dialect


dialect
/duy"euh lekt'/, n.
1. Ling. a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.
2. a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, esp. when considered as substandard.
3. a special variety of a language: The literary dialect is usually taken as the standard language.
4. a language considered as one of a group that have a common ancestor: Persian, Latin, and English are Indo-European dialects.
5. jargon or cant.
[1545-55; < L dialectus < Gk diálektos discourse, language, dialect, equiv. to dialég(esthai) to converse (dia- DIA- + légein to speak) + -tos v. adj. suffix]
Syn. 2. idiom, patois. See language.

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Variety of a language spoken by a group of people and having features of vocabulary, grammar, and/or pronunciation that distinguish it from other varieties of the same language.

Dialects usually develop as a result of geographic, social, political, or economic barriers between groups of people who speak the same language. When dialects diverge to the point that they are mutually incomprehensible, they become languages in their own right. This was the case with Latin, various dialects of which evolved into the different Romance languages. See also koine.

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Introduction

      a variety of a language. The word comes from the Ancient Greek dialektos “discourse, language, dialect,” which is derived from dialegesthai “to discourse, talk.” A dialect may be distinguished from other dialects of the same language by features of any part of the linguistic structure—the phonology, morphology, or syntax. In the sound system of American English, for example, certain dialects distinguish the vowel in “caught” from that in “cot,” while others do not, and in some dialects “greasy” is pronounced with an s sound and in others with a z sound. In morphology (word formation), various dialects in the Atlantic states have “clim,” “clum,” “clome,” or “cloome” instead of “climbed,” and, in syntax, there are “sick to his stomach,” “sick at his stomach,” “sick in,” “sick on,” and “sick with.” On the level of vocabulary, examples of dialectal differences include American English “subway,” contrasting with British English “underground”; and “corn,” which means “maize” in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, “wheat” in England, and “oats” in Scotland. Nevertheless, while dialects of the same language differ, they still possess a common core of features.

      Frequently, the label dialect, or dialectal, is attached to substandard speech, language usage that deviates from the accepted norm; e.g., the speech of many of the heroes of Mark Twain's novels. On the other hand, the standard language can be regarded as one of the dialects of a given language. In a special historical sense, the term dialect applies to a language considered as one of a group deriving from a common ancestor; e.g., English, Swedish, and German are Germanic dialects.

      There is often considerable difficulty in deciding whether two linguistic varieties are dialects of the same language or two separate but closely related languages; this is especially true of dialects of primitive societies, in which the difference is essentially one of degree. Many decisions regarding dialects versus languages must be arbitrary.

      Normally, dialects of the same language are considered to be mutually intelligible, while different languages are not. Intelligibility between dialects is, however, almost never absolutely complete; on the other hand, speakers of closely related languages can still communicate to a certain extent when each uses his own mother tongue. Thus, the criterion of intelligibility is quite relative. In more developed societies, the distinction between dialects and related languages is easier to make because of the existence of standard languages and, in some cases, national consciousness.

      Among the synonyms for dialect, the word idiom refers to any kind of dialect, or even language, whereas patois, a term from French, denotes rural or provincial dialects, often with a deprecatory connotation. An idiolect is the dialect of one individual person at one time. This term implies an awareness that no two persons speak in exactly the same way—i.e., without slight differences in vocabulary—and that each person's dialect is constantly undergoing change—e.g., by the introduction of newly acquired words. Most recent investigations emphasize the versatility of each person's speech habits according to levels or styles of language usage.

      Another synonym for dialect is the term vernacular; it refers to the common, everyday speech of the ordinary people of a region. The word accent has numerous meanings; in addition to denoting the pronunciation of a person or a group of people (“a foreign accent,” “a British accent,” “a Southern accent”), it also refers to features of pitch or stress. In contrast to accent, the term dialect is used to refer not only to the sounds of language but also to grammar and vocabulary.

Varieties of dialects

Geographic dialects
      The most widespread type of dialectal differentiation is geographic. As a rule, the speech of one locality differs at least slightly from that of any other place. Differences between neighbouring local dialects are usually small, but, in travelling farther in the same direction, differences accumulate. Every dialectal feature has its own boundary line, called an isogloss (or sometimes heterogloss). Isoglosses of various linguistic phenomena rarely coincide completely, and by crossing and interweaving they constitute intricate patterns on dialect maps. Frequently, however, several isoglosses are grouped approximately together into a bundle of isoglosses. This grouping is caused either by geographic obstacles that arrest the diffusion of a number of innovations along the same line or by historical circumstances, such as political borders of long standing, or by migrations that have brought into contact two populations whose dialects were developed in noncontiguous areas.

