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Dialect continuum

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Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum or dialect area was defined by Leonard Bloomfield as a range of dialects spoken across some geographical area that differ only slightly between neighboring areas, but as one travels in any direction, these differences accumulate in such a way that speakers from opposite ends of the continuum are no longer mutually intelligible. (This is analogous to a ring species in evolutionary biology.[1]) The lines that can be drawn between areas that differ with respect to any feature of language are called isoglosses.[2] According to the abstand and ausbau languages paradigm, these dialects can be considered abstand languages (i.e., as stand-alone languages by linguistic distance). However, they can be seen as dialects of a single language, provided that a common standard language exists through which communication is possible (a Dachsprache).

In sociolinguistics, a language continuum is said to exist when two or more different languages or dialects merge into each other without a definable boundary. This happens, for example, across large parts of India or the Maghreb. Historically, it also happened in various parts of Europe, for example in a line stretching from Portuguese to Walloon (in Belgium); from Portuguese to the southern Italian dialects; and between German and Dutch. Within the last 100 years or so, however, the increasing dominance of nation-states and their standard languages has been steadily eliminating the non-standard dialects of which these language continua were formed, making the boundaries ever more abrupt and well-defined.

In some cases, controversy often arises regarding the question of which particular dialect an individual is using – or even to which language a particular dialect belongs. To varying degrees, such cases involve sociolects and/or the distinctions are subjective rather than having any discernible basis in objective linguistics. They are generally found when two or more distinct ethnicities have long histories of shared linguistic development and geographic residence, but nevertheless regard themselves, and/or each other, as speaking different dialects or languages. This occurs as a result of divisions related to religion, political ideology, nationalism or regionalism, and/or other dimensions of historical identity. In such cases, the dialects concerned may have emerged, or re-emerged, as a result of splits in extinct or declining standard languages.

Examples of controversies include regions such as Kashmir, in which local Muslims usually regard their language as Urdu, while Hindus regard the same speech as Hindi. Similar complications arise across much of the former Yugoslavia, in which Bosniaks, Croats, Montenegrins and Serbs may appear to speak the very same dialect. Perhaps the prime example is the Shtokavian dialect,[3] which is officially regarded by Croats as Croatian, Bosniaks as Bosnian, Montenegrins as Montenegrin, and Serbs as Serbian.


  • Middle East 1
    • Turkic dialect continuum 1.1
    • Arabic 1.2
    • Assyrian Neo-Aramaic 1.3
    • Iran and Central Asia 1.4
  • Chinese 2
    • Mandarin continuum 2.1
    • Yue continuum 2.2
    • Min Nan continuum 2.3
  • Germanic languages 3
    • North Germanic continuum 3.1
    • Continental West Germanic continuum 3.2
  • Indic dialect continuum 4
  • Romance languages 5
  • Slavic languages 6
    • West and East Slavic (also North Slavic) 6.1
    • South Slavic continuum 6.2
  • Cree and Ojibwa 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9

Middle East

Turkic dialect continuum


The Turkic continuum makes internal genetic classification of the languages problematic. Chuvash, Khalaj and Yakut are generally classified as significantly distinct, while the remaining Turkic languages are quite similar, with a high degree of mutual intelligibility between not only geographically adjacent varieties, but also between varieties which may be some distance apart. Structurally the Turkic languages are very close to one another, and share basic features such as SOV word order, vowel harmony, and agglutination.[4]


Arabic is a standard case of diglossia.[5] The standard written language, Modern Standard Arabic is based on the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an, while the modern vernacular dialects (or languages) —branched from Classical Arabic a few hundred years earlier , from North Western Africa through Egypt, Sudan, and the Fertile Crescent to the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. The dialects use different analogues from the huge Arabic language inventory, use different shortcuts, and have been influenced by different substrate and superstrate languages. Adjacent dialects are mutually understandable to a large extent, while those from distant regions are not at all.[6] The difference between the written standard and the vernaculars is also apparent in the written language, and children have to be taught Modern Standard Arabic in school to be able to read it.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic

