Why the Term ‘Dialect’ is Offensive and Inappropriate

Written by Dyami Millarson

Language is an essential aspect of cultural identity, and the words we use to describe language are significant. One term that has been used to describe certain languages is “dialect.” However, this term can be seen as offensive and inappropriate — a point that I have been making for years (see here for example), yet it bears repeating. Once upon a time, before there was the concept of dialect, there was harmony and every group who spoke differently or could be identified by the way the spoke was considered to speak a language. This was, for example, still the case in the Low Countries during the entire medieval period when Middle Dutch was spoken. Then came along the concept of “dialect” and the primordial harmony, the ancient order, was disrupted, and the shockwaves of this are still reverberating throughout the world today. The use of the term ‘dialect’ to describe a language implies that the language is inferior or subordinate to another language. It suggests that the language is not a distinct and separate entity, but rather a variation or deviation from a “standard” language. This can be insulting and demeaning to people who speak the language, as it implies that their language is somehow less valuable or important than others.

Furthermore, the term ‘dialect’ can be seen as a tool of oppression. In many cases, the dominant language is used as the standard against which other languages are measured. The use of the term ‘dialect’ reinforces the idea that the dominant language is superior and that other languages are merely variations or deviations from the norm. This can lead to discrimination and marginalization of people who speak languages that are not considered “standard.” For example, in the Frisian-speaking world, the term ‘dialect’ has been used historically to describe the different Frisian languages spoken in the Northern Netherlands and Northwestern Germany. However, this usage is inappropriate because it implies that these language varieties are merely local variations of a larger Frisian language — or Heaven forbid, even a larger Dutch or German — rather than distinct languages in their own right.

This can be seen in the case of Wangerooge Frisian and Sagelterland Frisian, two languages traditionally spoken in Germany. While Sagelterland Frisian has received recognition as a minority language and has seen some revitalisation efforts, Wangerooge Frisian has been largely ignored — make of that what you will. The point is that being labelled as a dialect detracts from the uniqueness of Wangerooge Frisian and — quite clearly — ignores the fact that, like with learning any other language, it takes real effort to acquire this language. I have acquired the Wangerooge Frisian language with the firm belief that it is a Frisian language equally deserving of attention in the context of preserving the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Frisian world, which I also deem to be the heritage of all of humanity.

There are cases where the term “dialect” has been used as a tool of cultural assimilation. It is a recurring theme that attemps are made at suppressing regional languages by labeling them as “dialects” and promoting the use of a standardised language. This can lead to the loss of cultural identity and the erasure of linguistic diversity. It is vital to recognize and respect the distinct linguistic and cultural identities of all people. The use of the term “dialect” can be seen as offensive and inappropriate as it implies that certain languages are inferior or subordinate to others. Instead, we should use neutral and respectful language to describe different languages and dialects, and acknowledge their value and importance in maintaining cultural diversity.

The term “language variety” can also be seen as pejorative and offensive in some contexts. This term is often used to describe minority languages or regional languages that are perceived as “less prestigious” or “less standard” than the dominant language in a given area. By using this term, it reinforces the idea that some languages are inferior or less worthy of respect than others. For the sake of humanity towards fellow human beings and peace between human groups, all languages should be treated with equal respect and dignity. Language is an essential part of cultural identity and diversity, and no language should be seen as less important or less valid than another. The use of language variety or dialect-like terms can be harmful because it can lead to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of minority languages and their speakers. Instead, it is important to use language that recognizes and celebrates the linguistic and cultural diversity of all communities. This means using terms that recognise the equal status of all languages, and avoiding language that reinforces linguistic and cultural hierarchies. By doing so, we can promote social harmony, understanding, and respect for all language communities.

It is important to reflect on the language we use when discussing linguistic and cultural identities. The use of respectful language is essential in ensuring that all individuals and communities are treated with dignity and respect. Using respectful language means using terminology that acknowledges and respects the linguistic and cultural identities of all individuals and communities. It means recognizing that language is not just a tool for communication, but a vital aspect of cultural identity. It means avoiding language that reinforces ideas of linguistic and cultural superiority and instead embrace the inherited reality of diversity which is human heritage that we can all benefit from.

In linguistic discourse, using respectful language can help to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Words can have different meanings and connotations in different cultures and contexts, and using the wrong terminology can be offensive or insulting. Using respectful language shows a willingness to understand and engage with other cultures and communities. Furthermore, using respectful language can also help to challenge oppressive power structures. The use of certain words and terminology can reinforce ideas of dominance and subordination. By using language that acknowledges the value and importance of all cultures and languages, we can challenge these power structures and promote equality and social justice.

Language is an essential tool for preserving cultural identity. It is through language that cultural knowledge, values, and traditions are passed down from one generation to the next. Language is a vital aspect of cultural identity, and the loss of a language can lead to the loss of cultural heritage and identity. Language loss can occur for many reasons. The use of dominant languages as the primary means of communication can lead to the marginalization and eventual disappearance of minority languages. In many cases, the loss of a language can also mean the loss of cultural knowledge, traditions, and values.

