Definition and Examples of Dialect in Linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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A dialect is a regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, and/or vocabulary. Adjective: dialectal.

The term dialect is often used to characterize a way of speaking that differs from the standard variety of the language. Nonetheless, as David Crystal explains below, "Everyone speaks a dialect."

The scientific study of dialects is known as dialectology, commonly regarded as a subfield of sociolinguistics. Dialect comes from the Greek, "speech."

Example of Dialect

  • "A dialect is a variety of English which is associated with a particular region and/or social class. To state the obvious, speakers from different geographical regions speak English rather differently: hence we refer to 'Geordie' (Newcastle English), 'New York English' or 'Cornish English.' In addition to geographical variation, the social background of a speaker will also influence the variety of English that person speaks: two children may grow up in the same Yorkshire village, but if one is born into a wealthy family and attends an expensive private school, while the other is born into a less well-off family and attends the local state school, the two are likely to end up speaking rather different varieties of English. It is this combination of regional and social variation that I refer to collectively as 'dialect.'" (Jane Hodson, Dialect in Film and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Differences Between a Language and a Dialect

  • "The very fact that 'language' and 'dialect' persist as separate concepts implies that linguists can make tidy distinctions for speech varieties worldwide. But in fact, there is no objective difference between the two: Any attempt you make to impose that kind of order on reality falls apart in the face of real evidence... English tempts one with a tidy dialect-language distinction based on 'intelligibility': If you can understand it without training, it’s a dialect of your own language; if you can’t, it’s a different language. But because of quirks of its history, English happens to lack very close relatives, and the intelligibility standard doesn’t apply consistently beyond it... In popular usage, a language is written in addition to being spoken, while a dialect is just spoken. But in the scientific sense, the world is buzzing with a cacophony of qualitatively equal 'dialects,' often shading into one another like colors (and often mixing, too), all demonstrating how magnificently complicated human speech can be. If either the terms 'language' or 'dialect' have any objective use, the best anyone can do is to say that there is no such thing as a 'language': Dialects are all there is." (John McWhorter, "What’s a Language, Anyway?" The Atlantic, January 2016)

On Dialects

  • "It is sometimes thought that only a few people speak regional dialects. Many restrict the term to rural forms of speech--as when they say that 'dialects are dying out these days.' But dialects are not dying out. Country dialects are not as widespread as they once were, indeed, but urban dialects are now on the increase, as cities grow and large numbers of immigrants take up residence... Some people think of dialects as sub-standard varieties of a language, spoken only by low-status groups--illustrated by such comments as 'He speaks correct English, without a trace of dialect.' Comments of this kind fail to recognize that standard English is as much a dialect as any other variety--though a dialect of a rather special kind because it is one to which society has given extra prestige. Everyone speaks a dialect—whether urban or rural, standard or non-standard, upper class or lower class." (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2006)

On Regional and Social Dialects

  • "The classic example of a dialect is the regional dialect: the distinct form of a language spoken in a certain geographical area. For example, we might speak of Ozark dialects or Appalachian dialects, on the grounds that inhabitants of these regions have certain distinct linguistic features that differentiate them from speakers of other forms of English. We can also speak of a social dialect: the distinct form of a language spoken by members of a specific socioeconomic class, such as the working-class dialects in England." (A. Akmajian, Linguistics. MIT Press, 2001)

Differences Between a Dialect and an Accent

  • "Accents have to be distinguished from dialects. An accent is a person's distinctive pronunciation. A dialect is a much broader notion: it refers to the distinctive vocabulary and grammar of someone's use of language. If you say eether and I say iyther, that's accent. We use the same word but pronounce it differently. But if you say I've got a new dustbin and I say I've gotten a new garbage can, that's dialect. We're using different word and sentence patterns to talk about the same thing." (Ben Crystal and David Crystal, You Say Potato: A Book About Accents. Macmillan, 2014)

On Prestige Dialects in New York City

  • "In the earlier history of New York City, New England influence and New England immigration preceded the influx of Europeans. The prestige dialect which is reflected in the speech of cultivated Atlas informants shows heavy borrowings from eastern New England. There has been a long-standing tendency for New Yorkers to borrow prestige dialects from other regions, rather than develop a prestige dialect of their own. In the current situation, we see that the New England influence has retreated, and in its place, a new prestige dialect has been borrowed from northern and midwestern speech patterns. We have seen that for most of our informants, the effort to escape identification as a New Yorker by one's own speech provides a motivating force for phonological shifts and changes." (William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2006

On Dialect in Writing

  • "Do not attempt to use dialect [when writing] unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent... The best dialect writers, by and large, are economical of their talents, they use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing the reader as well as convincing him. (William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1979)