Definition and Examples of Dialect Leveling

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In linguistics, dialect leveling refers to the reduction or elimination of marked differences between dialects over a period of time.

Dialect leveling tends to occur when speakers of different dialects come into contact with one another for extended periods. Contrary to popular belief, there's no evidence that the mass media are a significant cause of dialect leveling. In fact, say the authors of Language in the U.S.A., "there is considerable evidence that social dialect variation, especially in urban areas, is increasing." 

Alternate Spellings: dialect levelling (UK)

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see the following related terms:

Examples and Observations

  • "[D]ialect differences are reduced as speakers acquire features from other varieties as well as avoid features from their own variety that are somehow different. This may occur over several generations until a stable compromise dialect develops." -Jeff Siegel, "Mixing, Levelling and Pidgin/Creole Development." The Structure and Status of Pidgins and Creoles, ed. by Arthur Spears and Donald Winford. John Benjamins, 1997
  • "Levelling, in this sense, is closely related to (indeed, results from) the social psychological mechanism of speech accommodation (Giles & Powesland 1997; Trudgill 1986a:1-4), by which (provided mutual goodwill is present) interlocutors will tend to converge linguistically. In a situation (such as in a new town) where speakers of different, but mutually intelligible dialects come together, countless individual acts of short-term accommodation over a period of time lead to long-term accommodation in those same speakers (Trudgill 1986a:1-8)." -Paul Kerswill, "Dialect Levelling and Geographical Diffusion in British English." Social Dialectology: In Honour of Peter Trudgill, ed. by David Britain and Jenny Cheshire. John Benjamins, 2003)

How Dialect Leveling Works

"New Zealand English, which was formed more recently than North American varieties, sheds some light on how dialect leveling works. Researchers there describe a three-stage process: the original settler generations kept their home dialects, the next generation chose somewhat randomly from all the linguistic options available, and the third generation leveled out the diversity in favor of the most frequent variant in most cases. Probably something similar happened in North America, centuries before dialectologists and tape recorders were around to document it." -Gerard Van Herk, What Is Sociolinguistics? Wiley-Blackwell, 2012

The Future of Dialects

"[A]ccording to Auer and colleagues, 'it is too early yet to tell if the internationalization of economic and administrative structures and the increase in international communication in present-day Europe will strengthen or weaken the traditional dialects' (Auer et al. 2005: 36). For one thing, when no other variety is part of a speaker's environment, accommodation is not an option. If urbanization is accompanied by the formation of ethnic or working-class enclave neighborhoods, traditional distinctions may be enforced through dense, multiple social networks (Milroy, 1987). Similar processes in the context of residential and educational segregation are responsible for the maintenance of substantial differences between the English of some African Americans and that of nearby whites. Furthermore, speech accommodation theory, as well as more recent adaptations of it (Bell 1984, 2001), also allow for the possibility of divergence as well as convergence." -Barbara Johnstone, "Indexing the Local." The Handbook of Language and Globalization, ed. by Nikolas Coupland. Wiley-Blackwell, 20112

Americanisms in British English

"A phrase which has been ubiquitous in the past week is 'loved ones.' Even Ian McEwan used it, in the elegy he wrote in this paper last Saturday. 'Loved One' got currency in Britain in 1948, with Evelyn Waugh's novella of that name. Waugh chose to be highly satirical about the American funeral industry and the obscene euphemisms (as he saw them) of its 'grief therapists.' Mealy-mouthed, mercenary morticians' disinclination to call a corpse a corpse--that's what 'loved one' connoted. For decades after Waugh's blast, no writer of McEwan's stature would have used 'loved one' unless contemptuously and with anti-American intent. It still collocates mainly with American death. But it's a striking example of 'dialect levelling' (or linguistic colonialism) that it's now in non-pejorative British usage." -John Sutherland, "Crazy Talk." The Guardian, Sep. 18, 2001

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Dialect Leveling." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Examples of Dialect Leveling. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Dialect Leveling." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).