Language families, languages, and dialects


What is the difference between language families, languages, and dialects?

Language families

All languages change over time. A community might start with one language but some members of that community might move to a different place. After a long period of time passes, there will be changes in the way people in the two places speak which results in different dialects of the same language. There might be so many changes overtime that the dialects may no longer be mutually intelligible. This means they have become different enough to be considered different languages. All languages that come from a common ancestor language are related to each other in the same language family. We can figure out which languages are related to each other because their grammars share similarities. Language families may also be divided into subfamilies based on shared characteristics. 

Example: English is in the Germanic language family, related to languages like German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and others. The Germanic language family is part of an even bigger language family called the Indo-European language family.  


A language is a system of communication used by a particular nation or people. Languages may include several different dialects.

Example: English is a language.


Dialects are varieties of a language that differ based on geographical region or social group. Each dialect has differences that make it unique. There might be differences in pronunciation, in words used for certain things, in sentence structure or even in the meaning of certain words. But dialects of the same language are mutually intelligibleThis means that speakers of one variety can understand speakers of another variety and vice versa. This is the main way to tell the difference between a dialect and a language. If speakers can understand each other, in spite of differences in their speech, they are speaking dialects of the same language.  

Example: British English, Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, etc. are some examples of dialects of English from different geographical regions. Even though there are differences, speakers of Canadian English can understand speakers of British English (and other English dialects) and they can understand us. Our dialects are mutually intelligible so they are dialects of the same language, English.  

Figure showing language family, language and dialect tree. Language family branches off into three languages, and each of those languages branches off into multiple dialects.


Dialects of First Nations languages in B.C.

Before colonization, speakers of First Nations languages in B.C. tended to be familiar with other dialects of their language and it was even common to be multilingual, speaking several different languages. The FirstVoices team encourages people who share dialects of the same language to collaborate on language reclamation, revitalization and maintenance. 

Click here to see the FPCC Language List