Dialect continuum

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A dialect continuum is a range of dialects spoken across a large geographical area, differing only slightly between areas that are geographically close to each other, and gradually decreasing in mutual intelligibility as the distances become greater. Dialects separated by great geographical distances may not be mutually comprehensible. According to the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache paradigm, these dialects can be considered Abstandsprachen (i.e., as stand-alone languages). However, they also can be seen as dialects of a single language, provided that a common standard language, through which communication is possible, exists.

The German dialects provide an example of a dialect continuum.

In sociolinguistics, a language continuum is said to exist when two or more different languages or dialects merge one into the other(s) without a definable boundary.

Continental West Germanic

The many regional dialects of German are often cited as the canonical example of a dialect continuum. They form a single dialect continuum, with three recognized literary standards. Although Dutch and standard German are not mutually intelligible, there are transitional dialects that are, for example, Limburgish, spoken in parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and a very small part of Germany, and some other Low Franconian dialects spoken across the border in Germany which are known as South Guelderish (however, Limburgish is nowadays sometimes considered a language in its own right).

Another example was the area where the river Rhine crosses the border from Germany to the Netherlands. On both sides of this border, the people living in the immediate surroundings spoke an identical language. They could understand each other without difficulty, and would even have had trouble telling just by the language whether a person from the region was from the Netherlands or from Germany. However, the Germans here called their language German, and the Dutch called their language Dutch, so in terms of sociolinguistics they were speaking different languages.

Romance languages

The Italo-Western branch of the Romance languages, which comprises Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese, as well as other languages with fewer speakers, is sometimes presented as another example, although the major languages in this group have had separate standards for longer than the languages in the continental West Germanic group, and are not commonly classified as dialects of a common language. In recent centuries, the intermediate dialects which existed between the major Romance languages have been moving toward extinction, partly because of the French government's attitude towards what they call patois. This is also true for some non-dominant intermediate languages, like Occitan and Franco-Provençal.

A less arguable example of a dialect continuum within the Italo-Western languages are the Romance languages of Italy. For many decades since its unification, the above attitude of the French government was reflected in Rome by the Italian government which affected the adjoining dialects of this continuum spoken in Northern Italy. These include Venetian and Piedmontese among others. The only surviving standard linking language between French and Italian is now the Romansh spoken in the Germanic language community islands of Switzerland. Over the years however, under pressure from the Northern League, the Italian government has yielded in allowing public signs and other media to use both local and national standard dialects in most affected areas.

The eastern branch of the Romance languages is dominated by the dialects collectively classed as Romanian. Outside of Romania's present borders, these dialects continue to form the neighbouring Moldovan language language of Moldova. To the west and south of Romania these dialects continue into Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia though with distance from their heaviest concentration (the two named countries), the population becomes more sparse as each generation decreases in number due to assimilation of the local languages. Romanian language communities are found farther afield in Greece and Albania too, but perhaps the most endangered is in Istria in Croatia. It is interesting to reflect that this particular dialect known as Istro-Romanian is thought by many to be the closest surviving language to the extinct Dalmatian. Dalmatian in turn formed a chain with Venetian, which led to Romansch and Italian etc, and so a single continuum may have been spoken had Dalmatian still been used.


Arabic is a classic case of diglossia. The standard written language, Modern Standard Arabic, is based on the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an, while the modern vernacular dialects (or languages)—which form a dialect continuum reaching from the Maghreb in North Western Africa through Egypt, Sudan, and the Fertile Crescent to the Arabian Peninsula—have diverged widely from that. Because Arabic is written in an Abjad, the difference between the written standard and the vernaculars also becomes apparent in the written language and so children have to be taught in school to articulate Modern Standard Arabic to be able to write it.


The spoken variants of Chinese are highly divergent, forming a continuum comparable to that of the Romance languages. However, all the variants more or less share a common written language, though there are vernacular variations in vocabulary and grammar, and also even in the characters.

The written language originally shared by all dialects was Classical Chinese, which was in normal use up until the early 20th century. In pre-modern times, Northern Baihua grew up alongside Classical Chinese as a standard vernacular dialect. The modern standard dialect, Putonghua (often called Mandarin), is largely based on Baihua.

Within the dialects, gradations do exist between pure local vernacular and the more refined speech of the better educated that incorporates elements from the standard language or written language.

Of course, the development of the divergent Chinese languages was made much easier because the characters used for writing Chinese are not tied closely to pronunciation as alphabetic or syllabic scripts are. In other words, a Cantonese speaker may write his language much the same as a Mandarin speaker and yet pronounce the written text totally differently.

Northern India

The languages spoken in Northern India form a dialect continuum. What is called "Hindi" in India is actually Standardized Hindi, the Sanskrit-ized version of the colloquial "Hindustani" spoken in the Delhi area during the time of the Mughals. However, the term Hindi can be used to enclose all its dialects from east to west—from Bihar to Rajasthan. The Indo-Aryan prakrits also gave rise to languages like Gujarati, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Punjabi. Of these, Punjabi can probably be included in the northern Indian continuum. Gujarati is also in some ways close to the dialects of Hindi spoken in the southern Rajasthan region.

West and Central Asia

The languages of Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India also form a dialect continuum of Indo-Aryan languages from Persian in the west slowly emerging as Baluchi then Sindhi, Punjabi and Urdu. Most of these languages developed due to extensive intermixing of the populations of the areas as the various Persian and Indian kingdoms exerted their influences in these areas. Other languages such as Pushto and Seraiki can also be included in this continuum.


There are many examples of dialect continua among the languages of Africa, particularly south of the Sahara.

See also