Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum or dialect chain is a spread of language varieties spoken across some geographical area such that each differs only slightly from its neighbors, but the differences accumulate over distance so that widely separated varieties are not mutually intelligible. That happens, for example, across large parts of India or the Maghreb. Historically, it also happened in various parts of Europe such as between Portugal, southern Belgium and southern Italy, and between Flanders and Austria. (Leonard Bloomfield used the name dialect area.[1] It is analogous to a ring species in evolutionary biology.[2])

Dialect continua typically occur in long-settled agrarian populations, as innovations spread from their various points of origin as waves. In this situation, hierarchical classifications of varieties are impractical. Instead, dialectologists map variation of various language features across a dialect continuum, drawing lines called isoglosses between areas that differ with respect to some feature.[3]

Since the early 20th century, the increasing dominance of nation-states and their standard languages has been steadily eliminating the nonstandard dialects that comprise dialect continua, making the boundaries ever more abrupt and well-defined.

Relationship with standard varieties

Local dialects of the West Germanic continuum are oriented towards either Standard Dutch or Standard German, depending on which side of the border they are spoken.[4]

Standard varieties may be developed and codified from one or more locations in a continuum, a process known as ausbau, until they have independent cultural status, or autonomy. Speakers of local varieties typically read and write a related standard variety, use it for official purposes, hear it on radio and television, and consider it the standard form of their speech, so that any standardizing changes in their speech are towards that variety. In such cases the local variety is said to be dependent on, or heteronomous with respect to, the standard variety.[5]

A standard variety together with its dependent varieties is commonly considered a "language", with the dependent varieties called "dialects" of the language, even if the standard is mutually intelligible with another standard from the same continuum.[6][7] The Scandinavian languages, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, are often cited as examples.[8] Conversely, a language defined in this way may include local varieties that are mutually unintelligible, such as the German dialects.[9]

The choice of standard is often determined by a political boundary, which may cut across a dialect continuum. As a results, speakers on either side of the boundary may use almost identical varieties, but treat them as dependent on different standards, and thus part of different "languages".[10] The choice may be a matter of national, regional or religious identity, and may be controversial. Examples of controversies include regions such as the disputed territory of Kashmir, in which local Muslims usually regard their language as Urdu, the national standard of Pakistan, while Hindus regard the same speech as Hindi, an official standard of India. In the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, a standard was developed from local varieties within a continuum with Serbia to the north and Bulgaria to the east. The standard was deliberately based on varieties from the west of the republic that were most different from standard Bulgarian. Now known as Macedonian, it is the national standard of the independent Republic of Macedonia, but viewed by Bulgarians as a dialect of Bulgarian.[11]


Major dialect continua in Europe in the mid-20th century[12]

Europe provides several examples of dialect continua, the largest of which involve the Germanic, Romance and Slavic branches of the Indo-European language family. The Romance area span much of the territory of the Roman Empire, but were split into western and eastern portions by the Slav Migrations into the Balkans in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Slavic area was in turn split by the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the 9th and 10th centuries.

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, with many local dialects of those 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, but 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 Dutch and German (belonging either to Low German or High German subdivisions) form a dialect continuum. Frisian is generally included within this continuum, though the transition between the German and Dutch dialects mentioned above, and the Frisian dialect continuum is far less gradual than the one between the various German and Dutch dialects.

Anglic continuum

The Germanic dialects spoken on the island of Great Britain, which are usually called either "English" in England and "Scots" in Scotland are often mutually intelligible in areas along the border. The Orcadian dialect of Scots is very different to the various dialects of English in southern England, but they are linked by a chain of intermediate steps.

Romance languages

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, standard French and Corsican which is closely related to Italian; in Italy, Piedmontese, Italian, Lombard, Friulian, Ladin; and in Switzerland, Romansh and other languages with fewer speakers, is sometimes presented as another example, but the major languages in the group have had separate standards for longer than the languages in the Continental West Germanic group and so are not commonly classified as dialects of a common language.

In recent centuries, the intermediate dialects between the major Romance languages have been moving toward extinction, as their speakers have switched to varieties closer to the more prestigious national standards. That has been most notable in France, owing to the French government's refusal to recognise minority languages, but it 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 attitude of the French government was copied by the Italian government.[13][14]

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. 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

North Slavic continuum

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 from 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.[15][16] It comprises, from West to East, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.[17][18] 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.[19][20][21]

For that reason Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins communicate fluently with each other in their own standard language.[22][23] On the other hand, Croats speaking one dialect (Kajkavian) can hardly communicate with Croats who speak a different dialect (Chakavian).[24][25] The same goes for Serbian Shtokavian and Torlakian dialects. The latter is closer to the Eastern South Slavic (Bulgarian and Macedonian) than to Western South Slavic. 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. An intermediate dialect linking western and eastern variations thus came into existence over time: called Torlakian, it is spoken on the fringes of Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia (northern) and Serbia (eastern).

