Language and Identity
Reality and Belief



March 10, 2001

A Language is a Dialect with an Army (and a Navy)

It is no big problem to determine whether Danish and English are two variants of one and the same language or two different languages. They are not mutually intelligible, thus two. But how about Danish and Norwegian? They are mutually intelligible. Are they one language, then, not two?

Whether a language is an "independent" language or a dialect, can't be decided solely on the basis of the intelligibility test. There is also a sociological, a political dimension. Danish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible to a very large degree, but they are two languages, all the same, since there are two states and two populations that behave as if they were two languages.

The relationship between English and Scots is comparable to Danish/Norwegian as far as intelligibility goes, but not as far as Army and Navy goes. Therefore Scots is often not considered a language in its own right. If Scotland had preserved its political independence the dialect would have remained a language.

In 1945 the Yiddisch linguist Max Weinreich formulated the much quoted metaphor (in Yiddisch):

"A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot"

in the article Der yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt ("Yivo" and the problems of our time) .
in the periodical Yivo-bleter 25.1.13.

And in our times:

A Language is a Dialect with a Missionary