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I learnt that it means dialect. During a presentation at university, someone asked a question about whether my topic was possibly influenced by a misunderstanding of the word "hougen" i.e. that it could also mean regional variation, or something else. He even said that Korean had been called a hougen.

How accurate is this?

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    Have you already looked up 方言 in a (J-J) dictionary?
    – Earthliŋ
    May 19 '15 at 10:01
  • Depending on what exactly your presentation was saying it is somewhat unclear as to what said audience members question may refer to. However, in everyday Japanese 方言 refers to dialects within a language and within Japan at least, Korean is most often referred to as 外国語 (hence the reason it is taught as a foreign language in foreign language schools and not picked up environmentally due to location). That is not to say that Korean is not described as having 方言(北朝鮮の方言と勧告の方言) in certain circumstances. May 20 '15 at 0:26
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@Sqrtbottle, @snailboat Victor Mair has pointed out on numerous occasions how critically he views the current usage of the term 方言 in current Chinese and Japanese contexts, see for example http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=6654, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=10303, http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=15006.

The point is that 方言 used to mean what he translates as 'topolect', a.k.a. 'regiolect', IOW "a language spoken in some place (other than here)". As such, the more classical use of 方言 is simply "a form of expression we need an explanation or even a translator for"; it is a very non-committal term.

In fact, what we call languages now have been historically sometimes been referred to as 方言, and this term also appears in the name of the office of translations of former Chinese dynasties.

By contrast, the modern idea of both the term 'dialect' and 方言 carry strong overtones of "a mere variant of the real thing", and this is (rightfully) what people from Hong Kong and Shanghai get P-offed by when the central government tries and suppresses the use of local idioms. It does so with the argument that these forms of expressions are not 'languages', they are merely 'variants of the one language', the implication being that they're faulty variants and therefore to be avoided and corrected.

To an extent, this may also be true for the situation in Japan. I cringe a bit when I read "Okinawan holds similar status in Japan; it's not mutually intelligible, but often seen as a dialect of Japanese because they have common ancestry, and are still politically united". First of all, which 'still' is this, the assertive one ('i still did it'—though it was frowned upon) or the temporal one ('i still did it'—when they saw me)? In case it's the latter: Okinawa is a very recent addition to the Japanese Empire (dating from the late 19th c,; read more on Tofugu).

Asserting that two forms of speech are "not mutually intelligible" and "are viewed as dialects" at the same time flies flat in the face of everything that 'dialect' wants to be as a term. The whole idea of 'dialect' in modern understanding is that "well they may sound peculiar but i can still talk to them". If it were to mean "i can't talk to them but we're of same origin so theirs is just a variant of my speech and X thousand years ago we would've sounded the same", well then, ultimately, all the languages of Europe, including Basque, are mere 'dialects' of each other, for it is thought that all languages derive from a single ancestor.

The whole idea of two languages having a common ancestor is also often somewhat overrated, as is the so-called 'genetic' ancestry of language. Languages mix and mingle quite freely, and Mandarin Chinese in particular is a language well known for having resulted from a melting pot of different peoples with different tongues.

What looks like a monolithic Japanese language is, likewise, the result of the coming together of a number of influences from different directions, not least because Japanese has taken over so many Chinese forms of expression and incorporated them so inextricably deep in the language proper. Sure you say "those are but loanwords!" but the fact is you don't say "ume (the plum) is not Japanese!" or "fude (the brush) is not Japanese" but you (like the Japanese themselves) only don't do that because you're not aware they're probably very old loans from Chinese. In other words, to some degree it so happens that something that we can trace the origin of we call a foreign influence, and something that we can not link to something somewhere else we call native. Tells you a lot about what we know, and sometimes little about the language at hand.

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While you're right that 方言 means dialect, such as 東京方言, it's used slightly differently in connotation in Japanese. You do get expressions referring to it by dialect (ie regional grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation to a language), as pointed out, it can also be used to refer to languages that have split from a common ancestor.

Kotobank, as cited by Earthling above, states:

中国の非常に違ったことばが中国語としてまとめられ、ラテン語から分かれたスペイン語・ポルトガル語などが別の言語とされるのは、むしろ言語以外の、政治や文化が基準になっている。この意味で、日本語に関して微妙な位置にあるのが琉球{りゅうきゅう}地方の方言である。かつて奄美{あまみ}・沖縄諸島に琉球王国が成立し、その首都首里のことばが文字に記され、全土に通じた時代には、「琉球語」としての地位をもっていたとみなしうる。

To summarize, it leaves the determination of a "dialect" as very much political, as in the example of Chinese, which is internally viewed as having many dialects, some of which aren't even mutually intelligible, but all share a writing system and political nation. Equally Okinawan holds similar status in Japan; it's not mutually intelligible, but often seen as a dialect of Japanese because they have common ancestry, and are still politically united. The same loose definitions exist in English, too (and for it, but that's a different topic).

In the case of Korean, some people argue that they share a common ancestral language (see here for more) . Maybe calling it 方言 is a stretch, but not entirely alien to some definitions of 方言, which are already quite loose, and very political.

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    Victor Mair coined topolect as a translation of Chinese 方言, because he felt dialect wasn't quite right, even though it was (and still is, for most people) the usual translation.
    – user1478
    May 19 '15 at 13:50
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    See Vovin's Koreo-Japonica: A Re-evaluation of a Common Genetic Origin for evidence against your assertion that Japanese and Korean share a common ancestor.
    – user1478
    May 19 '15 at 13:52
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    But you probably shouldn't flatly state that they're related since there's no generally accepted hypothesis claiming that they are.
    – user1478
    May 19 '15 at 14:06
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    I've edited as such
    – sqrtbottle
    May 19 '15 at 14:12
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    I meant to link to the 大辞林 part of the kotobank page (which I did, but I agree it wasn't obvious since kotobank lists the entries of all its sources on the same page). The text you are citing is from the 方言 entry in 日本大百科全書 (ニッポニカ) in the section 言語と方言, which you might want to say in your answer. (kotobank deserves to be mentioned, too, but it is only an interface to various dictionaries and encyclopideae.)
    – Earthliŋ
    May 19 '15 at 14:42

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