Definition of Dialect
A dialect is the variety of a language that a group of people speak, separated either by geography, class, or ethnicity. Dialect is most often applied to the different speech patterns of people from different regions. For example, it’s quite clear to any native English speaker that the English spoken in Glasgow, Scotland is quite different from the English of Long Island, New York. However, there is also a huge difference between the regional dialects of northern and southern England.
Dialects can be distinguished one from another by way of grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary. If there’s only a difference in pronunciation, this is just an example of different accents. Note also that dialect refers to a group of people; the specific speech patterns of an individual are called an idiolect.
The definition of dialect is different from that of language, yet it can become difficult to determine in some situations whether two people are speaking different dialects of the same language or two distinct languages. This can be complicated in some situations, such as in the case of the Valencian people of Spain. There are many different languages and dialects in the country—Spanish is the only national language, but there are several other recognized languages such as Basque and Catalan. The people of Valencia contend that they speak their own distinct language, while others refer to it as a dialect of Catalan, which they find offensive.
Difference Between Dialect, Colloquialisms, and Slang
Dialect, colloquialisms, and slang have much in common in that they all refer to variations in speech patterns in a given language. Dialect refers to an entire set of linguistic norms that a group of people use. Colloquialisms are also generally geographic in nature, but refer to specific words or phrases that people of that region use. Thus, colloquialisms are an important part of distinguishing between dialects. Slang refers to terms that are used in specific social groups, such as for teenagers.
Common Examples of Dialect
We all speak in a distinct dialect. There are dozens of dialects associated with the United States alone, and many more dozens spoken by English speakers around the world. Many different types of entertainment use dialect, such as in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess:
Bess, you is my woman now
You is, you is
And you must laugh and sing and dance
For two instead of one
Want no wrinkle on yo’ brow
Because the sorrow of the past is all done, done
Oh, Bess, my Bess
Some jokes also rely on dialect. For example, in the Midwest there’s a popular set of jokes about a trio of Norwegians, Ole and Lena and their friend Sven, popularized by Garrison Keillor:
Ole goes out one day to use the outhouse, and he finds Sven there. Sven has his wallet out, and he’s throwing money down into the hole of the outhouse. Ole asks, “Uffda! Sven, watcha doin’ there, fella? You’re throwing the five dollar bill and the ten dollar bill down into the hole of the outhouse! Whatcha doin’ that for?” Sven answers, “Well, when I pulled up my trousers I dropped a nickel down there—and I’m not going down into that mess for just a nickel!”
Note in this example of dialect the use of the distinct vocabulary word, “Uffda,” and the expression, “Whatcha doin’ there, fella?” which would not be found in most parts of the United States, but can be found in some parts of Minnesota.
Significance of Dialect in Literature
Authors generally use dialect in their works of literature to create a better sense of place and to help characterization. Some writers create a way of writing a particular dialect that is at first difficult for readers not of that place to understand, as you’ll see in Examples #2 and #3 below. Others use dialect in more subtle ways that connote a time and place without having to state it directly.
Examples of Dialect in Literature
Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, concerns the different social classes of people living in the same place and this is a subtle example of dialect. Atticus, a lawyer, speaks in a slightly different manner than Miss Maudie. The reader is aware of the southern dialect in Miss Maudie’s speech pattern from phrases such as “they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out” and vocabulary such as “corncribs.”
Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, etcetera, etcetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whut they huv tae offer.
(Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh)
This is a famous dialect example, from Scottish author Irvine Welsh. His contemporary novel Trainspotting involves a group of young Scottish people, and Welsh tries to write in a way that mimics their dialect. This is at first off-putting to many readers who are not Scottish as they have to sound out the words, such as “tae” for “to,” “ah” for “I,” “aw” for “all,” “ay” for “of,” and so on. There are also vocabulary differences, such as “ken” for “know,” which comes from German and is more ancient way of saying “know” in English.
Something else that her mind answer before the question ask. She know the answer. She can’t help nobody out of white man power, not even herself. The woman eye still asking. Lilith don’t know how to fix her eye to say no, so she look at the man and the same question come over him face.
(The Book of Night Women by Marlon James)
Author Marlon James, of Jamaican descent, wrote a recent novel about women on plantations in Jamaica at the end of the eighteenth century. James creates a way of expressing the dialect of those women in that place and era. This example of dialect clearly shows the differences in syntax and grammar that go along with this way of speaking, such as the inversion of works in “Something else that her mind answer before the question ask.” There is also a change in the possessive (“the woman eye” rather than “the woman’s eye”) and conjugation (“she look” rather than “she looks”).
Test Your Knowledge of Dialect
1. Which of the following statements is the correct dialect definition?
A. An expression that only people from a certain region say
B. A word used by a certain social group
C. A variety of a language, separated from other dialects through vocabulary, pronunciation, syntax, etc.
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2. Consider the English dialect in the following excerpt:
Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream. Suppose that ah ken aw the pros and cons, know that ah’m gaunnae huv a short life, am ah sound mind, ectetera, ectetera, but still want tae use smack? They won’t let ye dae it. They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whut they huv tae offer.
Judging by the dialect, which of the following novels do you think this excerpt comes from?
A. To Kill a Mockingbird
C. The Book of Night Women
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3. Consider the following excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
“Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Which dialect is most similar to O’Connor’s from the other three examples?
A. To Kill a Mockingbird
C. The Book of Night Women
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