Middle East

Turkic dialect continuum

Turkic languages are best described as a dialect continuum. Geographically this continuum starts at the Balkans in the west with Balkan Turkish, includes Turkish in Turkey and Azerbaijani language in Azerbaijan, extends into Iran with Azeri and Khalaj, into Iraq with Turkmen, across Central Asia to include Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, to southern Regions of Tajikistan and into Afghanistan. In the south, the continuum starts in northern Afghanistan, northward to the Chuvashia. In the east it extends to the Republic of Tuva, the Xinjiang autonomous region in Western China with the Uyghur language and into Mongolia with Khoton. The entire territory is inhabited by Turkic speaking peoples. There are three varieties of Turkic geographically outside the continuum: Chuvash, Yakut and Dolgan. They have been geographically separated from the other Turkic languages for extensive period of time, and Chuvash language stands out as the most divergent from other Turkic languages.

There are also Gagauz speakers in Moldavia and Urum speakers in Georgia.

The Turkic continuum makes internal genetic classification of the languages problematic. Chuvash, Khalaj and Yakut are generally classified as significantly distinct, but the remaining Turkic languages are quite similar, with a high degree of mutual intelligibility between not only geographically adjacent varieties but also among some varieties some distance apart. Structurally, the Turkic languages are very close to one another, and they share basic features such as SOV word order, vowel harmony and agglutination.[26]


Arabic is a standard case of diglossia.[27] 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, but those from distant regions are not at all.[28]

The difference between the written standard and the vernaculars is apparent also 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 (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.[29]

In Hakkari, as one goes eastbound 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.[30] The dialects in Northern Iraq (or "far west" in this continuum), such as those of Alqosh and Batnaya, would be not be completely intelligible to those in Western Iran ("far east") even if the same language is spoken.

Going more westwards, to Tur Abdin in Turkey, the "dialect" would be known as Turoyo, which has a very distinct pronunciation of words and a different vocabulary to some extent. Turoyo is usually considered to be a discrete language of its own rather than a mere dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic. Furthermore, both Assyrian and Turoyo are considered to be dialects of the Syriac language.[31]

Iran and Central Asia

The Persian language in its various varieties (Farsi in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik in 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, but Dari and Tajiki tend to preserve many classical features in grammar and vocabulary.

Indo-Aryan languages

Many of the Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India (including 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 register of the colloquial Hindustani spoken in the Delhi area since the Mughals, the other register being Urdu . However, the term Hindi is also used for most of the Indo-Aryan languages from Bihar to Rajasthan and, more widely, some of the Eastern and Northern dialects are called Hindo. The Indo-Aryan Prakrits also gave rise to languages like Gujarati, Assamese, Maithili, Bengali, Odia, Nepali, Marathi, and Punjabi. They are not considered to be Hindi despite being part of the same dialect continuum.


Areas of Chinese dialect groups

Chinese consists of hundreds of local varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible.[32][33] The differences are similar to those within the Romance languages, which are similarly descended from a language spread by imperial expansion over substrate languages 2000 years ago.[34] Unlike Europe, however, Chinese political unity was restored in the late 6th century and has persisted (with interludes of division) until the present day. There are no equivalents of the local standard literary languages that developed in the numerous independent states of Europe.[35]

Chinese dialectologists have divided the local varieties into a number of dialect groups, largely based on phonological developments in comparison with Middle Chinese.[36] Most of these groups are found in the rugged terrain of the southeast, reflecting the greater variation in this area, particularly in Fujian.[37][38] Each of these groups contains numerous mutually unintelligible varieties.[32] Moreover, in many cases the transitions between groups are smooth, as a result of centuries of interaction and multilingualism.[39]

The boundaries between the northern Mandarin area and the central groups, Wu, Gan and Xiang, are particularly weak, due to the steady flow of northern features into these areas.[40][41] Transitional varieties between the Wu, Gan and Mandarin groups have been variously classified, with some scholars assigning them to a separate Hui group.[42][43] The boundaries between Gan, Hakka and Min are similarly indistinct.[44][45] Pinghua and Yue form a dialect continuum (excluding urban enclaves of Cantonese).[46] There are sharper boundaries resulting from more recent expansion between Hakka and Yue, and between Southwestern Mandarin and Yue, but even here there has been considerable convergence in contact areas.[47]

