One of the fundamental constants of human language is its variation. Languages change constantly in time, and languages used by large numbers of speakers display often considerable degrees of differentiation, which may at times impede the possibility of effective communication between speakers of the same language living in geographically separated locations. It is probably safe to say that no two individuals use exactly the same language. Sociolinguists (students of language in its social context) speak of different idiolects, that is, languages as used by a single individual. In order to be an efficient tool of communication, it is of course necessary that a large number of individuals use, or be able to use, a language (or a variant, more neutrally called a linguistic code), with a reasonably high degree of uniformity. That uniformity enables speakers to communicate with other speakers effectively, ideally well enough that speakers meeting one another for the first time can communicate without problems. A group of individuals who use such a linguistic variant (acquired as any group member’s first or native language) may be called a speech community, and their linguistic variant may be loosely referred to as a language. Languages that are used by large speech communities spread over a considerable territory show, more often than not, some degree of regional variation. Regional variants (which may be characterized by linguistic differences in all linguistic subsystems, including, for example, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon) are commonly referred to as dialects. Most speech communities that are sufficiently large to know some
Genghis Khan's Birth Through Time
The following extracts trace the telling of the story of Genghis Khan’s birth in (1) the thirteenth century Chinese-script version of the Secret History of the Mongols, (2) the Uighur-script chronicle Altan Tobci (“Golden Summary”), written by Lubsandanjin in 1655, and (3) a translation of the Secret History into modern Cyrillic-script Khalkha.
(1) Onan-nu deli’un boldaq-a bukui-tur job tende cinggis-qahan toreju’ui; torekui-tur bara’un qar-tur-iyan si’a-yin tedui nodun qatqun toreju’ui.
(2) Onan-u deligun-boldag-a bukui-tur (...) Cing-gis qagan torobe; torokui-tur-iyen baragun gar-tur-iyan shagay-yin tedui qara nojin-i adqun torobe.
(3) Onony Deluun boldog gedeg gazar Chingis xaanyg toruulzhee. Chingis toroxdoo baruun gart shagayn chinee nozh atgan, torzhee.
Translation of (1): “When they were in Deli’un boldaq, on the river Onan, Genghis Khan was born; when he was born, he held a clump of blood, the size of a knuckle, in his right hand.”
Degree of social differentiation or stratification develop linguistic variants divided by social boundaries; these are called sociolects. The average member of a larger speech community will typically be a native speaker of a dialect and, where applicable, may use a sociolect as well. Normally, many individuals will be able to use—or at least to understand—other dialectal or sociolectal variants of the larger speech community, especially individuals with a high degree of geographical or social mobility (or both).
It is not always easy to differentiate between a dialect and a language, and the determination is often made according to nonlinguistic criteria. For example, there is certainly no problem in determining the boundaries of the Icelandic language. It is the only indigenous language of the population of Iceland; its internal dialectal differentiation is minimal, and any indigenous population outside of the island does not use it. On the other hand, some languages of continental Europe are not so straightforwardly definable. A case in point may be the language pair formed by Low German and Dutch: Spread over a large territory in northwestern Europe from Flanders to northeastern Germany, speakers from opposite ends of this area will have little or no ability to communicate with one another in their vernaculars; however, the actual linguistic differences largely disappear as one moves from either end to the border zones of the Netherlands and Germany, where local variants spoken by individuals on both sides of the border are close enough to allow unimpeded communication. Such zones, in which linguistic differences increase gradually with geographic distance, are commonly called dialect continua. The fact that variants spoken in one country are referred to as dialects of Dutch, while those on the other side of the border are known as variants of (Low) German, is not justifiable on linguistic reasons, but rather is a consequence of political considerations and language standardization. Cases of sometimes very large dialect continua being differentiated into languages for historical and political reasons are widespread in Europe and elsewhere; examples in Europe include the West Romance dialect continuum (or DC), comprising French, Provencal, Italian, Catalan, Spanish, and Portuguese; the Scandinavian DC, comprising Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish; and the South Slavic DC, comprising Slovene, Serbo-Croat, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. Outside Europe, national languages such as Hindi and Urdu, Thai and Lao, Turkish and Azerbaijani, and Zulu and Xhosa may be mentioned. The fact that all these variants are generally perceived as and officially referred to as languages is due to the existence of nationally recognized standard languages, which may be close to, but often differ considerably from, the variants (or dialects) acquired as first languages by many speakers.