Is English more homogenized than many other languages?

RedSwirl

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Oct 25, 2017
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I tend to read/hear things about other languages suggesting they have different dialects that are not mutually intelligible with each other, but there seem to be very few or no cases like this in English. Someone who only understands English might have difficulty envisioning the concept of dialects with deeper divisions between them.

Like, from what I've heard, the difference between the dialects of Chinese are like the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. And I heard the situation is the same with Arabic. The difference between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish is apparently so great that games have to be localized for each individual one. I even hear that there are different forms of French within France itself.

Sure people speak English differently in different regions, but we don't even call them dialects, but rather accents. The main differences between those accents are in pronunciation. A person from Texas should still be able to have a conversation with someone from Scotland. There was that one recent news story about those two British politicians in parliament who couldn't understand each other, but that's certainly not common.

I guess it all depends on the difference between a dialect and a language. Some people like to say that a language is just a dialect with an army. The only case of the muddy distinction I can think of in English is the classification of Scots (not Scottish English, but Scots). It has its own standardized system supposedly, but if you parse the text enough it's still possible for a native English speaker to comprehend Scots.

If English is indeed more homogenized than many other languages, why? Did the worldwide spread of English-language media have a heavy standardizing effect on the language, or has English been relatively homogenized for longer?

Sup y'all. I have a master's in sociolinguistics.

Obviously people in here have suggested as much already, but language vs. dialect (vs. accent) is primarily a sociopolitical distinction, not a technical one. Linguists tend to use "variety" to skirt around that debate. In terms of varieties of English being homogeneous: not especially or anything! English is, in spite of the media apparatus that broadcasts it to every corner of the planet, still diversifying, and rapidly. Even just within the United States, African American English is a massive, flourishing variety with its own phonology and a very distinct set of syntactic and morphological rules. If there is one remarkable thing about English here, it's that it has a very consistent consonant inventory across varieties in a way that a lot of languages don't. Our phonetic variation is generally restricted to vowels, which helps English speakers understand each other.

We also have to think about this diachronically (across time). Many varieties of English, especially American varieties and global Englishes, came into existence relatively recently, so they haven't had as much chance to diverge. It's not at all impossible that some varieties may continue to change to such an extent that they'll begin to lose their intelligibility to non-speakers. (And yes, naturally you can give it a thousand years or so and end up with entirely new languages a la Latin--it's the linguistic circle of life, baby!)
 
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Masoyama

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Oct 27, 2017
3,857
English has way less cases and ways to conjugate words. English has a ton of exceptions and ways that to conjugate a word that is unique to it, but the difference betwen UK and US english is spelling. Spanish for example has 3 ways to conjugate verbs in the second person singular. Countries have a preference to each depending on familiarity and regional preferences, but of you want we can all talk in a “universal” Spanish.
 

Kthulhu

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Oct 25, 2017
8,590
The US has a different version of English than the rest of the world. Does that count as a dialect?
 

Almagest

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Oct 28, 2017
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Spain
English is, as far as my understanding goes, a fairly straightforward, simple and flexible language and that's the key of its success. Its grammatical structures, use of pronouns etc. is simpler than it is in other languages so it makes it a great lingua franca as it allows for easy and fluid communication.

It also makes it more homogeneous than other languages in its various standardized forms, but it still has tons of varieties.
 
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Aaronrules380

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Oct 25, 2017
6,971
Chinese isn't a language (though it is a writing system). There are multiple different chinese languages, some of which have their own dialects. The main reason China didn't adapt a phonetic writing system like the west was because it was more efficient for communication if the writing system was standardized to mean the same thing across several spoken languages
 

Titik

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Oct 25, 2017
4,044
Californian here and some obscure English accents from the UK are fully unintelligible to me. I need captions to understand them.
 

Chaos2Frozen

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Nov 3, 2017
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China is a big place with lots of tribes. The first emperor burned all the books and killed all the scholars but he couldn’t stop people from speaking.

So yeah the dialects might as well be different language.
 

Basileus777

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Oct 26, 2017
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New Jersey
English is a younger language that only propagated itself beyond the British Isles after the printing press and some degree of standardization had occured. Hence English has drifted less than other languages.
 

butalala

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Nov 24, 2017
460
US English is pretty easy to understand, but you still have differences between Midwest states, Brooklyn accents, various Southern accents, my personal favorite, the Yooper accent of Michigan. But I remember from my linguistics classes that in Great Britain (and some parts of France, fun fact) there is a much wider variety of dialects.

