How can languages differ?

Languages can differ in many ways. They may use different sounds, they may make words in different ways, they may put words together to form a sentence in different ways, and that’s just for starters!

When we talk about a ‘language’ we mean the act of speaking, writing or signing. We don’t mean the way people can use their body, face or eyes to convey meaning, but rather the structured linguistic system of communication.

A ‘dialect’ is a variety of a language which, while different from other dialects of a language, is still totally understandable by other people who speak other dialects of the same language. Dialects of a language may vary in terms of accents, the words people use, the way people structure their speech. This can be because of geographical distance or because of social factors. Often people who speak the same dialect will live in the same place.

Sometimes linguists speak of ‘lects’. This term is used when talking about the way people speak within a speech community that identifies them in some way, but not on the basis of social factors or because of the region they come from.

Phonetics and Phonology

Thinking of sound patterns or sound systems of a language, we think primarily about consonants and vowels, and sometimes the pitch of words when they are spoken. In English we have 24 consonants and, depending on the dialect, about 18 vowels. Eighteen?! Yes! That’s how we have the words ‘heed’, ‘hid’, ‘head’, ‘had’, ‘hot’, ‘hard’, ‘hoard’, ‘herd’, ‘hide’, and so on. Rotokas, a language spoken in Bougainville has only six consonants and five vowels. Taa (also known as !Xóõ) has more than 80 consonants and about 20  vowels.

There are also specific ways the sounds in a language can be put together in a word. In linguistics this is called ‘phonotactics’. Words in some languages always finish with a vowel, while words in other languages must not have two consonants together. In English, for example, there are some sounds that cannot occur in particular parts of the word. The sound we make at the end of the word ‘sing’ does not occur at the beginning of words in English. But this is a common sound at the beginning of words in many languages spoken in Australia.

Morphology

Morphology in linguistics refers to how a word is put together in a language. A morpheme is a part of a word that has a meaning in and of itself. For example, the jump and the ing in jumping. Words can be quite complex in their structure, for example in many Australian languages.

Syntax

Words are put together to form sentence in different ways in different languages. This area of investigation is referred to as ‘syntax’. Syntacticians are interested in the sequences of the parts in a sentence. For example, in English we say “there is a red apple” with the adjective ‘red’ coming before the noun ‘apple’, whereas in French, the sentence would be “il y a une pomme rouge” where the adjective ‘rouge’ comes after the noun ‘pomme’.

The structure of a language can be very difficult to work out. Sometimes it is even harder than the most difficult of codes! In Word War II speakers of Navajo, an indigenous language of the United States of America, joined the United States Marine Corps and spoke in Navajo to pass on secret messages. Because Navajo was spoken by only a small number of people and it sounds and is structured in an interesting an unusual way, Navajo was a ready-made undecipherable code that was at the same time very easy to decipher by those in the know! Other languages such as Basque, have also been used in the same way.


Game: The Great Language Game.


Classroom resources: From the University of Maryland.


Maps: World Atlas of Language Structures Online.