What is a dialect?

Speakers of any given language sometimes get offended when their particular language style is called a dialect. To avoid any confusion, I would therefore like to explain what I mean by the term "dialect."

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a dialect is

A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists.

The problem with this definition is that it implies that there is some sort of "standard" language from which all of the various dialects of that language differ. In English, however, I do not think this is true. I think that the English language is far too widespread and varies too much for anyone to say that the English spoken in ____ is "standard" and everything else is a "dialect." Even if it were narrowed down to a single country, there is still a great deal of variation within that country, and who is to say which region/city/state/province speaks proper English?

My definition of a dialect is simply this: "A variation of a given language spoken in a particular place or by a particular group of people." Therefore, when I use the term dialect, I am not making any sort of judgment about the quality or "correctness" of that variety of English. I believe that American, British, Canadian, and Australian English are all dialects of the English language, and that none of them is any better or more proper than any other.

In writing about English dialects on this site, my goal is to make English speakers – both native and non-native – aware of the differences in English as it is spoken around the world. I don’t think that the English I speak (see About My English, below) is "right" English, nor do I think that British and Australian are "wrong" English. I am fascinated by language in all its forms, and this site provides me with the opportunity to discover more about the language I speak and how it varies from the English spoken by others.

So wherever you are from and whatever form of English you speak, please do not take offense at my use of the term "dialect" in referring to different varieties of English. They are all interesting and valuable, and I respect every single one.

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2 comments for “What is a dialect?

  1. khanyisile
    19 May 2015 at 18:04

    Tha you so much for explaining with just simple English. I am a young woman from South Africa and I was taught English as an Additional Language from Elementary and ‘ve been struggling with the English. I didn’t go to multiracial schools, therefore I was naught taught English throught the systems of ShaikSpear. For such reasons it sometimes confuses when you search for an explanation of a certain word and you discover that its is explain with bombaric words. Again thank you

  2. Christopher Nelson
    17 June 2015 at 20:59

    Don’t feel bad. English is a crazy language compared to some. It is actually a blending of the original language of the “Angles,” (the first wave of a number of migrations to the British Isles,) Old Norse, Medieval French and Latin. To make matters worse, in the Middle Ages few people could read or write. The Monks of various monasteries took upon themselves to compile English spelling and grammar. The problem was that there was no agreement among them as to how to do it. Parts of some versions made it into the accepted language, others not so much. The language ended up a crazy-quilt patchwork of inconsistent spellings and grammar usages. There was no rhyme or reason as to what ended up staying and what didn’t. Even native speakers have trouble getting it right. My Finnish cousins say it is fairly easy to learn how to speak, but the Devil to learn how to spell. I’m a native speaker of American English, and I probably thought the same thing while if first and second grade!

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