‘That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet’, said Shakespeare’s Juliet to Romeo. The issue of a language’s name is a very thorny one in many cases.

Often the name of the language is the same as the adjective for the country where it is spoken – English in England, French in France, German in Germany… but not Belgian in Belgium, Swiss in Switzerland or Scottish in Scotland. The native language of Ireland can be called Gaelic or Irish. Many Irish speakers themselves favour Irish as it identifies it as the national language, as opposed to Gaelic which derives from the name of the Gaelic or Goidelic branch of the Celtic language family. Its sister language, the Celtic language of Scotland, is Scottish (or Scots) Gaelic, with the pronunciation of the language name often approaching that of ‘Gallic’ which, confusingly, is the adjective for Gaul, i.e. modern-day France.  This language is not to be confused with Scots, sometimes also called Lallans or Lowland Scots, which is not a Celtic language at all, but a language derived from Anglo-Saxon. The main controversy surrounding Scots is not its name but whether it’s a language at all or a dialect of English, though it should be noted that both Scots and Ulster Scots are recognised as regional languages in the United Kingdom.

The classification of a tongue as a language or dialect can be highly contentious. Some believe that if two forms are mutually intelligible this means that they are dialects rather than languages, but in reality the division is often political. As the saying popularised by Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich goes, ‘a language is a dialect with an army and a navy’. The Scandinavian languages are generally mutually intelligible, as are Czech and Slovak, but the politics involved, as well as the separate development of literature and grammar, deem that they are separate languages. Some observers dispute whether the following are separate languages: Galician and Portuguese; Hindi and Urdu; and Romanian and Moldovan. The latter two pairs are generally considered to be the same languages but are written in different scripts: Devenagari and Perso-Arabic for Hindi and Urdu respectively, and Latin and Cyrillic (until 1989) for Romanian and Moldovan respectively. Similarly, Serbo-Croat is now two languages – Serbian and Croatian, the former written mainly in Cyrillic script, the latter in Latin script. Likewise, Persian, also known as Farsi, goes under the name of Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik for the variant spoken in Tajikistan. Mutual intelligibility is not a black and white issue – some Scandinavians say they have to speak English to each other while others do not, while some Spanish and Italian people can converse quite happily, if slowly, each in their own language. The language commonly known as Flemish (spoken in northern Belgium) is a variant of Dutch rather than a separate language; subtitles may be used for Dutch programmes on Flemish television but also for Flemish participants in Flemish programmes if those speakers use a broad dialect and accent. Much of the Afrikaans language is also understood by Dutch speakers, but Afrikaans is generally considered a separate language.

For some people, recognition of their vernacular as a language with its own set of dialects, rather than a dialect of another language, is an important part of their national identity. Catalan speakers, for example, claim that those opposed to the promotion of their language seek to weaken its status by claiming that its Valencian and Balearic dialects are separate languages, and the governing body for Valencian declares that it is indeed the same as Catalan. Mandarin, Cantonese and other variants of Chinese are often called ‘dialects’ and not ‘languages’, though they are not mutually intelligible and are considered separate languages by many linguists. From this point of view, “speaking Chinese” is the equivalent of “speaking Romance or Germanic”.

English speakers usually refer to the language of Cervantes as Spanish, but the name Castilian (from the central Spanish region of Castile) is also used, particularly to distinguish between this and the other languages of Spain, such as Galician and Catalan. Confusingly, Castilian can mean the regional dialect spoken in the region of Castile or the standard Spanish language as spoken in other parts of Spain and the world.

Clients looking to export or advertise abroad would do well to familiarise themselves with the linguistic situation in the relevant country. Which language/s is/are spoken? Is it a specific variant or can the standard language be used? British people generally understand American English, for example, but may not react as well to it as to their own variant. Some argue that Brazilian Portuguese is more different from European Portuguese than the two main English variants are from each other. Swiss German is considered to be further from the German spoken in Germany than Austrian German is, while Luxembourgish is now considered an entirely separate language. Here at Business Language Services we can translate into, or from, a wide variety of languages and variants – just let us know what your requirements are.


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