Dialects and Varieties

I repeat here for a (slightly?) wider readership the following contribution, lightly edited, which I’ve made to a language discussion group about dialects.

If dialect is not a neutral word, it’s because of the linguistic prejudice still inherent in many schools, and elsewhere. That prejudice means that non-standard dialects come to be thought of as sub-standard dialects. The alternative term variety is a convenient word, and one which I use myself, but only with an awareness of how vague it is. As one linguist, Joan Swann, who also uses the term, has described it, variety is ‘a device for letting linguists off the hook by avoiding the need to specify whether they are talking about a language, a dialect, an accent, or indeed a register associated with a certain professional or technical field.’ (English Voices in ‘Changing English’ edited by Graddol and others)

For the sake of clarity it might be helpful to offer the following, very broad, definitions:

REGISTER: A variety of language distinguished by its context of use.

ACCENT: The distinguishing features of individual speech.

DIALECT: A variety of language that reflects regional or social background.

LANGUAGE: A group of dialects sharing certain common features.

STANDARD ENGLISH: The English dialect used in most published writing, and, in both spoken and written forms, in education, courts of law, public service broadcasting and government.

Few native speakers have Standard English as their mother tongue, and ‘the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures’ (Radford and others, ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’). Any who doubt that Standard English is but one English dialect among many might like to consider what John McWhorter has written in ‘The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language’:

‘Because the standard variety is the vehicle of almost all writing and official discourse, it is natural for us to conceive of it as “the real deal” and nonstandard varieties as “other” and generally lesser, even if pleasantly quaint or familiar. This state of affair also tends to foster the misconception that the standard dialect is developmentally primary as well: one can barely help operating on a background assumption that, at some time in the past, there was only the standard dialect but that, since then, nonstandard dialects have developed through the relaxation of the strictures of the standard. But in fact standard dialects were generally only chosen for this role because they happened to be spoken by those who came into power as the nation coalesced into an administratively centralised political entity. What this means is that there is no logical conception of “language” as “proper” speech as distinguished from “quaint, “broken” varieties best kept down on the farm or over on the other side of the tracks.’


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

5 responses to “Dialects and Varieties

  1. Jonathan Hammond

    Thank you, Barrie. You have articulated exactly how I feel about the various words you have defined. I have to admit, though, that it took me a long time to get to that way of thinking, and I blame that on my upbringing and education. Not that there was actually anything fundamentally wrong with either, but I now understand that my education could have been broader with respect to language.

    I’m ashamed now to say that I grew up in the knowledge that I neither spoke a dialect, nor with an accent: other people in other parts of the country did that. I went to a ‘Modern’ school, but nonetheless spoke something very close to what we then knew as BBC English (I still do to a degree but, like the Queen’s, my speech has certainly changed over the years). I know better now.


  2. Thank you, Jonathan. I was particularly glad of the opportunity to reproduce the McWhorter passage.

    I suspect your experience at school is still shared by the majority. Unfortunately, there is a lot of politics in the teaching of English. Any recognition of dialects other than Standard English, and even of variation within Standard English, is immediately seized upon by the prejudiced and the ignorant as dumbing down.


  3. Your definition of accent doesn’t match my understanding, which is that accents differ only in phonology or even just phonetics, whereas dialects differ in morphology and syntax. Looking through your older articles, it seems clear that you use accent this way too. The phrase “the distinguishing features of individual speech” seems rather to be a definition of idiolect.

    It’s true that many American linguists refer to accent differences as dialect differences, perhaps because true American dialects are few, or else because they consider the distinction to be without theoretical foundation. But for me, the clincher is that Standard English has no standard accent, and indeed can be spoken in any accent native or even foreign, whereas other dialects all have their characteristic accents, as noted in the never-sufficiently-to-be-praised “Standard English: what it isn’t”.


  4. I can see that ‘the distinguishing features of individual speech’ can be read as describing an idiolect, but that was not what I intended. Something like ‘the distinguishing features of the speech of those belonging to a particular regional of social group’ might have been better.

    British linguists are quite clear about the difference between accent and dialect, but I sometimes wonder if the division isn’t just a little too sharp.


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