• Katharina Gruber

Language Versus Dialect: Understanding The Difference

At Bare Bones Translations, we get the opportunity of working on translation and interpretation projects in many different languages – German, American English, British English, Spanish, French, Italian, just a few to name. However, sometimes our clients get confused between languages and dialects, which isn’t something uncommon. In fact, the difference between a language and dialect is such a confusing area that eve some linguists find it difficult to explain. So, we’ve decided to dedicate this post to explain the key differences between a language and dialect.

Before delving deeper into the differences, let’s take a quick look at the simplest definitions of both.

What is a language?

While there are lots of definitions of a language can be found, we can think of it as a means of communication used by a particular community or country. Therefore, it’s a system of human communication, which is both verbal and written, comprising the utilization of words in a conventional and structured way. This general concept can be applied to any type of language including those that consist of signs and images.

What is a dialect?

If you observe, people from different countries can speak a particular language but in different forms. English is probably the best example to understand this concept. English spoken in Britain (British English) and the U.S. (American English) are significantly different but they’re not considered separate languages. It’s the dialect where the difference comes from.

Put simply, you can define a dialect as a particular form of a language spoken in a particular region or area, or by a specific social group. Therefore, a dialect is a regional variety of a language. For instance, British English, American English, etc. are all dialects of the English language. You can distinguish them from each other by reviewing features like grammar, pronunciations, and vocabularies.

How can we distinguish a language from a dialect?

In the real world, there’s no objective difference between a language and dialect, and the boundaries between them are significantly blurred. However, there’re ways to determine the difference between them.

  • Mutual intelligibility: This is the most obvious way to understand whether two persons are speaking different languages or are using different dialects. Let’s take an example again from the English language that’s spoken around the world. A Brit might say “hello” whereas a South American English speaker says “howdy” but both of them are able to understand each other easily despite using different dialects. Now, if they cannot understand each other, they’re likely speaking two different languages. Note that, we used the word “likely” because mutual intelligibility can be applied to entire languages also. For instance, Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes can converse pretty comfortably, despite each of them speaking a different language – Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish.

  • Difference in forms: Often, languages appear with abundant supplies of literature and standard grammar rules. You can see them exist not only as spoken traditions but written records as well. On the other hand, dialects are generally spoken more than written. And in case dialects are written, they don’t appear in official documents usually.

Despite these differences, there’ll always be slight confusion when it comes to differentiating languages and dialects. However, it can be generally said that a language could be based on a country whereas a dialect might be based on a particular region.

Final words

Both the terms are sometimes used interchangeably which makes the difference between languages and dialects even more muddled. However, as adept professional translators, we can say that when you’re reading a post, the author will likely use a language as “the standard” and every other thing as a dialect.

Bare Bones Translations offer translation for all languages. For any of your translation needs, give us a call at 512.571.2296 or email at

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