However, preserving a language is not just a matter of linguistic survival, but also a matter of cultural survival, and also the matter of the survival of an entire worldview, philosophy, way of interpreting the world. Language is closely tied to cultural identity, and the loss of a language can lead to the erosion of cultural traditions and values. By preserving a language, we can also preserve cultural heritage and identity. Language preservation involves not just maintaining the use of a language but also promoting its use and ensuring its continuity. This requires support and investment in language education, language documentation, and language revitalization efforts. It also requires the recognition and celebration of linguistic and cultural diversity.

The term ‘dialect’ can be seen as offensive and inappropriate when used to describe distinct languages. It reinforces the idea of linguistic and cultural superiority, which can lead to discrimination and marginalisation. Instead, we should use neutral and respectful language to describe different languages and dialects, and recognize and celebrate their value and importance in maintaining cultural diversity. Using respectful language in linguistic discourse is crucial in promoting cultural and linguistic diversity, equality, and harmony. It means acknowledging and respecting the linguistic and cultural identities of all individuals and communities, avoiding language that reinforces ideas of linguistic and cultural superiority, and promoting respect and understanding. We should strive to use language that is neutral and respectful, and that recognises the value and importance of the multitude of cultures and languages that exist in the world today and that have been inherited from olden times. Language plays a crucial role in preserving cultural identity. The loss of a language can lead to the loss of cultural heritage and identity. Preserving a language is not just a matter of linguistic survival, but also a matter of cultural survival. Language preservation requires support and the investment of effort into the field of language-learning and language use — a field which encompasses various effforts such as encompasses language acquisition through self-study, writing literature and poetry, language education, language documentation, and language revitalisation; after all, no language can survive without being learned and then being used. It is essential to recognise and celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity to ensure the preservation of cultural identity.

Let me briefly sum up the essential points of this article:

  • The term “dialect” can be offensive and reinforces linguistic and cultural hierarchies. Like terms or replacement terms such as language variety are equally problematic, because they perpetuate the same underlying stigmas as ‘dialect’ and therefore they do not achieve equality, harmony, and mutual understanding between human communities.
  • Respectful language is essential in promoting cultural diversity, equality, and harmony.
  • Language plays a crucial role in preserving cultural identity, and language preservation efforts are necessary for promoting cultural diversity and ensuring cultural survival.
  • Using respectful language and supporting language revitalisation efforts are crucial for promoting cultural diversity, equality, and harmony.


  1. One of the best examples of this is the insistence of some who label the Scots leid (tongue) a dialect of English. This is a tool of cultural oppression used to this day by the dominant culture (England) to make Scotland subsidiary to England, and not an equal partner in a union of nations. This is why many in Scotland wish for independence and why the Scottish government has supported the teaching and public usage of both Scots and Scots Gàidhlig. There is a long history of this going back hundreds of years to a time when Gàidhlig was outlawed. You want to kill a culture? Start by killing its language.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the status of the Scots language and how it has been labeled a dialect of English. Your observation about the use of this label as a tool of cultural oppression is an important one, and it is true that the power dynamics between different languages can play a significant role in shaping their perceived status and value. After all, a dialect is an inferior language, but a superior language is not a dialect — this chiasmus powerfully expresses an uncomfortable truth that deserves to be exposed, and so this chiasmus always bears repeating as a reminder of the power dynamics at play when it comes to language and culture. It is important for linguists and language enthusiasts to be mindful of the potential cultural and political implications of the terminology they use to describe languages.
      – Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I speak a north Swedish dialect sometimes referred to as Norrlandish, a sort of blend of northern Norwegian and old Swedish. More specifically I am speaking Ångermanlandish a variation of Norrlandish. It is disappearing since the Stockholm, or central Swedish dialect, typically is the one spoken on TV and radio. I live in Texas not subject to Swedish TV and therefore I still speak Swedish the old Norrlandish/ Ångermanlandish way. When I get back to Sweden some people tell me that it is so nice to hear that I still speak the old way, and they assume I am a farmer living without much contact with civilization. They are surprised to hear that I live in Dallas, Texas, but it is just another way of being isolated from Swedish TV/radio. I don’t find it offensive to call Norrlandish/ Ångermanlandish a dialect, after all there are many variations of Swedish (and Norwegian). There are many English American dialects in the US too. Texans don’t speak like Bostonians and yet we call it dialects. However, I could see how it would be offensive to call Norwegian a Swedish dialect since Norwegians identify as speaking Norwegian, not Swedish, even though the two languages are similar. I think it depends on how people identify and the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hej då!
      Thank you for sharing your perspective on Norrlandish/Ångermanlandish and how you do not find it offensive to refer to it as a dialect. While it is important to acknowledge individual experiences and feelings, it is also important to recognise that others may feel differently. Many people may feel offended by the term ‘dialect’ due to its association with negative connotations and the historical use of the concept of ‘dialect’ to suppress or devalue certain languages. (After all, at one point in history, every local language in Sweden was considered equally a language but then the distinction between inferior/superior language starting being made, hence the dichotomy.)
      Therefore, while it is understandable that you do not feel offended by the term, it is important to consider the broader context and implications of the language we use. The use of the term ‘dialect’ perpetuates negative stereotypes, superiority/inferiority connotations, and contributes to language discrimination. After all, an inferior language is a dialect, but a superior language is not a dialect. So it is also worth noting that the power dynamic between different languages and dialects varies, and what may be considered a dialect in one context (namely from the superior vs. inferior perspective) may be seen as a separate language in another context.
      In short, while individual perspectives on the term ‘dialect’ may vary, it is important to be mindful of the inherent negative connotations associated with the term and to consider returning to the status quo ante, the primordial situation, where we made no distinction between languages based on superiority/inferiority (i.e., hierarchy).
      – Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really appreciated your article. I have often seen that respect  for languages and cultural diversity are associated with two major factors. Socioeconomic hierarchies and/ or  population dominance seem to be major factors in forming a culturally dominant language that becomes a language “standard” by which other languages are evaluated. 

