Same Tongue, Different Twang – Dialects of Popular Languages

Thinking about learning a new language, but not sure which one? There may be more choices than you imagined.

We’ll explore five different languages and their multiple dialects, which can vary substantially from region to region.

Parisian French vs Québécois French

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French is spoken in the second-highest number of countries (29) worldwide, second only to English. Canada, where the French spoken is predominantly Québécois French, is home to the largest population of French-speakers outside of France.

Canadian media is typically available in both French and English, and a significant number of students are educated in French. To accommodate the unique needs of a bilingual nation, an organization called the Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) records and officiates popular colloquial terms.

Courriel, one such example of a Québécois French-ism, is a contraction of courrier électronique (electronic mail). European French-speakers generally use the appropriated English word “e-mail” to describe electronic mail in speaking and casual writing.

There are some French words used in Canada that have no equivalent in France; for example, the harsh Canadian winters inspired the conception of the word poudrière, which means “wind-blown snow.” The word “paua,” which means “pow-wow” (a Native American term for a meeting), is linguistic proof that Canada’s mixed cultural heritage has had a pretty significant impact on Québécois French.

Geographical separation can cause some more peculiar deviations between dialects, too. Take, for instance, the Québécois word goéland, which means “sea gull.” It bears no relation to the European French word for “sea gull,” mouette, and has no traceable root in another language.

For the most part, the differences between Québécois and European French are in manners of speaking.

Inhabitants of Montreal have noticeably different accents from Parisians, and there are a variety of phrases unique to each dialect – some of which may not translate precisely across dialects. In habitants of l’Hexagone will even watch Quebecois TV programs with French subtitles:

In general, though, French speakers on both continents maintain mutual intelligibility, when both parties make an effort.

Forget the accent, how’s your French? Find out in our French Language Level Test.

Castilian and Latin American Spanish vs Catalan

Though they have similar names, Castilian and Catalan are actually two very different languages. Both fall under the Ibero-Romance language family, but there is a further geographical split: Catalan falls into the East-Iberian category, and Castilian into the West-Iberian.

“Castilian Spanish” is a term usually used in reference to the type of Spanish spoken in mainland Spain. Specifically, it refers to the type of Spanish spoken in northern and central Spain, and is the standard used for TV and radio broadcasts.

The Spanish spoken in the Americas is often called Latin American Spanish, and the two do not vary too significantly. The major differences occur in colloquial pronunciation and distinction (distinción); for example, European Spanish-speakers pronounce the ‘c’ that precedes e and i as ‘th’ (theta), while Latin American Spanish speakers pronounce it as ‘s’. Therefore, cinco is said as ‘siŋ-kō’ in Latin America, whereas European speakers pronounce it ‘thiŋ-kō’.

Catalan originated in the 9th century, when Latin-speakers in northern Spain (the Catalonia region) began to adopt their own speech patterns and terminology, according to barcelona.de. Today, it is spoken in northeastern Spain and the neighboring parts of France; it is also the official language of Andorra, the small nation nestled in the Pyrenées mountains between France and Spain.

A Castilian speaker would probably recognize Catalan phrases, but not be able to communicate very well with a Catalan speaker, as Catalan bears more similarities to French and Italian than it does to Spanish.

Brazilian vs European Portuguese

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Natives of Portugal might be slightly bewildered when they arrive in a country where residents supposedly speak their native language. In Brazil, significant modifications have been made to the mother tongue: the pronunciation, sentence structure and word choices can differ dramatically.

Brazilian Portuguese is far more popular than European Portuguese, as Brazil has a much larger population. Cape Verde, Mozambique and Angola speak their own versions of Portuguese, which bear more semblance to the Brazilian variant than to “Portuguese Portuguese.”

If you plan on visiting Brazil sometime in the near future, you may want avoid awkward situations by taking a look at Listen & Learn’s article on 7 Words in Portuguese that mean something completely different in Brazil.

Are you thinking of learning Brazilian or European Portuguese? Test how much you know already in our Portuguese Level Test.

Egyptian (Maṣrī) vs Standard Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or Literary Arabic, is the official language of 27 countries and states – the third highest number, behind English and French. It is the literary standard in the Middle East and North Africa, and is an official language of the UN.

Although the Egyptian dialect of Arabic has no official status in Egypt, it is spoken by most of Egypt’s population. It is also known as Maṣrī, a derivation of Maṣr, the official Arabic name for Egypt. It is primarily a spoken language, and, due to the predominance of Egyptian TV and radio media in the Arab world, there is a fairly wide understanding of Egyptian Arabic.

Egyptian Arabic has its roots in MSA, and someone who only speaks MSA will usually be able to understand an Egyptian speaker if he/she deciphers the sounds correctly. Two-way conversation is usually also possible since MSA is taught in schools in all Arabic-speaking nations.

Egyptian Arabic differs from MSA in that it is relatively vernacular. It is essentially a sort of short-hand version of MSA; for example: “Thank you” translates to shukran in MSA, but translates to šukran in Egyptian Arabic. “Good Morning” in MSA is sabāh el-khair, whereas, in Egyptian, it is SabāH al-xeir.

Take note: even if you plan on focusing on the Maṣrī dialect, you can’t avoid learning the Arabic alphabet – it is used consistently in all Arabic dialects.

Whether you want to know Arabic for a trip to Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East, you should probably test your Arabic Language Level first.

British vs American English

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British and American English exhibit some minor differences in the written form, most notably in the usage of unique expressions and slight spelling variations: American English simplifies the spelling of some words, such as those ending in “-our” in British English. American English changes “-our” endings to “-or.”

Take, for instance, the British word “colour,” which, in its Americanized form, is spelled “color;” the words “humour” and “honour” have similarly been shortened to “humor” and “honor” in the States.

Interestingly, when British “-our” words have a suffix, writers frequently drop the “u;” for example, “humour”’s corresponding adjective is “humorous,” rather than “humourous.”

To focus on spelling differences that have no meaningful impact on the spoken language is not particularly useful. In general, aside from certain heavier accents (think Scottish Highlands in Great Britain, and perhaps Alabama or Mississippi in the USA) and the use of slang in certain regions of England and America, you will not have a problem understanding other English speakers wherever you happen to travel or work.

While American English can seem illogical (or lazy!) to the average British English speaker, the Brits have quite a few tricks up their sleeves, as one American writer quickly discovers. Rest assured though, the rules are becoming more relaxes – even the BBC no longer requires you to know “The Queen’s English” in order to work there!

If you are planning on traveling, living, or working abroad, it is best to do your research. Know what regional dialect is spoken at your destination, and learn it – in addition to the local written or standard language. Your ability to communicate verbally is just as important as your ability to read and write!