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What Is a Dialect?

Dialect describes the way language is used within a certain group.
Countries using the same language may have different dialects, like the use of English in Britain as opposed to the U.S.
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  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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A dialect is the common way in which people within a certain group use language. The language may be unique to people of a particular area, of a particular ethnic group, or to people at different socioeconomic positions. Dialect includes vocabulary, the way in which words are pronounced, and the rhythm and speed with which language is used.

There may be hundreds of distinct dialects within a language. Although it is generally assumed that those who speak a language will be able to communicate with speakers of different dialects within their language, they can become so distinct that communication may be difficult among speakers of the same language. This extreme is unusual, and in most instances, people who speak the same language can communicate at least to some extent, though there may be some language barriers.

The general rule applied by linguists, people who study language, is that people are considered to be speaking the same language if they can communicate. If the speech is so different that communication is impossible, the usage has most likely shifted to a distinct language. The linguist Max Winreich explained the difference a little differently, saying, “ A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

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Although dialects exist in practically every language, English provides perhaps the most extreme examples of how diverse a single language can become. The English spoken in the U.S. is distinctly different than that spoken in Britain, which is distinctly different than what is spoken in Canada and in other countries where English is the first language of most citizens. Within each country, however, there are even distinct ways of speaking.

As an example, in the U.S., dialects are noticeably different in the south, east, and north. They exist in even more extremes, however, with there being ones specific to a state. Within states, and sometimes even within individual counties, there may be moderate differences in language that could make the speakers’ language recognizable as belonging to a certain group.

At one time, linguists considered one dialect to be the standard of the language and others to be examples of improper use. Most experts now believe that there is no "proper" dialect of a language and view the distinct forms as having their own rules of grammar and vocabulary usage. This means that, while a person from one language grouping may consider a speaker’s usage improper, the speaker may be speaking correctly according to the rules of language within his or her own group.

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Mykol
Post 6

After high school, my daughter went to college in Ireland, and ended up living there for seven years.

Each time we talked to her, we could tell that her dialect was changing. Not only the way she pronounced her words were different, but many of the terms she used were English terms.

She also made a conscious effort to speak the English dialect that was spoken in that part of the world. Her reason for this was that many people did not think too kindly of Americans, and she wanted to fit in where she was.

It took us awhile to get used to hearing her talk that way, but when she laughed, she still sounded the same!

myharley
Post 5

@bagley79 - I can relate to your post, except I lived in Minnesota and moved to the South to go to college.

Every time I would come back home, I kept getting comments on how I had picked up some Southern dialect. This was something I did not even realize I was doing. I thought I sounded the same, but the Southern drawl was pretty apparent to my friends and family back home.

Once I graduated from college, I got a job back in Minnesota, and I think it took at least a year before my Southern drawl was gone.

When I first moved to the South I was often given a hard time about my Northern dialect. I find it interesting that even within the United States there are such distinct differences in dialect depending on what part of the country you are from.

bagley79
Post 4

I was born in the South, and have lived here all of my life. The biggest thing that stands out about me when I visit another part of the country is my dialect.

My strong Southern twang is not always understood by people on the East coast. Sometimes I see them looking at me with a strange look on their face wondering what I really said.

I know they are thinking, it sure sounded like English, but why couldn't they understand it?!

The best thing to do is have a good sense of humor about it and laugh about it. No matter how hard I try, I can't speak like someone from New Jersey.

It would be just as hard for them to speak with a Southern drawl as it would for me to sound like someone from the East coast.

ysmina
Post 3

@fify-- If that's true, then why do we say that Brits speak with a British accent? Shouldn't we say that they are speaking with a British dialect?

The same goes for other places that speak the same language with different regional dialects. Like many countries in the Middle East speak Arabic but differently. When a Lebanese is talking about Egyptian Arabic, for example, they should refer to it as the Egyptian dialect right?

I think we are misusing the term "dialect" a lot more than we realize. Can anyone bring some clarification as to when the term "dialect" should be used and when it shouldn't be used?

fify
Post 2

@burcinc-- No, they're not the same and you can't use them interchangeably.

An accent can only be used if a person has a different way of speaking a language because the language is not their mother tongue. So your parents do have accents when they speak English because English is not their mother language.

Dialect's definition is a way of speaking a language that is a person's mother tongue. So all Americans' mother tongue is English but Americans in different parts of America have different dialects- or different ways of speaking.

I know these can get confusing sometimes especially since multiple countries can speak the same language with different dialects.

burcinc
Post 1

I always confuse the definition of dialect and accent. Aren't they the same?

Both of my parents have heavy accents/dialects because they moved to the US in their mid twenties when they were newly married. I guess when people learn a language after a certain age, they always have a accents no matter how well they speak the language. Both my parents know English perfectly, it's just that they sound funny when they speak.

So, can I use the words "dialect" and "accent" interchangeably?

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