Working for a translation company based in the Philippines, project managers usually encounter inquiries asking for translation in a certain language or dialect. This type of inquiry often comes from overseas clients who seem to be lost in the sea of languages we have on our side of the world. It is general knowledge that Filipino is the official language of the country alongside English. However, overseas clients would get confused on whether to request Tagalog or Filipino translation only to be more surprised that there are a lot more possible choices depending on which corner of the Philippines you are in. Although the difference between Tagalog and Filipino deserves a complete write-up, this article will focus on identifying the difference between a language and a dialect.

Because Filipino is the main language of the Philippines, does this mean that what we usually hear in provinces, such as Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray, Ilocano, and Chavacano, are considered dialects? Among linguists, the distinction between languages and dialects remains a point for debate.

The University of California, San Diego, claims that there is no such thing as a dialect from a linguistic perspective. It explains that variations of languages can be spread out geographically by isoglosses, which are boundary lines between places or regions that have different linguistic features. It further explains that it is wrong to assume “that a uniform standard language fragments into dialects.”

Castilian is a prime example. It was derived from a variant spoken in Burgos, Spain, which was then transferred to Toledo then Madrid for political reasons. Thus, it refutes the theory that languages take precedence over dialects. There are also cases where language variants possess the same features with more than one standard language.

Other linguists, however, acknowledge that there are dialects, albeit the distinction being indefinite. The difference between the two is also seen as affected by political and social conditions. In fact, the Economist notes that languages are seen as the “prestigious, official, and written” kind while dialects are “mostly spoken, unofficial, and looked down upon.” Moreover, “mutual comprehensibility” is also a factor in distinguishing a language from a dialect. If two speakers from related kinds of speech can carry out a conversation with understanding, they speak of dialects from a single language. On the other hand, if comprehension is next to impossible, they speak of two distinct languages.

Taking Cebuano as an example following the logic above, we can consider it a language and not a dialect as it is unintelligible to a Filipino, Ilocano, or a Hiligaynon speaker. On the other hand, the people from Cebu, Bohol, and Davao—although they speak Cebuano—may not understand each other all the time as there are variations in their terms and even with pronunciation. For example, “house” in Cebu Cebuano translates to “balay” while Bohol Cebuano (or Boholano) is termed “bay.” In this case, we can say that these places speak a dialect of Cebuano.

Ultimately, as The Language Journal puts it, “language identifies a country while dialect recognizes locality.”

UC San Diego
The Economist
The Language Journal