In Assyrian Neo-Aramaic the continuum starts from the Assyrian tribes in northern Iraq (i.e. Alqosh, Batnaya), which are at times considered part of the Chaldean Neo-Aramaic language. Nearing the Northern Iraqi-Turkey border, the Barwar and Tyari dialects would begin to sound "traditionally Assyrian". The Barwar and Tyari dialects are "transitional", having both Chaldean and Assyrian phonetic features.[7] In Hakkari, going east (towards Iran), the Gawar, Baz, Jilu and Nochiya dialects would respectively begin to sound slightly distinct to the Tyari/Barwar dialects in the west and more like the prestigious "Urmian" dialect in Urmia, Western Azerbaijan, which is considered the Standard Assyrian dialect, alongside Iraqi Koine.[8] The dialects in Northern Iraq (or "far west" in this continuum), such as those of Alqosh and Batnaya, would be somewhat mutually unintelligible to those in Western Iran ("far east"), despite speaking the same language.[9]

Iran and Central Asia

The Persian language in its various varieties – Farsi (Iran), Dari (Afghanistan) and Tajik (Tajikistan and other parts of the former Soviet Union) – is representative of a dialect continuum. Although official and written forms of the language vary less from one another, spoken Tajiki of Uzbekistan would be virtually incomprehensible to a Persian-speaker of the Persian Gulf islands, and vice versa . The divergence of Tajik was accelerated by the shift from the Perso-Arabic alphabet to a Cyrillic one under the Soviets. Western dialects of Persian show greater influence from Arabic and Oghuz Turkic languages, while Dari and Tajiki tend to preserve many classical features in grammar and vocabulary.


The varieties of Chinese are highly divergent, forming a continuum comparable to that of the Romance languages. However, all the variants more or less share a common written language, though there are vernacular variations in vocabulary, grammar, and orthography.

The written language originally shared by all varieties was Classical Chinese, which was in normal use up until the early 20th century. In pre-modern times, Northern Baihua grew up alongside Classical Chinese as a standard vernacular dialect. The modern standard dialect, Standard Chinese (often called Mandarin), is largely based on Baihua.

Within the varieties, gradations do exist between pure local vernacular and the more refined speech of the better educated that incorporates elements from the standard language or written language.

The continued unity despite divergent Chinese varieties was made much easier because the characters used for writing Chinese are not tied closely to pronunciation as alphabetic or syllabic scripts are, and that most speakers of Chinese do not typically write in a way that is unintelligible to speakers of other Chinese varieties. In other words, a Cantonese speaker may write much the same as a Mandarin speaker and yet pronounce the written text in an entirely different manner (see Diglossia: Chinese for more information).

Mandarin continuum

Mandarin, in its broader sense, encompasses numerous regional dialects spread across the northern half of China as well as the south-western regions. These dialects are mutually intelligible when the proximity is close but at the two extreme ends of the continuum, speakers are not able to communicate with one another. An example would be a speaker of Harbin dialect (a form of Northeastern Mandarin) cannot understand a speaker of Sichuanese Mandarin (but a speaker of Sichuanese Mandarin can understand Harbin dialect due to its high similarity with standard Mandarin).

Yue continuum

Yue is a group of southern Chinese dialects used in the western half of the Guangdong province and the eastern and southern regions of Guangxi in China. The Yue variant used in the city of Guangzhou (Cantonese) is considered the standard form. This standard form is also used in Hong Kong and Macau, due to migration of Guangzhou natives to these two regions.

Min Nan continuum

Min Nan is a group of south-eastern Chinese dialects used in southern parts of Fujian province, the southeastern part of Guangdong province as well as the Hainan province and Taiwan. Apart from Hainan and Taiwan, where Min Nan was introduced relatively recently, this long stretch of coastal region forms a dialect continuum.

Germanic languages

North Germanic continuum

The Germanic languages and dialects of Scandinavia are a classic example of a dialect continuum, from Swedish dialects in Finland, to Swedish Swedish, Gutnish, Elfdalian, Scanian, Danish, Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk), Faroese, Icelandic, as well as many local dialects of the respective languages. The Continental North Germanic languages (Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian) are close enough and intelligible enough that some consider them to be dialects of the same language, whereas the Insular ones (Icelandic and Faroese) are not immediately intelligible to the other North Germanic speakers.

Continental West Germanic continuum

The many dialects making up German (belonging either to Low German or High German subdivisions) form a dialect continuum. Dutch and Frisian are generally included within this continuum, though the transition between the German and Dutch dialects mentioned above, and the Frisian dialects is far less gradual than between the various German and Dutch dialects internally.

