By Faustino Galante
On September, 1st 2014, the official television broadcaster of the Chinese province Guangdong announced its plans to switch its daily programming from Cantonese Chinese to Mandarin Chinese. Nearly half of the residents of the province’s capital speak Cantonese and for several elderly inhabitants, the dialect is their only tongue. It reasons that in order to better unify and modernize the country, a standard language (in this case Mandarin) needs to be established.
China is just one of many places where dialect use is diminishing. Other countries, such as Italy, have seen dialect use diminish as a result of their population’s effort to cater to a modernizing society. Dialects are offshoots of a central national language. According to The Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics, a dialect is a variety of a language, spoken in one part of a country.
Though society has seen a shift towards the decline of dialect use, people must recognize that they are valuable additions to languages. Dialects serve as indicators of cultural histories and help to promote both ethnic and socioeconomic identities. Steps should be taken to bring these “linguistic spin-offs” back into fruition rather than forcing them towards extinction.
Dialects originate as a result of a specific region’s geography, political history and past social circumstances. Swiss German is a prime example of a language that possesses historically rich dialects. The Alemannic dialects spoken in the germanophone part of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. From the 1st century to the Early Middle Ages, the Roman Empire held a strong grasp on Swiss society. Much of the Germanic population dwindled during this period and romantic languages came to fruition within the region. In the 7th century, however, Alemannic settlements were established in the northernmost part of the region. High German became the language of the North, and slowly blended itself with the romantic languages used throughout the rest of the territory.
All dialects are essentially the effects of historical and geographical circumstances. Many fail to recognize how powerful dialects are in the context of historical study. Being that dialects are chiefly oral, their extinction will ultimately erase important sources of historical and linguistic knowledge. Instead of shunning them, society must embrace its dialects. The rich history that can be derived from them serves not only as a foundation for historical study, but also as a way for citizens of a region to embrace their heritage.
Dialects worldwide promote both regional and socioeconomic identities. How people talk reflects their self-identity. Through dialect, citizens of a nation portray who they want to be like, how they view themselves and to what particular place or group they identify with. Though, as mentioned above, dialects of American English prove similar to one another, they nonetheless exemplify the use of speech to promote identity. American English is divided along both regional and socioeconomic lines.
The city of Pittsburgh is one which has come to truly appreciate its regional dialect in recent years. Residents of the city claim they speak “Pittsburghese” and demonstrate their pride in it by placing dialectical words on “t-shirts, postcards, souvenir shot-glasses and other such items, as well as on the Internet. According to an article published by PBS, Pittsburgh residents often exaggerate certain features of their dialect in order to personally identify with their region and resist rising American homogeneity. Americans not only use dialect to differentiate themselves regionally, such as in the case of Pittsburghers, but likewise use them to identify themselves with specific social classes or races. The African-American population is particularly proud of its dialect. According to John McWorther of The Atlantic, “black english just salutes…the founders of the black American population.” Blacks utilize distinct “slang” vocabulary and irregular verb form to demonstrate their cultural belonging and pride. Though American dialects do not differ from each-other as much as others, they nonetheless are utilized to promote self-identity.
A frequented joke among linguistic scholars reads, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” While languages are written and standardized, dialects lack “codified rules.” Dialects play an important role in the 21st century. Their power to reveal information about a culture’s history and promote both regional and socioeconomic identity benefits society as a whole. These languages within language are truly special.