I am currently undergoing a course on linguistics and our discussions on what constitutes a language or dialect particularly interested me. It seems they differ in two main aspects. Accordingly to socio-political contexts, languages are basically backed up by institution while dialects aren’t. This is the differentiation most people are familiar with. However in a linguistic sense, languages are not mutually intelligible while dialects/varieties are (i.e. under this differentiation, Cantonese and Hokkien would be languages and not dialects because speakers of each would not understand each other).
When we talk about language and power, looking at context is extremely important to get a real sense of how people go about defining what is a language and what is a dialect. Take Cantonese for example. In Singapore most of us know it as a dialect but if you were to ask someone in Hong Kong or Guangzhou the same question, you can expect a very different response. Whatever relegated Cantonese in Singapore to mere dialect status then? Well, to put it bluntly: language policy.
If we then take a look at China now, we can see a somewhat similar trend taking place but with very different reactions. According to this AFP report, more than a 1000 protesters have gathered in Hong Kong and Guangzhou to rally against the Chinese government’s attempts at promoting the national Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin) over the local Cantonese language (or ‘dialect’, according to the Chinese government). It seems highly unlikely the Chinese authorities will go very far at suppressing Cantonese the way Singapore managed to do in the past. The reasons are manifold but I think a key difference is this: the Cantonese speakers up north firmly see it as their regional language and will do anything to see that it remains as so.
What do you understand to be a language or dialect?
Is Singlish a dialect?
What do you think is the future of dialects in Singapore? What is the future of Singlish?