|Language in use||
English Language & Linguistics
Why are languages different?
What influences are at work to unify – and to divide – languages?
This is part of language change (see side panel). The basic question of "why does one group speak one language and the next speak another" has many answers.
The main influences:
Idiolects and Dialects
Each of us speaks a variety of language that is unique to us. We are influenced by our parents, friends, experiences, religion etc so that everything in our lives has an effect on our choice of words and expression. This is our idiolect, our own personal language. An ideolect is a smaller language group than a dialect which in turn is smaller than a language. Each is a subset of the next.
These idiosyncrasies of our personal language are unlikely to be enough to cause problems with understanding by other members of our language group. Dialects (regional speech) may make it difficult, though not impossible, for different dialect groups to understand each other. Users of different languages will by definition be unable to understand each other. This is the criterion of “mutual incomprehensibility” which defines the difference between one language and another. And it is that principle of mutual incomprehensibility that is at work to ensure that a defined group can understand its members. If you can’t be understood you become part of another group, unable to share in the activities of the first group.
Imagine a linear continuum where each ideolect varies from the next by only 1%. Though each individual shares 99% of language and varies by only a small amount, the differences between idiolects at the ends of the continuum could be considerable. In principle this could lead to mutual incomprehensibility. In practice, in a country such as the UK the linear continuum effect is slight (though it accounts for the significant differences between Scots and Cornish accents and dialects) and the effect is more akin to overlapping pools than lines. Each pool has a number of linguistic features it shares with adjacent pools but the combination of features makes that area unique.
The research underlying the notion of linguistic pools is the charting of isoglosses across the country. An isogloss is a line drawn between geographical points where a given language feature is identified. Like isobars charting similar areas of atmospheric pressure and contour lines showing areas of the same height, an isogloss shows areas where vocabulary, syntax or pronunciation features are similar and can therefore be used to draw lines showing differences.
What can also happen under some influences, such as enforcement and state controlled standardisation (more so in the written form than in speech) is that there is uniformity – the pressure on idiolects to be similar instead of varying as they do naturally. These influences could be similar to the influences listed above (Time, Geography, Government, Social), but work to different effect. As conformity in a closed community brings public school pupils to speak in a similar way, state school pupils may emphasise their local dialects in order to differentiate and distance themselves. So tribal and social groups include themselves and exclude each other, in language as in behaviour. Their language is as important an identifier as their uniform or their sporting allegiance.
Examples of languages exhibiting unification and division. In nearly all cases several different influences are at work:
For all the variety that comes with linguistic change, there is an overwhelming (though not absolute) benefit for people with a common view and history to understand each other so originality will take a back seat to comprehensibility.
We may have our regional or personal linguistic quirks, but it pays to be understood.