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Accent, Dialect & Language in English

What is the difference between Accent, Dialect and Language?

This article looks at the differences between the three terms. People often confuse them and there is a certain degree of overlap (even linguists don’t always agree on what the difference is between them) but generally speaking we can talk about:

Accents

Accent is all about pronunciation. Two people may use the same grammar, the same syntax and the same vocabulary but pronounce the words in a different way. Effectively they have two accents.

For example, people in the north of England tend to say the word path as:

pæːθ

with a short vowel whilst people in the south of England tend to say:

pɑːθ

with a long vowel. There are two different accents at work here.

Dialects

Dialects, on the other hand, have differences not only in pronunciation but also in grammar and syntax. Two people may both speak English but one might say:

He did well!

Whilst the other could say:

He done well!

Here this isn’t just a difference in pronunciation but also grammar; these are two different dialects. On another tack, one person might say:

He’s talking.

Whilst another says:

He’s a-mardlin’.

Here there are differences in vocabulary which separate standard British English from the Norfolk dialect.

Languages

There is a saying that a language is a dialect with an army. Linguists often talk about language in terms of political influence and power. By this they mean that a dialect with political power becomes a language.

Take, for example, Chinese and Spanish. They are two very different languages and most people would regard them as completely separate.

However, what about Spanish and Italian? They share a great deal and are obviously related however, most people would see them as separate languages.

What about Mandarin and Cantonese which are very different (far more different than Spanish and Italian for example) and yet some people regard them as dialects of Chinese.

Finally think about Hindi and Urdu which are regarded as separate languages since they “belong” to two different nations, India and Pakistan, and yet they’re linguistically extremely similar.

So linguistically speaking there is no real difference between a language and a dialect; however politically speaking the differences become of major importance!

Useful Links

Accents and TEFL – all about accents when teaching English

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