      Geographic dialects include local ones (e.g., the Yankee English of Cape Cod or of Boston, the Russian of Moscow or of Smolensk) or regional ones, such as Delaware Valley English, Australian English, or Tuscan Italian. Such entities are of unequal rank; South Carolina English, for instance, is included in Southern American English. Regional dialects do have some internal variation, but the differences within a regional dialect are supposedly smaller than differences between two regional dialects of the same rank. In a number of areas (“linguistic landscapes”) where the dialectal differentiation is essentially even, it is hardly justified to speak of regional dialects. This uniformity has led many linguists to deny the meaningfulness of such a notion altogether; very frequently, however, bundles of isoglosses—or even a single isogloss of major importance—permit the division of a territory into regional dialects (see Figure 1 for the dialectal division of American English in the Atlantic states). The public is often aware of such divisions, usually associating them with names of geographic regions or provinces, or with some feature of pronunciation; e.g., Southern English or Russian o-dialects and a-dialects. Especially clear-cut cases of division are those in which geographic isolation has played the principal role; e.g., Australian English or Louisiana French.

Social dialects
      Another important axis of differentiation is that of social strata. In many localities, dialectal differences are connected with social classes (social class), educational levels, or both. More highly educated speakers and, often, those belonging to a higher social class tend to use more features belonging to the standard language, whereas the original dialect of the region is better preserved in the speech of the lower and less educated classes. In large urban centres, innovations unknown in the former dialect of the region frequently develop. Thus, in cities the social stratification of dialects is especially relevant and far-reaching, whereas in rural areas, with a conservative way of life, the traditional geographic dialectal differentiation prevails.

      Educational differences among speakers strongly affect the extent of their vocabulary. In addition, practically every profession has its own expressions, which include the technical terminology and sometimes also the casual words or idioms peculiar to the group. slang, too, is characterized mainly by a specific vocabulary and is much more flexible than an ordinary dialect, as it is subject to fashion and depends strongly on the speaker's age group. Slang—just as a professional dialect—is used mainly by persons who are in a sense bidialectal; i.e., they speak some other dialect or the standard language, in addition to slang. Dialectal differences also often run parallel with the religious or racial division of the population.

Dialectal change and diffusion
      The basic cause of dialectal differentiation is linguistic change. Every living language constantly undergoes changes in its various elements. Because languages are extremely complex systems of signs, it is almost inconceivable that linguistic evolution could affect the same elements and even transform them in the same way in all localities where one language is spoken and for all speakers in the same locality. At first glance, differences caused by linguistic change seem to be slight, but they inevitably accumulate with time (e.g., compare Chaucer's English with modern English or Latin with modern Italian, French, Spanish, or Romanian). Related languages usually begin as dialects of the same language.

      When a change (an innovation) appears among only one section of the speakers of a language, this automatically creates a dialectal difference. Sometimes an innovation in dialect A contrasts with the unchanged usage (archaism) in dialect B. Sometimes a separate innovation occurs in each of the two dialects. Of course, different innovations will appear in different dialects, so that, in comparison with its contemporaries, no one dialect as a whole can be considered archaic in any absolute sense. A dialect may be characterized as relatively archaic, because it shows fewer innovations than the others; or it may be archaic in one feature only.

      After the appearance of a new dialectal feature, interaction between speakers who have adopted this feature and those who have not leads to the expansion or the curtailment of its area or even to its disappearance. In a single social milieu (generally the inhabitants of the same locality, generation, and social class), the chance of the complete adoption or rejection of a new dialectal feature is very great; the intense contact and consciousness of membership within the social group fosters such uniformity. When several age groups or social strata live within the same locality and especially when people speaking the same language live in separate communities, dialectal differences are easily maintained.

      The element of mutual contact plays a large role in the maintenance of speech patterns; that is why differences between geographically distant dialects are normally greater than those between dialects of neighbouring settlements. This also explains why bundles of isoglosses so often form along major natural barriers—impassable mountain ranges, deserts, uninhabited marshes or forests, or wide rivers—or along political borders. Similarly, racial or religious differences contribute to linguistic differentiation because contact between members of one faith or race and those of another within the same area is very often much more superficial and less frequent than contact between members of the same racial or religious group. An especially powerful influence is the relatively infrequent occurrence of intermarriages, thus preventing dialectal mixture at the point where it is most effective; namely, in the mother tongue learned by the child at home.

Unifying influences on dialects
      Communication lines such as roads (if they are at least several centuries old), river valleys, or seacoasts often have a unifying influence. Also, important urban centres, such as Paris, Utrecht, or Cologne, often form the hub of a circular region in which approximately the same dialect is spoken. In such areas, the prestige dialect of the city has obviously expanded. As a general rule, those dialects, or at least certain dialectal features, with greater social prestige tend to replace those that are valued lower on the social scale.

      In times of less frequent contact between populations, dialectal differences increase; in periods of greater contact, they diminish. The general trend in modern times is for dialectal differences to diminish, above all through the replacement of dialectal traits by those of the standard language. Mass literacy, schools, increased mobility of populations, and, in the last few decades, the evergrowing role of mass communications all contribute to this tendency. Naturally, the extent of such unifying action varies greatly in different linguistic domains, depending on the level of civilization. Nevertheless, the most thorough example of linguistic force exerted by a single dominating civilization belongs to ancient times: in the Hellenistic era, almost all ancient Greek dialects were replaced by the so-called koine, based on the dialect of Athens.