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    • Thank you for the positive feedback and insightful commentary. Indeed, socioeconomic hierarchies and population dominance play a significant role in the promotion or suppression of different languages and cultural identities. For the sake of our worldwide heritage, our linguistic and cultural diversity, it is important to recognise and through raising awareness, we can address this issue properly.
      – Dyami Millarson


  4. When teaching students, what is the best way to refer to the variations of language? In other words, what terms can replace “dialect”? We are reading works from the Harlem Renaissance in which the dialogue embedded in the stories reflects the pronunciation of the community. Is there a term for such dialogue? I really want to start this conversation with the right terms to set my students up for success when it comes to discussing the variety of language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your question. In acknowledging that terms like “dialect,” “language variety,” and “language form” can carry negative connotations and perpetuate stereotypes that devalue or dismiss certain languages, it is important to avoid perpetuating these negative stereotypes by simply using “language” when referring to any variation or diversity in language. This allows for an examination of the complexity and diversity of language use without devaluing or dismissing any particular language.
      When discussing languages, it is an opportunity to shed light on the web of relationships between languages. So it is relevant to focus on the differences between languages and how they are related to one another. This can involve exploring the degrees of relatedness between languages, as well as the historical, cultural, and social factors that have influenced language development and use.
      In conclusion, when referring to variation or diversity in language, it is best to focus on the similar, dissimilar, and unique characteristics of each language and the ways in which they relate and differ from one another or what makes them one of a kind entirely. It is a basis for productive discussions.
      In the case of the Harlem Renaissance stories, it may be useful to describe the unique use of language and pronunciation as characteristic of the community or region in which it is spoken, rather than trying to categorise it as a particular dialect or language form. This approach can help to promote greater understanding and appreciation of linguistic diversity, and encourage students to explore the richness and complexity of language in different communities and regions.
      Thank you for your commitment to promoting linguistic diversity and cultural understanding in the classroom, and I wish you and your students all the best in your language studies.
      – Dyami Millarson


  5. Hi Dyami, I always enjoy reading your articles. Your discussion of the term ‘dialect’ reminds me of Max Müller’s ‘Lectures on the Science of Language’, where he writes, “What we are accustomed to call languages, the literary idioms of Greece, and Rome, and India, of Italy, France, and Spain, must be considered as artificial, rather than as natural forms of speech. The real and natural life of language is in its dialects, …” Maybe he was making a similar point to you, but in a different way, by suggesting that we should consider ’dialects’ to be in fact somehow superior to ‘languages’. By the way, that reminds me, you once proposed a possible article on Max Müller and I am eagerly hoping you will write it at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment and your interest in my writing. I appreciate your reference to Max Müller’s work and his perspective on natural and artificial languages.
      As for the article on Max Müller, I will keep your suggestion in mind for future writing projects. Thank you again for your support and encouragement, and I look forward to continuing our discussions on language and linguistics in the future.
      ‐ Dyami Millarson

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your reply. Yes, in fact, your expression ‘natural and artificial languages’, which aligns with what I quoted from Max Müller, could be a better and clearer terminology than the problematic ‘dialects and languages’.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am glad to hear that the expression ‘natural and artificial languages’ resonates with you while it also aligns with what Max Müller is trying to say. This terminology may indeed be a clearer and more accurate way of describing the diversity of language use and avoiding the negative connotations associated with the term ‘dialect.’ Thank you again for your thoughtful contributions to this important conversation.
          – Dyami Millarson


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