It has something to do with the ability to travel away from home. English speakers have been living in GB for a much longer time. That, combined with a limited ability to travel away from home compared to the US for much of its history, led to a wide variety of ways to speak English. I remember seeing part of an old documentary that featured old people in rural, maybe Northern England and it was nearly impossible to understand. If you've seen Hot Fuzz, think of the bit with the old guy with a huge bomb in his shed.

Edit: here's the scene from Hot Fuzz. Can't think of the name of the documentary.

 
Oct 27, 2017
2,558
According to Eric Hobsbawm (a pretty well regarded historian) in 1789 only 50% of the people in France spoke French and only 12-13% spoke it well. France was probably the second most developed country in the world at the time. It shows you how recent the idea of standardization of languages is. Also, according to the same author, when Italy became a country (1870s) less than 5 percent of the country spoke Italian.
 

TissueBox

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Oct 25, 2017
1,955
Urinated States of America
There are many factors, culturally, regionally. Like any community, the US has 'dialects' which will vary from area to area, with their own slang and jargon and, in cases like the Philly accent, an at times genuinely distinct language. But these are small. They comprise small island tangents in the east, or cities and states, with some twang in their diction at most. This is because of both the nature of the current, standard form of the English language (being recent, and very modern) and an interconnected, non-fragmented linguistic identity/culture.

As you can see, English can be quite different when a whole sea and a century separate two different peoples of the same tongue. Essentially, American English, British English, and 'Scottish English', as you prescribe, are examples of how the form can be re-shaped accordingly.

American English is essentially a unique, region-specific distortion of British English, along with the natural contemporary refashioning.
 
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TheRedSnifit

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Oct 29, 2017
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It is because modern English was pretty much designed to iron out dialects and be a "standard" language.

Before "Chancery Standard", which was developed and enforced by the British Crown in the mid 1400s, there wasn't really a standard dialect of English. Any time before this and there's a ton of different variations.
 
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Almagest

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Oct 28, 2017
899
Spain
Californian here and some obscure English accents from the UK are fully unintelligible to me. I need captions to understand them.
Yeah, English has a lot of varieties to it. I think the OP is referring to the standardized forms and I think they're partly right as those are very similar aside from intonation and some cultural idiosyncrasies in their own respective lexicons.

That doesn't mean, however, that English users are going to be able to understand the most obscure varieties easily.
 

Zoc

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Oct 27, 2017
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You can thank the strong tradition of prescriptivist grammar in English for its homogeneity. Now join me in my fight against the descriptivists!
 

Stephen Home

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Dec 17, 2018
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Most Chinese "dialects" are actually different languages. They just use the same writing. Mandarin and Cantonese for example, have completely different grammar. People who can speak 2 different dialects of Chinese are actually bilingual but they don't realize it.
 

Kaseoki

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Oct 27, 2017
368
Like, from what I've heard, the difference between the dialects of Chinese are like the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.
Personally I wouldn't describe them as dialects but rather some of them being their own languages. The national language Mandarin however is pretty standardised as school and on the internet there. Sure people will use their own regional language but when it comes to state sanctioned Mandarin I would say it's even more homogenised than say English in the UK.
 

Basileus777

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Oct 26, 2017
3,049
New Jersey
I don't know that I'd call English more homogenized than modern French either. French dialects such as they were in Europe are largely dead languages, France's centralized state and education system has thoroughly standardized the French language over the past 150 years. Where you see French dialects are mostly in Africa, where you get standard French as a formal language alongside more mixed languages.
 
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Stephen Home

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Dec 17, 2018
557
OP what you are describing is just some characteristics of Lingua Franca. As a lingua franca English is not particularly special (outside of being influenced by too many Indo-Europeans)
 
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RedSwirl

RedSwirl

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Oct 25, 2017
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Also, according to the same author, when Italy became a country (1870s) less than 5 percent of the country spoke Italian.
I heard from someone else that what we consider "standard Italian" basically didn't exist until television.

American English is essentially a unique, region-specific distortion of British English, along with the natural contemporary refashioning.
Is this true though? I've heard that both American and British English didn't really diverge from each other until the 1800's, and that American English actually drifted less from what was spoken before.
 

TheRedSnifit

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Oct 29, 2017
4,001
English is a younger language that only propagated itself beyond the British Isles after the printing press and some degree of standardization had occured. Hence English has drifted less than other languages.
Weird take. Old English originate in mainland Europe. The language spoken on the British Isles before the mainlanders showed up was Brythonic, a Celtic language that has nothing to do with English.
 