      Mass migrations (human migration) may also contribute to the formation of a more or less uniform dialect over broad geographic areas. Either the resulting dialect is that of the original homeland of a particular migrating population or it is a dialect mixture formed by the levelling of differences among migrants from more than one homeland. The degree of dialectal differentiation depends to a great extent on the length of time a certain population has remained in a certain place. Thus, it is understandable that the diversification of the English language is far greater in the British Isles than, for example, in North America (especially if the number of dialectal differences is considered on a comparable area basis, such as how many per 1,000 square miles). In the U.S. itself much greater diversity is evident among dialects in old colonial America—along the Atlantic coast—than among dialects west of the Appalachians. It is also typical that phonological differences are more far-reaching in Switzerland among Swiss-German (German language) dialects than throughout the vast territory where the Russian language is spoken, extending from St. Petersburg to eastern Siberia. Such a situation results not only from migrations of the Russian population, (as compared to the centuries of Swiss stability) but also from the contrasting geographical configurations: in Russia, there is unobstructed communication in all directions; in mountainous Switzerland, the territory is carved into small, isolated units.

      Migrations and, more rarely, geographical phenomena may in some areas cause a much stronger dialectal differentiation in one direction than in others. Isoglosses in the U.S., for example, run predominantly in an east-west direction, reflecting the westward stream of migration during the colonization of areas west of the Appalachians. Similarly, the majority of isoglosses in Russia follow latitude, but in the opposite (west-east) direction.

Focal, relic, and transitional areas
      Dialectologists often distinguish between focal areas—which provide sources of numerous important innovations and usually coincide with centres of lively economic or cultural activity—and relic areas—places toward which such innovations are spreading but have not usually arrived. (Relic areas also have their own innovations, which, however, usually extend over a smaller geographical area.) Relic areas or relic phenomena are particularly common in out-of-the-way regional pockets or along the periphery of a particular language's geographical territory. An example of a focal area in the U.S. would be the Boston region, while rural Maine and New Hampshire and Cape Cod and Nantucket Island would be typical relic areas (see Figure 2).

      The borders of regional dialects often contain transitional areas that share some features with one neighbour and some with the other. Such mixtures result from unequal diffusion of innovations from both sides. Similar unequal diffusion in mixed dialects in any region also may be a consequence of population mixture created by migrations.

      In regions with many bilingual speakers (e.g., along the border between two languages) dialects of both languages will often undergo changes influenced by the other tongue. This is manifested not only in numerous loanwords but often also in the adoption of phonological or grammatical features. Such phenomena are particularly frequent in a population that once spoke one language and only later adopted the second language. In extreme cases, a so-called creolized language develops. (Creoles (creole languages) are pidgin languages that have become the only or major language of a speech community.

Standard languages
      Standard languages arise when a certain dialect begins to be used in written form, normally throughout a broader area than that of the dialect itself. The ways in which this language is used—in administrative matters, literature, economic life—lead to the minimization of linguistic variation. The social prestige attached to the speech of the richest, most powerful, and most highly educated members of a society transforms their language into a model for others; it also contributes to the elimination of deviating linguistic forms. Dictionaries and grammars help to stabilize linguistic norms, as do the activity of scholarly institutions and, sometimes, governmental intervention. The base dialect for a country's standard language is very often the original dialect of its capital—in France, Paris; in England, London; in Russia, Moscow. Or the base may be a strong economic and cultural centre—in Italy, Florence. Or the language may be a combination of several regional dialects—e.g., German or Polish.

      Even a standard language that was originally based on one local dialect changes, however, as elements of other dialects infiltrate into it over the years. The actual development in any one linguistic area depends on historical events. Sometimes even the distribution of standard languages may not correspond to the dialectal situation. Dutch and Flemish dialects are a part of the Low German dialectal area, which embraces all of northern Germany, as well as The Netherlands and part of Belgium. In one part of the dialectal area, however, the standard language is based on High German, and, in the other part, the standard language is Dutch or Flemish, depending on the nationality of the respective populations. In the U.S., where there is no clearly dominant political or cultural centre—such as London or Paris—and where the territory is enormous, the so-called standard language shows perceptible regional variations in pronunciation.

      In most developed countries, the majority of the population has an active (speaking, writing) or at least passive (understanding) command of the standard language. Very often the rural population, and not uncommonly the lower social strata of the urban population as well, are in reality bidialectal. They speak their maternal dialect at home and with friends and acquaintances in casual contacts, and they use the standard language in more formal situations. Even the educated urban population in some regions uses the so-called colloquial language informally. In the German-, Czech-, and Slovene-speaking areas of middle Europe, for example, a basically regional dialect from which the most striking local features have been eliminated is spoken. The use of this type of language is supported by psychological factors, such as feelings of solidarity with a certain region and pride in its traditions or the relaxed mood connected with informal behaviour.

Pavle Ivić Ed.

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Universalium. 2010.

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