Languages or dialects

I am continuing a series of blogs responding to the questions I was most asked when I was in the US. This week, the question is:

You say there are 7,105 languages spoken today. Are those real languages or dialects?

Accents of America

Accents of America

I could start with a long explanation of the fact that there is no commonly accepted way of telling the difference between a language and a dialect. I will spare you that. Let’s be practical. I am not using the word “dialect” as it is sometimes used – to mean a way of speaking that is considered inferior. I am using it to mean a different way of speaking the same language. It assumes that with little or no effort, two people each speaking his or her own dialect will understand almost all of what they other says. It could be that the differences between the two dialects are enough that people from one need to spend a few hours speaking with people from the other dialect before they understand everything.

Dialects of English in Great Britain

Dialects of English in Great Britain

This kind of practical definition is close to the definition used by the Ethnologue, from which I get the number of 7,105 languages. So English is listed as one language in the Ethnologue, not as several. If we were to count the dialects of all the languages, the number would be many tens of thousands. For example, the Ethnologue lists over 30 dialects of English within the United Kingdom alone; noting that there are “Many local English varieties around the world.”

So the number of 7,105 represents that many individual languages. It is not inflated by including dialects of each language.

2 thoughts on “Languages or dialects

  1. *Ed,

    An example of this in my knowledge comes from my years in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). We worked amongst the BaTonga, and their language Citonga (according to their established Orthography), or Chitonga. A neighboring tribe the BaIla spoke Cila (Chila) and while initially we didn’t have any Tonga Scriptures we used the Cila Scriptures. The two languages though different were similar enough for that. It was a great day when there was finally available a Tonga New Testament produced by the British & Foreign Bible Society. There were variations even of Tonga: Plateau Tonga, Valley Tonga, Monze Tonga etc. We were stationed at Sikalongo Mission with our Sister Mission Station Macha Mission, sixty miles nortyh east of us. And there were slight variations even there. A third language group down around Livingstone were the BaToka, with a very similar language. Our Tonga Grammar produced by a Church of Christ missionary C. R. Hopgood called Ila, Tonga and Toka the /Bantu BoTatwe /languages, three different distinct languages but all very similar. Whether your definition would have considered them one or three languages I don’t know. Do you have any comments on that?

    David E. Climenhaga

    P.S. in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) there is a similar difference between iSiNdebele and iSiZulu from South Africa. D.E.C



    • The Ethnologue counts Tonga and Toka as the same language. Tonga is listed as having several dialects: Leya, Mala, Shanjo (Sanjo), Toka (also called Southern Tonga), Twa of Kafwe, and We (also called Valley Tonga). Most languages have variation (dialects) which do not inhibit communication very much. Your experience is the norm.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.