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Dialect

Have you ever noticed how English speakers tend to speak the language slightly differently? Perhaps you've noticed differences in pronunciation or the fact there are a hundred different ways to say 'bread roll' in the UK! Well, these differences can be explained with the term dialect.

This article will define the term dialect, introduce the different types of dialects, explain why we have dialects and provide plenty of examples along the way.

Dialect definition

The most common definition for dialect is a language variety used in a specific geographical location. This means the language (e.g. English) has been influenced and changed by the group of people using it. The most common factor the group of people often share is their location. However, other social factors, such as class, occupation, and age, can also produce and influence dialects.

Geordie is a well-known English dialect in the UK. People typically speak it in Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding Tyneside areas.

Dialects can differ from standard forms of a language (e.g. British English [BrE]) in terms of the lexicon (vocabulary), syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence), grammar, and pronunciation. New dialects form as groups of people communicate and adapt a language to suit their needs. These dialects can be described as the everyday language used by people belonging to a particular area or social group.

British English (BrE) is considered the most standard form of English and is often associated with the Received Pronunciation (RP) accent. These are considered standard in the UK, but it’s important to remember that they are still dialects.

Although dialects differ from the standard form of a language, they are usually intelligible to everyone who can speak that language. For example, someone from the South of England would mostly understand someone from the North of England.

Intelligible = Can be understood.

The most common definition of a dialect is a regional variety of a language, but as we previously mentioned, that’s not the only type of dialect. So, let’s look at the different dialects.

Dialect examples

The term dialect can be considered a sort of umbrella term for all the different language varieties that arise due to various influential factors. The most common types of dialect include regional dialects, sociolects, idiolects, and ethnolects.

Dialect, image of umbrella terms, StudySmarter

'Dialect' is an umbrella term for other language forms, StudySmarter Original

Regional dialects

Regional dialects are the most common and distinguishable dialects. They appear amongst people who live close together and usually develop over time due to linguistic change. Common causes for linguistic change include communication with others outside the community, changes in the environment, the introduction of new languages, goods and cultures, etc.

Some well-known regional dialects in the UK include

  • Received Pronunciation (RP)

  • Geordie

  • Glaswegian (This one is a dialect of Scottish English, a variety itself.)

  • Cockney

Think about these dialects. Do you know any words or terms associated with any of them? We’ll cover these dialects more shortly.

Sociolects

A sociolect is a social dialect - this means that the language has been influenced by other social factors, not just geographical location. Sociolects typically develop amongst people who have something in common, such as socioeconomic status (class), age, occupation, gender, or ethnicity.

An example of a sociolect is how the younger generation often uses different vocabulary (e.g. slang) to older generations.

People often use different sociolects and choose (consciously or subconsciously) how to speak depending on their social situation.

Ethnolects

An ethnolect is a sociolect that has arisen due to the influence of a shared ethnic group. Typically, ethnolects are influenced by other languages that members of the ethnic group may speak or be accustomed to. For example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) roots are English, but the variety is heavily influenced by a number of West African languages. AAVE can be considered a dialect, sociolect, and ethnolect because of the social and ethnic groups that use it.

An idiolect is an individual’s personal use of language. Idiolects are completely unique and can be influenced by many different factors. The way a person talks can depend on the usual factors, such as age, gender, class, occupation, etc. But, many other things can also affect their speech, such as the movies they watch, the places they’ve travelled to, the people they spend time with, the list goes on. A person’s idiolect will forever change and adapt depending on what’s happening in their life at the time.

English Language dialects

Let’s look at some features and vocabulary of some well-known dialects in the UK.

Received Pronunciation (RP)

Received Pronunciation (RP) is the accent you probably have in mind when imagining a ‘posh’ English speaker. RP is often associated with the middle to upper-classes and with being well-educated. Although this is true to a certain extent, it isn’t always the case as RP is also the regional accent in the Southeast of England.

RP is often considered the ‘standard’ accent for British English and is used to teach English worldwide. Because of this, RP is one dialect that cannot always be associated with a geographic region.

Features of RP include:

  • Use of the semi-vowel /j/ sound. For example, ‘Tuesday’ is pronounced with an ‘ew’ sound (/ˈtjuːzdɪ/).

  • Use of the long 'ar' sound (ɑː) in words such as ‘bath’ and ‘palm’.

  • Not dropping /t/ and /h/ sounds. E.g. ‘water’ not ‘wa’er’ and ‘happy’ not ‘appy’.

  • It is a non-rhotic dialect (meaning /r/ sounds are only pronounced after a consonant).