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RedSwirl

RedSwirl

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Oct 25, 2017
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Weird take. Old English originate in mainland Europe. The language spoken on the British Isles before the mainlanders showed up was Brythonic, a Celtic language that has nothing to do with English.
I guess it depends on when you decide to call it "English" and not "Anglo Saxon" -- before or after the Norman Invasion.
 

Xiaomi

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Oct 25, 2017
4,921
Chinese dialects are further apart than the romance languages. You can kind of hear the similarities between Minnan/Hokkien and Mandarin, but throw Hakka into the mix and it's like going from French to ancient Latin. Some speakers of the very same branch can't understand each other because of regional variation. The good thing about English is its flexibility: you have to work pretty hard to completely destroy a sentence's meaning through bad tone/grammar, whereas meaning in Chinese and other Asian languages is linked to tone per word and it's very easy to become unintelligible if you don't say words in a prescribed order with the exact tone required. Also -- and this is my experience in Taiwan -- many Chinese speakers aren't used to listening through any kind of accent, so you have very little leeway.
 

TheRedSnifit

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Oct 29, 2017
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I guess it depends on when you decide to call it "English" and not "Anglo Saxon" -- before or after the Norman Invasion.
If it's the latter than the poster is right and your question is easy to answer. English was only around for a couple hundred years before bureaucracy forced a specific, standardized version which did not represent any specific spoken dialect. Chancery hierarchy meant that there were only a dozen or so men authorized to change the language and sign important documents, which doesn't leave much room for changes. Fledgling dialects died out as clerks across the country began writing (or at least attempting to write) Chancery style.
 

Pwnz

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Oct 28, 2017
5,388
US and Canadian English mostly differs from most of modern England in rhoticness. US and Canadian English is rhotic, which was common throughout the UK in the 1700s but now is uncommon, only areas like southwest England pronounce trailing Rs.

Colonies started later like Australia have less rhoticness because most of the migration was in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I think either can understand each other. It's the small, thick Gaelic accents that are hard to understand and perhaps some thick, rural old south Appalachian accents due to poor education.
 

Jean Valjean

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Oct 28, 2017
462
According to Eric Hobsbawm (a pretty well regarded historian) in 1789 only 50% of the people in France spoke French and only 12-13% spoke it well. France was probably the second most developed country in the world at the time. It shows you how recent the idea of standardization of languages is. Also, according to the same author, when Italy became a country (1870s) less than 5 percent of the country spoke Italian.
I heard from someone else that what we consider "standard Italian" basically didn't exist until television.
Isn't "standard Italian" an evolution and adaptation of whatever people were speaking in Florence in, like, the 1800s ?
 

gerg

Member
Oct 25, 2017
139
English may be homogenised within the UK or the US (a dubious assertion itself) but consider the many regions that have hybridised their local languages with English (or have had this happen).

On a personally anecodotal level, I encounter a shockingly large number of native-English speakers who don't know what "wagwan" means!
 

Grannvale

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Jan 7, 2018
796
Brasília, Brazil
Not really, at least compared to Portuguese. Like, yeah, Portuguese from Portugal and from Brazil are pretty different, but it's comparable to UK English vs US English vs Australian English vs Whatever. I had no problem understanding Portuguese people when I went to Portugal.

Also, one thing that you have to consider is that many "Languages" are actually a bunch of languages grouped together due to the fact they're in the same nation. "Chinese" is not a language, it's many of them. China is more populous than the entirety of Europe, it's natural there'd be lots of languages in it.
 
No, generally speaking, it's a diverse language due to the multitude of cultural influence on English varieties spoken throughout previous British colonies.
Within the USA alone, we can classify multiple Southern American English accents (eastern/coastal, Appalachian, Texan, etc.) and that's just in one region. Same goes for the Midwest - and don't get me started on New England!

The American West tends to be more homogenous, but even then, Pacific Northwest vs Southern Californian have their own dialectal quirks.
Also of great importance, dialects are unique to specific ethnic groups in a specific country as well, given their cultural history and influences they bring into a language.

And that's not even taking the UK into account.

Like, from what I've heard, the difference between the dialects of Chinese are like the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. And I heard the situation is the same with Arabic. The difference between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish is apparently so great that games have to be localized for each individual one. I even hear that there are different forms of French within France itself.

