, Kinaray-a, Chavacano, Kapampangan are all languages because they all have their own systematic conventions when it comes to grammar, vocabulary, vocal and tonal characteristics, etc.—all of which are different from one another. What then is a dialect?

What is a dialect?

Dialect is defined as “a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

Another definition of the word describes it as a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language. This is applied most often to regional speech patterns and is normally distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, intonation, and pronunciation.

One good example is how Tagalog is spoken in Metro Manila. Certain parts of Manila (especially the south) would say “naulan” instead of “umuulan” or “nasakit” instead of “sumasakit.” Another example is how the word “why” in Kinaray-a has different equivalents: “insa” and “naga” depending on which town you are in. These slight differences create dialects.

How do you distinguish a language from a dialect?

One criterion that distinguishes dialects from languages is mutual intelligibility. Dialects or varieties of a particular language are closely related and, despite their differences, are most often largely mutually intelligible. This is especially true for dialects close to one another on the dialect continuum.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Cebuano (referred to as Bisaya by most of its speakers) is spoken in both Visayas and Mindanao. However, every region has certain nuances of how it is spoken. For example, people in Cebu use the word choi or nindot to describe something nice, while people in Dumaguete and Cagayan de Oro use the word tsada (chada). People in Cebu also say dan instead of dalan (road), kayo instead of kalayo (fire), uwan instead of ulan (rain), and many other quirks.

The past tense of a word is also formed differently from one region to another. For example, the past tense of “kaon (to eat)” could be “nikaon,” “mikaon,” “ningkaon,” depending where you are. Despite these subtle differences, when Cebuanos speak to Kagay-anons and Dumagueteños, they still understand one another without much problem. The same cannot be said when Cebuanos talk to Tagalogs or Kapampangans because of how different their languages are.

Currently, there are at least 175 languages in the Philippines, with Filipino and English as the official languages used in documents and product branding. Our language is one key factor that molds our reason, logic, and society; and it represents our culture, heritage, and history. Calling other languages dialects of Tagalog not only downgrades the language itself but also diminishes the culture, history, and heritage of its speakers. I hope that this article has helped you identify languages from dialects and encourages you to start using the more appropriate word moving forward.


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