CFP: Language/Dialect Disputes: The Act of Taking a Stance

Alexander Maxwell's picture
Call for Papers
June 1, 2023
New Zealand
Subject Fields: 
Languages, Law and Legal History, Nationalism History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Intellectual History

The language/dialect dichotomy raises several unresolved questions in the discipline of linguistics. While any particular language/dialect dispute could, perhaps, be conceptualized as a classificatory disagreement of the “lumpers vs. splitters” type, a more fundamental disagreement separates both lumpers and splitters from scholars who reject the dichotomy’s premises. Scholars from might be called the “agnostic” school deny that the dichotomy has any linguistic meaning.

Examples of agnosticism abound, but two particularly prominent linguists illustrate agnosticism in practice. Professor emeritus Peter Trudgill, a prominent sociolinguist with five honorary degrees and over 42,000 citations according to “google scholar,” raised a series of language/dialect disputes in his sociolinguistics textbook. “Is there a Bosnian language which is distinct from Croatian and Serbian? Are Moldovan and Rumanian the same language or not? Are Flemish and Dutch one language or two? Is Corsican a dialect of Italian or not? Is Swiss German actually a separate language?” Trudgill raised such questions only to place them beyond the reach of linguistics: “there is no way we can answer these questions on purely linguistic grounds. Ironically, it seems that it is only linguists who fully understand the extent to which these questions are not linguistic questions” (Trudgill 1995: 145). Noam Chomsky, perhaps the world’s most cited living scholar, similarly contrasted “technical concepts that have been proposed with the intent of developing an eventual science of language” with the “intuitive, pre-theoretic commonsense notion of language,” clearly relegating the dichotomy to the latter category. Since “We speak of Chinese as ‘a language,’ although the various ‘Chinese dialects’ are as diverse as the several Romance languages,” Chomsky concluded that “all scientific approaches have simply abandoned those elements of what is called ‘language’ in common use” (Chomsky 1986, 27).

Both Trudgill and Chomsky justify their agnosticism with reference to their linguistic expertise, but not all linguists are agnostic about the dichotomy. Several have attempted to answer such questions on purely linguistic grounds: scientific approaches have not always abandoned the dichotomy. Numerous sociolinguists think that grammatical codification, corpus planning, and other forms of linguistic standardization can transform dialects into languages (Haugen 1966; Joseph 1987: 22-23). In recent years, furthermore, scholars have proposed distinguishing languages from dialects by testing mutual intelligibility (Melinger 2018; Tamburelli 2021); or through lexicostatistics (Koryakov 2017; Wichmann 2019).

Other scholars take vehement stances on a particular variety of interest. Several linguists from the countries of former Yugoslavia, for example, signed the 2017 “Declaration of a common language,” declaring among other things that “the use of four names for the standard variants – Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian – does not imply that these are four different languages.” Furthermore, both Trudgill and Chomsky signed the declaration, apparently in defiance of their eloquently-expressed agnosticism. Justifying himself in the New European, Trudgill even supported what he called “defenders of linguistic common sense … in their struggle against the linguistic unreason of the nationalists” by insisting that “linguistic scientists are agreed that BCSM is essentially a single language” (Trudgill 2017). Insofar as Trudgill invoked the expertise of “linguistic scientists” when taking his stance, it seems he had forgotten the extent to which these are not linguistic questions.

Intrigued by such contradictions, this workshop seeks to explore the act of taking sides in a language/dialect dispute. We are interested in methodological proposals from non-agnostic linguists who consider the dichotomy resolvable. We are also interested in socio-political approaches that analyze taking a stance in language/dialect disputes as a political act. What is the meaning of that act?

Questions to explore include, but are not restricted, to:

  • Is there a replicable, generalizable method for resolving language/dialect disputes?
  • If so, why have linguists not adopted that methodology?
  • If not, how do linguists justify taking sides in language/dialect disputes?
  • Do non-generalizable methods for resolving the dichotomy have value?
  • Are different approaches compatible, e.g. intelligibility studies vs. lexicostatistics?
  • Do “lumpers” have different motives from “splitters?”
  • Do computers facilitate the resolution of the dichotomy, or not?
  • How has linguistic progress affected language/dialect dichotomy?
  • What role does state power play in forming or consensus opinions?
  • What exactly motivates political actors to take sides in language/dialect debates?
  • Which arguments prove persuasive to which audiences, and which not?
  • How have past language/dialect disputes been resolved? Why do others persist?
  • How do nationalist ideologies interact with language/dialect ideologies?
  • How can a consensus about the dichotomy become contested or controversial?

Over the weekend of 1-2 July 2023, Alexander Maxwell of Victoria University in Wellington will organize a conference to explore these ideas. To maximize international participation, the conference will be held on zoom. Speakers will have 20 minutes to present, 10 minutes for questions and discussion. Send a proposed title and one-paragraph abstract of c. 80 words, along with your name, affiliation, and location at the time of the conference: care will be taken to ensure that everybody is scheduled to present at a reasonable time of day in their local time zone. Deadline for abstracts: 1 June

If a sufficient number of high-quality papers materialize, we will attempt to publish selected contributions in a themed issue of a scholarly journal.

NB: Papers concluding that “non-linguistic factors play a role” should spell those factors out with a socio-political analysis. Scholars who invoke the Weinreich witticism must provide the correct citation to Yivo Bleter (see Maxwell 2018).



Chomsky, N. 1986. Knowledge of Language Westport: Praeger.

Haugen, E. “Dialect, Language, Nation.” American Anthropologist, 68(4): 922-935.

Joseph, J. 1987. Eloquence and Power: The Rise of Language Standards and Standard Languages. London: Blackwell.

Kindell, G. ed., 1990. “Language assessment criteria: Conference recommendations,” Proceedings of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, 27–29. Dallas: SIL.

Koryakov, Y. 2017. “Language vs. dialect: A lexicostatistic approach,” Voprosy Jazykoznanija 6:79-101.

Maxwell, A. 2018. “When Theory is a Joke: The Weinrich Witticism in Linguistics,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft, 28(2): 263-292.

Melinger, A. 2018. “Distinguishing Languages from Dialects,” Cognition 172:73-88.

Tamburelli, M. 2021. “Intelligibility as a Criterion of Demarcation between Languages and Dialects,” Lingua 256:1-20.

Trudgill P. 1995: Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin.

Trudgill, P. 2017. “Time to Make Four into One,” New European (30 November), 46.

Wichmann, S. 2019. “How to Distinguish Languages and Dialects,” Computational Linguistics, 45(4):823–831.

Contact Info: 

Alexander Maxwell
Victoria University of Wellington