Sure people speak English differently in different regions, but we don't even call them dialects, but rather accents. The main differences between those accents are in pronunciation. A person from Texas should still be able to have a conversation with someone from Scotland. There was that one recent news story about those two British politicians in parliament who couldn't understand each other, but that's certainly not common.

If English is indeed more homogenized than many other languages, why? Did the worldwide spread of English-language media have a heavy standardizing effect on the language, or has English been relatively homogenized for longer?
Real quick: mutual intelligibility does not mean it's a homogenous language - it simply means that it truly is part of a single language classification.

Yet, as you stated here, language is just a dialect with an army - more specifically, dialects are just a subset of mostly mutually intelligible words and pronunciations that are understood by a another set of mutually intelligible words and accents that is THEN grouped together by governments and people in positions of power as a single language.

Can you guess what the "ideal" or standardized accent is generally based upon? The group who holds the most power in the country.

As to the homogenization, I have heard both theories - that English is becoming more homogenized due to media access and, probably one of the most influential factors within a country, the ease of travel between different dialectical regions.

OR that English is becoming less homogenized, in the USA at least, in urban environments with each city developing its own unique accents. This is likely due to migration patterns and incoming waves of immigrants from outside the country, alongside an increasingly urban population.
I'll have to look this theory up, though.
 
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Hypron

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Oct 27, 2017
3,181
NZ
I don't know that I'd call English more homogenized than modern French either. French dialects such as they were in Europe are largely dead languages, France's centralized state and education system has thoroughly standardized the French language over the past 150 years. Where you see French dialects are mostly in Africa, where you get standard French as a formal language alongside more mixed languages.
There's also the fact that the regional languages that are still spoken in France (e.g. Alsatian, Occitan, Corsican...) aren't actually dialects of French.
 

Lunchbox-

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Nov 2, 2017
2,582
bEast Coast
i had a really tough time understanding people in North Western England when i had to stay there for work....it wasn’t even english at times the things they said. In london i was perfectly fine

they had no trouble understanding my East coast American accent (what you hear on american tv essentially)


certain english accents are hard to understand even for native speakers
 

TheRedSnifit

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Oct 29, 2017
4,001
US English is pretty easy to understand, but you still have differences between Midwest states, Brooklyn accents, various Southern accents, my personal favorite, the Yooper accent of Michigan. But I remember from my linguistics classes that in Great Britain (and some parts of France, fun fact) there is a much wider variety of dialects.

It has something to do with the ability to travel away from home. English speakers have been living in GB for a much longer time. That, combined with a limited ability to travel away from home compared to the US for much of its history, led to a wide variety of ways to speak English. I remember seeing part of an old documentary that featured old people in rural, maybe Northern England and it was nearly impossible to understand. If you've seen Hot Fuzz, think of the bit with the old guy with a huge bomb in his shed.

Edit: here's the scene from Hot Fuzz. Can't think of the name of the documentary.

 

Blackpuppy

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Oct 28, 2017
1,359
I even hear that there are different forms of French within France itself.
Uh.... no. There are different accents of course (Marseille vs Paris vs Brittany vs the Vosges etc) but there aren’t different forms of French.

Now, there are local languages that are, unfortunately, dying out. You’ve got Alsacian on the German border, Basque on the Spanish border, Corsican in Corsica... They have French influences, but Alsacian is largely Germanic, Basque is a Celtic language and Corsican is more related to Italian I suppose.

Now Canadian French and European French are quite different. I mean, it’s largely the same language but the accent is way different and words take on different meanings. M For example, “les gosses” means “kids” in France but “testicles” in Canadian.
 

Iloelemen

Banned
Oct 27, 2017
1,309
Question: How come a country as big as the US only has a single language (besides Spanish) thay only has dialectal varieties?

Here in the Philippines, we have different languages. A one hour trip up north from where I'm from and the language spoken by the locals are now entirely different. It's not just dialectal, it's a language with different vocabulary, grammar and is mutually unintelligible with the language of the place I'm in.

Heck, the place where I grew on has another different language, which I can understand the spoken form of, but can't speak it nor understand wikipedia articles from it.
 

Neonsabre

Member
Oct 27, 2017
371
London and France
Grew up in Houston and legitimately have difficulty understanding stuff like this:

I understood about 50-60%
I’m English and I can usually understand the Scottish accent.