RP is also referred to as the ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’ because that’s where you’ll hear it spoken.

Geordie is the English dialect typically found in Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding Tyneside areas. The Geordie dialect is a continued development of the speech patterns used by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the North of England from the fifth century.

Features of Geordie include:

  • It is a non-rhotic dialect (meaning /r/ sounds are only pronounced after a consonant).

  • Pronunciation of pronouns, e.g. ‘yous’ instead of ‘you’ and ‘wor’ instead of ‘our’.

  • Lengthening of vowel sounds, e.g. ‘toon’ (/tuːn/) instead of ‘town’ (/taʊn/)

Common slang terms include:

  • Wey aye, man! = Yes!

  • Canny = Nice

  • I divvina = I don’t know

Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under

"Drenched in cheap drink and snide fags

A mirrored picture of my old man

Oh God, the kid's a dab hand

Canny chanter, but he looks sad"

Dialect, image of Sam Fender, StudySmarterMusician Sam Fender speaks using the Geordie dialect, Wikimedia Commons

Glaswegian is a dialect of Scottish English spoken in Glasgow and the surrounding areas. This dialect has roots in English but has been heavily influenced by Scots, Highland English, and Hiberno-English.

Features of Glaswegian include:

  • It is a rhotic dialect (most /r/ sounds are pronounced).

  • Use of contractions, e.g. ‘can’t’ becomes ‘cannae’; ‘don’t’ becomes ‘dinnae’; and ‘isn’t’ becomes ‘isnae’.

  • The long ‘oo’ sound (/uː/) is often shortened to the shorter ‘oo’ sound (/ʊ/). E.g. ‘food’ (/fuːd/) sounds more like ‘fud’ (/fʊd/).

Common slang terms include:

  • Hoachin’ = very full e.g. The bus was hoachin’.

  • Pish = not very good

  • Swally = alcoholic drink

Gerry Cinamon - Canter

"Because the hardest part of the game

Isnae even playing the game

It's caring enough to care about the things that you're daein'

Oh it's a wee crying shame

Here comes the rain"

Dialect explanation

The fundamental cause behind dialects is linguistic change. Linguistic change refers to the process of variation that happens to all languages over time. Languages aren’t static things written in stone; in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Languages are constantly changing to fit the needs of their users in terms of:

  • Lexicon - New words are added and dropped from the Oxford English Dictionary each year.

  • Pronunciation - The great vowel shift (1400-1700) saw the pronunciation of vowels in standard British English change greatly. Diphthongs were introduced, and many short vowels became long.

  • Semantics (semantic change) - Over time, the meaning of words can change as they get picked up and appropriated by certain groups. An example of this is how the words used to describe women often become negative. E.g. the word ‘hussy’ originally meant ‘housewife’; however, it now has negative connotations and is used to describe women involved in sexual encounters.

Linguistic change often occurs slowly over time, and many people using the language may be unaware change is happening. However, in some areas of language, such as slang and jargon, change happens much quicker.

Linguistic change also occurs because of the migrations of people. As entire populations of people moved across the world (e.g. the Anglo-Saxons travelling from Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands to Britain), they brought their languages and speech habits with them. The more these people communicated with others, the more certain aspects of their languages were picked up, adapted, or dropped, thus, creating new dialects.

Reasons for dialects

When a dialectical change is picked up and used by members of a community, others may (consciously or subconsciously) choose to speak in the same way. Many linguists suggest this is done to build a sense of unity and belonging with the people around them. When members of a community are in constant contact, they begin to sound similar to each other. In linguistics, this process is called accommodation.

Dialects can also give people a sense of identity. Many people feel proud of their dialects and might make a conscious effort to use them whenever possible. Today, we see more dialect levelling occurring, and many dialects are becoming lost. Because of this, we're seeing more people making a conscious effort to preserve their dialects. A good example of this is how the musicians Sam Fender and Gerry Cinamon (we looked at their song lyrics a few moments ago!) are singing in their native dialects.

Dialect levelling = The reduction in diversity or variation between dialects.

Language and dialect meaning

You might be wondering at this point what the difference between a dialect and a language is, so let’s go ahead and clear up any confusion.

Language

Langauge is what humans use to communicate - they typically have a set alphabet and comprise of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and semantic meaning. Languages can be written or spoken and usually have a standard form, e.g. English, French, German. Within a language, many different dialects and varieties exist.

Dialect

A dialect is a variety of a language, e.g. Geordie is a variety of English. Dialects are rooted in a language and usually differ in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. They are spoken by groups of people who have something in common, such as geographical location, age, or ethnicity.

