Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum or dialect chain is a spread of language varieties spoken across some geographical area such that neighbouring varieties differ only slightly, but the differences accumulate over distance so that widely separated varieties are not mutually intelligible. That happens, for example, across large parts of India (the Indo-Aryan languages) or the Arab world (Arabic). Historically, it also happened in various parts of Europe such as between Portugal, southern Belgium (Wallonia) and southern Italy (Western Romance languages) and between Flanders and Austria (German dialects). Leonard Bloomfield used the name dialect area.[1] Charles F. Hockett used the term L-complex.[2] It is analogous to a ring species in evolutionary biology.[3]

Dialect continua typically occur in long-settled agrarian populations, as innovations spread from their various points of origin as waves. In this situation, hierarchical classifications of varieties are impractical. Instead, dialectologists map variation of various language features across a dialect continuum, drawing lines called isoglosses between areas that differ with respect to some feature.[4]

To decide what is a dialect and what a language, the German linguist Heinz Kloss developed the abstand and ausbau language framework.

Since the early 20th century, the increasing dominance of nation-states and their standard languages has been steadily eliminating the nonstandard dialects that comprise dialect continua, making the boundaries ever more abrupt and well-defined.

Dialect geography

Part of map 72 of the Atlas linguistique de la France, recording local forms meaning "today"

Dialectologists record variation across a dialect continuum using maps of various features collected in a linguistic atlas, beginning with an atlas of German dialects by Georg Wenker (from 1888), based on a postal survey of schoolmasters. The influential Atlas linguistique de la France (1902–10) pioneered the use of a trained fieldworker.[5] These atlases typically consist of display maps, each showing local forms of a particular item at the survey locations.[6]

Secondary studies may include interpretive maps, showing the areal distribution of various variants.[6] A common tool in these maps is an isogloss, a line separating areas where different variants of a particular feature predominate.[7]

In a dialect continuum, isoglosses for different features are typically spread out, reflecting the gradual transition between varieties.[8] A bundle of coinciding isoglosses indicates a stronger dialect boundary, as might occur at geographical obstacles or long-standing political boundaries.[9] In other cases, intersecting isoglosses and more complex patterns are found.[10]

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