I think it’s her way of talking plus the speed and the censoring make it confusing

I can understand the reporter and the second guy in the RTE report. But not the first farmer. I understand like 40% lol

Hot fuzz is no problem
 
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OP
OP
RedSwirl

RedSwirl

Member
Oct 25, 2017
3,835
Question: How come a country as big as the US only has a single language (besides Spanish) thay only has dialectal varieties?

Here in the Philippines, we have different languages. A one hour trip up north from where I'm from and the language spoken by the locals are now entirely different. It's not just dialectal, it's a language with different vocabulary, grammar and is mutually unintelligible with the language of the place I'm in.

Heck, the place where I grew on has another different language, which I can understand the spoken form of, but can't speak it nor understand wikipedia articles from it.
History and geography.

The US originally had all the indigenous Native American languages which were in completely separate groups that developed over thousands of years, many of which survive today. But European colonists came and spread across the continent over the course of around 500 years. By the time they really started to spread westward from the original colonies English had already been standardized in written form. The different regional varieties have had less time to diverge from one another and have a common base of media to unify them. Actually though, a lot of European immigrants from places like Germany, Italy, France, or wherever kept speaking their old native languages well into the 20th century. There are also examples of obscure dialects of European languages spoken in specific parts of the US, like Pennsylvania German or Cajun.

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, from what I've read, is New Guinea --- an island where hundreds of languages developed that have barely any connection to each other. Because of the geography of that place and how far back in time homo sapiens discovered it, different dialects and languages developed in different regions of the island and had tends of thousands of years to diverge from one another. As a result, there are languages indigenous to the same island that are as different from each other as English and Chinese.
 

TickleMeElbow

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Oct 31, 2017
1,495
I feel like Russian is way more homogenized.

I don't speak any Russian at all btw, so maybe someone can correct me.
 

maluma baby!

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Oct 25, 2017
2,053
Sinaloa
The differences between spanish is way overblown, is just that people are really ill of their xenophobia, imagine if manbabies threw a fit because they played a game with english accents and characters said bloody and lad, thats basically how the issue is between spanish speakers.

English doesn't even have an homogenized spelling and is super non phonetic, i feel like that is everything to say about the topic
 

Iloelemen

Banned
Oct 27, 2017
1,309
I tend to read/hear things about other languages suggesting they have different dialects that are not mutually intelligible with each other, but there seem to be very few or no cases like this in English. Someone who only understands English might have difficulty envisioning the concept of dialects with deeper divisions between them.

Like, from what I've heard, the difference between the dialects of Chinese are like the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. And I heard the situation is the same with Arabic. The difference between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish is apparently so great that games have to be localized for each individual one. I even hear that there are different forms of French within France itself.

Sure people speak English differently in different regions, but we don't even call them dialects, but rather accents. The main differences between those accents are in pronunciation. A person from Texas should still be able to have a conversation with someone from Scotland. There was that one recent news story about those two British politicians in parliament who couldn't understand each other, but that's certainly not common.

I guess it all depends on the difference between a dialect and a language. Some people like to say that a language is just a dialect with an army. The only case of the muddy distinction I can think of in English is the classification of Scots (not Scottish English, but Scots). It has its own standardized system supposedly, but if you parse the text enough it's still possible for a native English speaker to comprehend Scots.

If English is indeed more homogenized than many other languages, why? Did the worldwide spread of English-language media have a heavy standardizing effect on the language, or has English been relatively homogenized for longer?
Also, the Chinese languages are way different from each other.
 

Lunaray

Member
Oct 27, 2017
1,187
Chinese dialects are almost separate languages, and have different grammar. But standard mandarin is mutually intelligible everywhere and there are regional accents but it's no different from regional variations in English. I think OP is conflating different concepts.
 

hateradio

Member
Oct 28, 2017
3,218
welcome, nowhere
The difference between Latin American Spanish and European Spanish is apparently so great that games have to be localized for each individual one.
I think this has to do with Spain having its own regional "Spanish authority" that wants a Spanish-spoken Spanish. The Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America tend to use the Mexican versions, and can understand it pretty well, even if they themselves don't speak like that.

Grew up in Houston and legitimately have difficulty understanding stuff like this:

I'm sure if you listened to this for a few days, you'd get it. Where if you had completely different Chinese dialects, you probably wouldn't.
 

tolkir

Member
Oct 25, 2017
2,237
Differences between Latin American and European Spanish are highly exaggerated. Both sides can understand themselves perfectly, simply each one prefer its proper accent and expressions.

Imagine to get UK accents on every animated movie and video game.