Cree and Ojibwa

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

Various Cree languages are used as languages of instruction and taught as subjects: Plains Cree, Eastern Cree, Montagnais, etc. Mutual intelligibility between some dialects can be low. There is no accepted standard dialect.[48][49][50]

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. With Cree, the Ojibwe dialect continuum forms its own continuum, but the Oji-Cree language of this continuum joins the Cree–Montagnais–Naskapi dialect continuum through Swampy Cree. The Ojibwe continuum has 70,606 speakers. Roughly from northwest to southeast, it has these dialects:

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


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  2. Cruse, D.A. (1986). Lexical Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 71. ISBN 0-521-27643-8.
  3. Chambers, J.K.; Trudgill, Peter (1998). Dialectology (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 13–19, 89–91. ISBN 978-0-521-59646-6.
  4. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), p. 10.
  5. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), pp. 9–12.
  6. Stewart, William A. (1968). "A sociolinguistic typology for describing national multilingualism". In Fishman, Joshua A. Readings in the Sociology of Language. De Gruyter. pp. 531–545. doi:10.1515/9783110805376.531. ISBN 978-3-11-080537-6.
  7. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), p. 11.
  8. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), pp. 3–4.
  9. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), p. 4.
  10. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), p. 9.
  11. Trudgill, Peter (1992). "Ausbau sociolinguistics and the perception of language status in contemporary Europe". International Journal of Applied Linguistics. 2 (2): 167–177. doi:10.1111/j.1473-4192.1992.tb00031.x. pp. 173–174.
  12. Chambers and Trudgill (1998), p. 6.
  13. http://www.culturalpolicies.net/web/italy.php?aid=519
  14. http://www.treccani.it/magazine/lingua_italiana/speciali/italiano_dialetti/Cerruti.html
  15. Crystal, David (1998) [1st pub. 1987]. The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 25. OCLC 300458429.
  16. Friedman, Victor (1999). Linguistic emblems and emblematic languages: on language as flag in the Balkans. Kenneth E. Naylor memorial lecture series in South Slavic linguistics ; vol. 1. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Dept. of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures. p. 8. OCLC 46734277.
  17. 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. OCLC 47186443.
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  25. 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. ISSN 0080-2557. External link in |journal= (help)
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  27. 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.
  28. Kaye, Alan S.; Rosenhouse, Judith (1997). "Arabic Dialects and Maltese". In Hetzron, Robert. The Semitic Languages. Routledge. pp. 263–311. ISBN 978-0-415-05767-7.
  29. Odisho, Edward: The Sound System of Modern Assyrian (Neo-Aramaic) - Weisbaden, Harrassowitz, 1988
  30. Beth-Zay‘ā, Esha‘yā Shamāshā Dāwīd, Tash‘īthā d-Beth-Nahreyn, Tehran: Assyrian Youth Cultural Society Press, 1963, p. 895
  31. Rev. Justin Perkins : “A residence of eight years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians”, New York, 1843 – p. 304.
  32. 1 2 Norman, Jerry (2003). "The Chinese dialects: phonology". In Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. The Sino-Tibetan languages. Routledge. pp. 72–83. ISBN 978-0-7007-1129-1. p. 72.
  33. Hamed, Mahé Ben (2005). "Neighbour-nets portray the Chinese dialect continuum and the linguistic legacy of China's demic history"". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 272 (1567): 1015–1022. doi:10.1098/rspb.2004.3015. PMC 1599877Freely accessible.
  34. Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-521-29653-3.
  35. Norman (1988), pp. 2–3.
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  37. Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton University Press. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-691-01468-5.
  38. Norman (1988), pp. 183–190.
  39. Sagart, Laurent (1998). "On distinguishing Hakka and non-Hakka dialects". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 26 (2): 281–302. JSTOR 23756757. p 299.
  40. Norman (1988), pp. 190, 206–207.
  41. Halliday, M.A.K (1968) [1964]. "The users and uses of language". In Fishman, Joshua A. Readings in the Sociology of Language. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 139–169. ISBN 978-3-11-080537-6. p. 12.
  42. Yan, Margaret Mian (2006). Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. LINCOM Europa. pp. 223–224. ISBN 978-3-89586-629-6.
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  46. de Sousa, Hilário (2016). "Language contact in Nanning: Nanning Pinghua and Nanning Cantonese". In Chappell, Hilary M. Diversity in Sinitic Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 157–189. ISBN 978-0-19-872379-0. p. 162.
  47. Halliday (1968), pp. 11–12.
  48. LINGUIST List 6.744, 29 May 1995. Cree dialects
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