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lrk's avatar

Why do different dialects form?

Asked by lrk (757points) December 30th, 2008

In the vein of this question, why do different dialects form? I.e., why do people from different regions have different dialects?

(For instance, hundreds of years ago, people residing in Britain spoke quite similarly to those who resided on the American continent, but who came from Britain. Why did these evolve differently?)

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15 Answers

Jack79's avatar

it’s quite simple really, the reason is purely geographical. Language is a living thing, and evolves, just like the people who speak it. So if these people are all locked up in a given space (whether that is a small pacific island or the US), the language will evolve there. The bigger the population, the faster the evolution. Which is why the fairly isolated Lithuanians currently speak Europe’s oldest living language (the closest to Sanskrit) whereas the Americans changed from British to American english (even the spelling) in just 200 years.
Similarly, Australian English is slightly closer to British English because the population that speaks it is smaller.

Note that in both these countries the language has been affected also by external influences, such as Italian immigrants, native populations, etc.

laureth's avatar

In a way, the Romance languages (like French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.) can all be considered different dialects of Latin. When the Romans spread across Europe, they took their language with them. The area was so large, though, that individual changes took place in different locations (like different ways of saying a word, or different made-up words, yo!) that didn’t spread between the areas that were too far away. It’s evolution, in exactly the same way as biology. Allow enough time to pass, and you get different languages that are all related to the mother language.

Dialects and accents are just the results of this same thing happening on a smaller scale.

mrjadkins's avatar

I know this response may not pertain to the immediate question but does anyone else adapt a dialect while in conversation with someone from another region? I have this problem of adapting the dialect of others while speaking to them. It is rather annoying and I feel like the recipient may feel I am mocking them. But, it just happens! ha

Anyway, does anyone else do this or is it just me?

laureth's avatar

@mrjadkins: I’m from the Midwest, but I lived in North Carolina for almost a year. While there, I worked at a customer-service position, talking to people all day. I totally picked up the “southern accent,” beginning each morning – and when I went home, I had to work a little bit at switching back. So yeah.

And I still say “soda,” not “pop.” :)

morphail's avatar

@Jack79: it’s wrong to say that Lithuanian is the closest to Sanskrit. Lithuanian is Baltic and is closely related to Latvian. Sanskrit is Indo-Iranian and is closely related to Hindi and Panjabi. Lithuanian is not Europe’s oldest living language because no modern language is older than any other. However, Lithuanian does preserve some features that have been lost in other Indo-European languages.

laureth's avatar

The Basques have an interesting language story, too.

I also have to question the idea that no modern language is older than any other. I suppose it depends on how you define “modern,” but I would have to say that something like Hebrew is older than English. It’s true that language is always evolving, I guess. Where do you draw thje line between modern and not-modern?

Jack79's avatar

yes, you are right morphail, that Lithuanian preserved more of the original features – my point was that it moved slower than languages such as Greek, Latin or Germanic. I assume your statement about modern languages implies that, since all languages change daily, all modern languages are by definition a day old.

morphail's avatar

I've answered this already:

All modern non-creole languages consist of an unbroken line of speakers stretching back to before recorded history. In the second millennium BC, people were speaking a form of Hebrew, and they were speaking a form of English, altho we call it “Proto-Indo-European”. The fact that Hebrew has the same name whether we’re talking about the version thousands of years ago or the modern version might make us think that Hebrew is older, but this isn’t the case.

Jack79's avatar

yes but that’s the same as saying the twig that just sprouted from a tree is as old as the bark. Yes, it’s all part of the same tree, but for scientific purposes, we divide human hyperlanguage into different languages and dialects, and we start counting from the moment one language branches off from what it was before. As always, the categorisation comes after the actual event. But it helps us understand what we’re talking about.

morphail's avatar

It’s convenient to talk about one language as distinct from another language, yes, but in fact the terms “language” and “dialect” are socially and not linguistically defined. We just can’t “start counting the moment one language branches off from what it was before.” Can you determine the moment when Vulgar Latin turned into French? Sometimes we change the term we give the language depending on when it was spoken – eg “Proto-Indo-European,” “Proto-Germanic,” “Old English,” “Modern English”. And sometimes we don’t – eg “Greek,” “Hebrew,” “Sanskrit”. For this reason some people think that Greek or Hebrew or Sanskrit are older than English. But that’s just a confusion of terminology.

Jack79's avatar

No, who said it was simple? In my previous response I accidentally deleted a bit that actually mentioned Greek as such an example. If you consider modern and ancient Greek to be one language, then it is some 4000 years old. But in fact most modern Greeks would not be able to understand the version spoken 4000 years ago (or even the much simpler 2500-year-old version of Solon). For that reason scholars of Greek consider the modern version of the language to have started somewhere around the 15th c. Similarly English is supposed to start with Chaucer, even though he’s incomprehensible to most of us (as is Shakespeare and even many 19th c writers).

morphail's avatar

I think most linguists would disagree. It makes no sense to say “Modern English is older than modern Greek because Modern English started in the 14th century (Chaucer), and modern Greek started in the 15th.” An English speaker from the 14th century could probably understand the English of the 13th century. A Greek speaker from the 15th century could probably understand the Greek of the 14th century. So why should we say that Modern English “started” in the 14th century or that modern Greek “started” in the 15th century? And anyway, when exactly in the 14th century? Which year and month? It makes no sense to say that a language started on a certain date. These general dates can be useful for categorization, but we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from them.

boffin's avatar

Mosey on down to the “Hood” and “Rap” (Conversate) with the “Homies”.....
There’s some dialect….

Kevisaurus's avatar

Regionalities & colloquialisms.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Isolation and linguistic drift.

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