Scholars employ the term ‘dialect continuum’ in reference to the gradual linguistic variations of a particular language variety within a geographical area (see Wardhaugh & Fuller 2015: 39). This is seen by Finegan as a ‘continuum of variation’:
Today the languages of Europe look separate and tidily compartmentalized on a map. In reality they are not so neatly distinguishable. Instead, there is a continuum of variation, where languages ‘blend’ into one another (own emphasis) (2015: 376).
These continua of linguistic variation are formed by ‘recurrent speaker interaction’ (Toulmin 2012: 502) in areas in which ‘communication between adjacent lects are weak or non-persistent’ (pp.502). Positioning linguistic varieties on a continuum instead of a language/dialect binary is particularly helpful, as it allows us to further conceptualise the relationships between different linguistic varieties. However, one must also be aware of its potential limitations. Complications arise and lines become blurred when, for example, two varieties on either end of a continuum become (largely) mutually unintelligible, or multiple continua exist within close geographical proximity.
Finegan, E., (2015) Language: Its Structure and Use. Cengage Learning: Stamford.
Toulmin, M., (2012) ‘Historical Sociolinguistic Reconstruction beyond Europe: Case Studies from South Asia and Fiji’. In: Hernández-Campoy, J. & Conde-Silvestre, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Historical Sociolinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford: pp. 501-519.
Wardhaugh, R & Fuller, J., (eds.) (2015) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.