Indic dialect continuum

Many of the Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India (that includes Assam Valley as for the language Assamese) and Pakistan form a dialect continuum. What is called "Hindi" in India is frequently Standard Hindi, the Sanskritized version of the colloquial Hindustani spoken in the Delhi area since the Mughals. However, the term Hindi is also used for most of the central Indic dialects from Bihar to Rajasthan, and more widely some of the Eastern and Northern dialects too. The Indo-Aryan prakrits also gave rise to languages like Gujarati, Assamese, Maithili, Bengali, Odia, Nepali, Marathi, and Punjabi, which are not considered to be Hindi despite being part of the same dialect continuum.

Romance languages

The Romance dialect continuum; Western (dark green) and Eastern (light green) Romance linguistic areas. The La Spezia-Rimini Line marked in red

The western continuum of Romance languages, which comprises, from West to East: In Portugal, Portuguese; In Spain, Galician, Leonese or Asturian, Castilian or Spanish, Aragonese and Catalan or Valencian; In France, Occitan, Franco-Provençal and standard French; in Italy, Italian and in Switzerland, Romansh as well as other languages with fewer speakers, is sometimes presented as another example, although the major languages in this group have had separate standards for longer than the languages in the continental West Germanic group, and are not commonly classified as dialects of a common language. In recent centuries, the intermediate dialects which existed between the major Romance languages have been moving toward extinction, as their speakers have switched to varieties closer to the more prestigious national standards. This process has been most notable in France, owing to the French government's refusal to recognise minority languages, but has occurred to some extent in all Western Romance speaking countries. Language change has also threatened the survival of stateless languages with existing literary standards, such as Occitan.

A less arguable example of a dialect continuum are the Romance languages of Italy. For many decades since its unification, the above attitude of the French government was reflected in Rome by the Italian government.[10][11]

The eastern Romance continuum is dominated by Romanian in many respects. Romanian is spoken throughout Romania and its dialects meet the Moldovan registers spoken across the border in Moldova. This too has been a familiar issue whereby Romanians believe the Moldovan language to be a dialect (grai) of Romanian and some separatist political forces in the Republic of Moldova claim that Moldovan is a separate language. Outside Romania across the other south-east European countries, various Romanian language groups are to be found: pockets of various Romanian and Aromanian subgroups continue to live throughout Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Albania and Croatia (in Istria).

Slavic languages

West and East Slavic (also North Slavic)

The Slavic sub-groups of West and East Slavic could also be considered distinct dialect systems. East Slavic consists of the Russian, Belarusian, Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian languages. The Polish, Slovak and Czech languages, which are in turn closely connected to the Sorbian languages, spoken by the Slavic populations of eastern Germany, form the second. The dialects of both sections are linked by a chain of intelligibility with the west/east classification pertaining more to politically inspired divisions. Together they may be classed as North Slavic, especially when discussed in relation to the South Slavic dialects from whom the speakers are traditionally separated owing to the heavy concentration of the principal non-Slavic populations of Romania, Hungary and Austria.

South Slavic continuum

All South Slavic languages form a dialect continuum.[12][13] It comprises, from West to East, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.[14][15] Standard Slovene, Macedonian, and Bulgarian are each based on a distinct dialect, but the Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian standard varieties of the pluricentric Serbo-Croatian language are all based on the same dialect, Shtokavian.[16][17][18] For that reason Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins communicate fluently with each other in their own standard language.[19][20] On the other hand, Croats speaking one dialect (Kajkavian) can hardly communicate with Croats speaking a different dialect (Chakavian).[21][22] Same goes for Serbian Shtokavian and Torlakian dialects. The latter is closer to the Eastern branch of South Slavic languages, Bulgarian and Macedonian, than to Western South Slavic idioms. They share a set of grammatical features that set them apart from all other Slavic languages. Unlike the above scenario (East/West Slavic), the barrier between East South Slavic and West South Slavic is natural and not political: the speakers' ancestors inhabited their respective lands having taken alternative routes thus being apart for some generations. Because of this, an intermediate dialect linking western and eastern variations came into existence over time: this is called Torlakian and is spoken on the fringes of Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia (northern) and Serbia (eastern).