Whereas languages belonging to the same language family are not mutually intelligible, dialects from the same language are. For example, Danish and Icelandic are both Germanic languages, but someone who speaks Danish cannot necessarily understand Icelandic. On the other hand, an English speaker should understand most English dialects on a basic level.

Dialect - Key Takeaways

  • The most common definition for dialect is a language variety used in a specific geographical location.
  • The term dialect can also be used as an umbrella term for language varieties, including regional dialects, sociolects, idiolects, and ethnolects.
  • Dialects differ from standard forms of a language in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, syntax, and grammar.
  • Some well-known regional dialects in the UK are Received Pronunciation (RP), Geordie, Glaswegian, and Cockney.
  • Dialects typically form over time as people change and adapt their speech to sound like the people around them.

Frequently Asked Questions about Dialect

A dialect is a language variety that differs from the standard form of the language in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, syntax, and grammar. The most common definition for dialect is a language variety used in a specific geographical location.

A dialect is a variety of a language. In the English language, there are hundreds of different dialects. Some common regional dialects include Geordie, Cockney, and Received Pronunciation (RP).

Not all dialects are viewed equally in the English language. Certain dialects and accents, such as Received Pronunciation (RP), are seen as more prestigious and thus more powerful than other dialects, such as the Northern or Scottish dialects.

Languages are what humans use to communicate -  a dialect is a variety of a language. A dialect will sound similar to its original language but differ in lexicon, pronunciation, grammar, and syntax.

Whereas languages belonging to the same language family are not mutually intelligible, dialects from the same language are.

Final Dialect Quiz

Question

Which of the following is not a dialect?

Show answer

Answer

Gaelic

Show question

Question

True or false? 

A sociolect is a dialect?

Show answer

Answer

True. A sociolect is a social dialect.

Show question

Question

What is an idiolect?

Show answer

Answer

An individual's unique use of language.

Show question

Question

What is an ethnolect?

Show answer

Answer

A dialect that has arisen due to the influence of a shared ethnic group. 

Show question

Question

What is a regional dialect?

Show answer

Answer

A language variety that develops amongst people who live close together.

Show question

Question

How do dialects differ from standard forms of a language?

Show answer

Answer

Dialects can differ from standard forms of a language (e.g. British English [BrE]) in terms of the lexicon (vocabulary), syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence), grammar, and pronunciation.

Show question

Question

In the Geordie dialect, what does 'canny' mean?

Show answer

Answer

Nice.

Show question

Question

In the Glaswegian dialect, what is a 'swally'?

Show answer

Answer

An alcoholic drink.

Show question

Question

What is linguistic change?

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Answer

The process of variation that all languages go through over time.

Show question

Question

Can native speakers of a language usually understand the different dialects?

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Answer

Yes, to a certain extent.

Show question

Question

What is the most common factor shared between people who all speak the same dialect?

Show answer

Answer

Location

Show question

Question

List four ways in which dialects can differ from standard language forms.

Show answer

Answer

  • syntax
  • grammar
  • lexicon
  • pronunciation

Show question

Question

What does the word 'syntax' refer to?

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Answer

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence.

Show question

Question

What accent is Standard British English often assciated with?

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Answer

Received Pronunciation

Show question

Question

What does 'intelligible' mean?

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Answer

Able to be understood

Show question

Question

What are the four most common types of dialects?

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Answer

  • sociolects
  • idiolects
  • ethnolects
  • regional dialects

Show question

Question

Where might one find the Glaswegian accent?

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Answer

Glasgow, Scotland

Show question

Question

What does AAVE stand for?

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Answer

African American Vernacular English

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Question

Is Received Pronunciation considered high prestige or low prestige?

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Answer

High prestige

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Question

What does 'non-rhotic' mean?

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Answer

Non-rhotic refers to any accent where /r/ sounds are only pronounced after a consonant. 

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Question

Which of these is a factor that can influence language change?

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Answer

Migration

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Question

What is it called when members of a community are in constant contact and they begin to sound similar to each other?

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Answer

Accommodation

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Question

What is dialect levelling?

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Answer

The reduction in diversity or variation between dialects. 

Show question

Question

True or false, all languages belonging to the same language family are always understandable to someone who speaks one of these languages?

Show answer

Answer

False, languages belongning to the same language family can be very different and are not necessarily all understood by speakers of one of the languages. 

Show question

Question

List three common UK dialects.

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Answer

  • Geordie
  • Glaswegian
  • Cockney

Show question

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