Dialects: Reveling in Linguistic Freedom

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Language Expert Professor David Crystal – photo by David Crystal

English is the national language of several countries, so speakers worldwide can hold conversations, and more or less understand each other, even though each person’s spoken English has unique variations. As linguists Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman point out, “differences in speech can be due to age, sex, health, size, personality, emotional state and personal idiosyncrasies.”

What is an Idiolect?

Each person’s speech is phonologically distinctive and is composed of slight variations in sentence structure and word choice.  A person’s unique speech is known as their idiolect. Since there are approximately half a billion English speakers there is the same number of idiolects.

Dialects, Accent, Slang, or Jargon

When English speakers from different geographical regions demonstrate ‘systematic’ speech variations, the groups are described as speaking different dialects.

‘Accent’ and ‘dialect’ are not to be confused; they are not synonymous linguistic terms. Neither are ‘dialect’ and ‘slang,’ or ‘dialect’ and’ jargon,’ for that matter. Having a ‘different accent’ refers only to demonstrating distinctive differences in pronunciation with regional phonological or phonetic distinctions. Slang and jargon, on the other hand, refer to trendy or topic-related vocabulary items that often have a limited life. The linguistic term ‘dialect’ includes accent variations and changes in sentence-structure, word-choice and innovative word deviations as well.

Local dialects are often incomprehensible – photo by Peter Roberts

‘Mutually Intelligible’ Language

Dialects within the same language are generally ‘mutually intelligible.’ However, it is also possible that dialects may be eventually become incomprehensible between the different regions of the same country.

When speakers of one dialect, which is based on the same language as speakers of another group and their unique languages, have moved beyond each other’s understanding, then these two groups could be classed as each speaking a ‘foreign’ language, but where do you draw the line?  For example, at one time, the languages spoken by the Danes, Swedish, and Norwegians, and those spoken in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria were dialects along a continuum. However, political influences and national boundaries transformed these dialects into separate national languages over time.

Regional Dialects and Isoglosses

Geographical and social constraints generally cause dialectal diversity. When the features of a particular dialect pattern change, and are mapped, a geographical boundary or ‘isogloss’ can be determined.  Changes on one side of the isogloss do not necessarily occur on the other side, so the distinguishing differences between the dialects often become greater and they move further apart on the language continuum.

So, how many English dialects exist, and how do we distinguish one as being separate from another? Decoded Science had the opportunity of discussing the matter of assessing the number of regional dialects with Professor David Crystal. He  pointed out that, “It isn’t possible to give a sensible figure about the number of dialects there are, as dialects shift into each other in sometimes quite subtle ways.”

US dialects and isoglosses – image by Jeff McNeill

When Decoded Science asked Professor Paul Meier, the founder and director of the International Dialects of English Archive, about the number of dialects, he replied, “Since definitions vary so much, this is unquantifiable.  If you accept idiolects (one’s personal dialect) into the equation, then the number equals the total population.”

Dialects: Numbers Reducing?

Today, even though there are less geographical and non-geographical constraints, and great influences from the media, dialect leveling is not occurring. In fact, Professor Meier believes the reverse to be the case. He also added that “The great myth that TV and radio somehow weakens local accents and dialects is patently not true.” Research has also shown that dialect variation is increasing in particular in urban areas, which Professor Crystal explains, “is due to immigrant groups.”

Dialects Detrimental to the Future of English?

With the increasing number of dialects, how will this affect the English language overall? According to Crystal, non-standard English shouldn’t be condemned, but too much ‘linguistic freedom’ isn’t a good idea either. What is needed is “an appropriate philosophy and practice of language management in which different forms and functions of standard and non-standard English are brought into a mutually enlightening relationship.”

References:

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition. (1997). CUP.

Crystal, David. “Language developments in British English.” The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Culture. Eds. M. Higgins, C. Smith and J. Storey. (2010). Cambridge University Press.

Fromkin, V. & Rodman, R. An Introduction to Language. (1993). Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.

Resources:

IDEA. International Dialects of English Archive. Accessed December 8, 2011.

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