Cree and Ojibwa

Cree is a group of closely related Algonquian languages that are distributed from Alberta to Labrador in Canada. These languages form the Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi dialect continuum with around 117,410 speakers. These languages can be roughly classified into nine groups. From west to east, they are:

Various Cree languages are used as languages of instruction and taught as subjects, for example, Plains Cree, Eastern Cree, Montagnais, etc. Mutual intelligibility between some dialects can be low. There is no accepted standard Cree dialect.[23][24][25]

Ojibwa (Chippewa) is a group of closely related Algonquian languages in Canada, which is distributed from British Columbia to Quebec, and the United States, distributed from Montana to Michigan, with diaspora communities in Kansas and Oklahoma. Together with the Cree, the Ojibwe dialect continuum forms their own continuum, but with the Oji-Cree language of this continuum joining to the Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi dialect continuum through Swampy Cree. The Ojibwe continuum has 70,606 speakers. Roughly from northwest to southeast, their dialects are:

Unlike the Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi dialect continuum with distinct n/y/l/r/ð dialect characteristics and noticeable west-east k/č(ch) axis, the Ojibwe continuum is marked with vowel syncope along the west-east axis and ∅/n along the north-south axis.

See also


  1. ^ Cruse, D.A. (1986). Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 71.  
  2. ^ Bloomfield, Leonard (1935). Language, George Allen & Unwin: London, p. 51.
  3. ^ Mappes-Niediek, Norbert (2005). Die Ethno-Falle: der Balkan-Konflikt und was Europa daraus lernen kann [The Ethnic Trap: the Balkan conflict and what Europe can learn from it] (in German). Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag. p. 30.  
  4. ^ Grenoble, Lenore A. (2003). Language Policy in the Soviet Union. Language Policy 3.  
  5. ^ Adolf Wahrmund (1898). Praktisches Handbuch der neu-arabischen Sprache ... Volumes 1-2 of Praktisches Handbuch der neu-arabischen Sprache (3 ed.). J. Ricker. Retrieved 2011-07-06. 
  6. ^ Kaye, Alan S.; Rosenhouse, Judith (1997). "Arabic Dialects and Maltese". In Hetzron, Robert. The Semitic Languages. Routledge. pp. 263–311.  
  7. ^ Odisho, Edward: The Sound System of Modern Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic) - Weisbaden, Harrassowitz, 1988
  8. ^ Beth-Zay‘ā, Esha‘yā Shamāshā Dāwīd, Tash‘īthā d-Beth-Nahreyn, Tehran: Assyrian Youth Cultural Society Press, 1963, p. 895
  9. ^ Rev. Justin Perkins : “A residence of eight years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians”, New York, 1843 – P: 304.
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^  
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Alexander, Ronelle (2000). In honor of diversity: the linguistic resources of the Balkans. Kenneth E. Naylor memorial lecture series in South Slavic linguistics ; vol. 2. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Dept. of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures. p. 4.  
  15. ^ Kristophson, Jürgen (2000). "Vom Widersinn der Dialektologie: Gedanken zum Štokavischen" [Nonsense of Dialectology: Thoughts on Shtokavian]. Zeitschrift für Balkanologie (in German) 36 (2): 180.  
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Blum, Daniel (2002). Sprache und Politik : Sprachpolitik und Sprachnationalismus in der Republik Indien und dem sozialistischen Jugoslawien (1945-1991) [Language and Policy: Language Policy and Linguistic Nationalism in the Republic of India and the Socialist Yugoslavia (1945-1991)]. Beiträge zur Südasienforschung ; vol. 192 (in German). Würzburg: Ergon. p. 200.  
  18. ^  
  19. ^  
  20. ^ Pohl, Hans-Dieter (1996). "Serbokroatisch - Rückblick und Ausblick" [Serbo-Croatian – Looking backward and forward]. In Ohnheiser, Ingeborg. Wechselbeziehungen zwischen slawischen Sprachen, Literaturen und Kulturen in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart : Akten der Tagung aus Anlaß des 25jährigen Bestehens des Instituts für Slawistik an der Universität Innsbruck, Innsbruck, 25. - 27. Mai 1995. Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft, Slavica aenipontana ; vol. 4 (in German). Innsbruck: Non Lieu. pp. 205–219.  
  21. ^  
  22. ^ Thomas, Paul-Louis (2003). "Le serbo-croate (bosniaque, croate, monténégrin, serbe): de l’étude d’une langue à l’identité des langues" [Serbo-Croatian (Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian): from the study of a language to the identity of languages]. Revue des études slaves (in French) 74 (2-3): 315.  
  23. ^ LINGUIST List 6.744, 29 May 1995. Cree dialects
  24. ^ Ethnologue: Languages of Canada
  25. ^ Native Languages of the Americas: Cree
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