Dialect vs. Accent – what are the differences and the impact?
6 min read

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Often words accent and dialect are used interchangeably. However, the meaning of “accent” is different from that of “dialect”. This article explains everything one needs to know about both terms to clear up the confusion.

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How an accent and a dialect are defined?

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Let’s start with the definitions. Both terms “dialect” and “accent” refer to a distinctive way of using a specific language and are often associated with a particular country, region, or social class.

A dialect is a variant of a language with noticeable differences in grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation. An important characteristic of a dialect is that it should be intelligible for other speakers of the same language. That means that the speakers can understand others and to express themselves in most situations.

An accent is a specific manner of pronunciation. So, an accent is a subordinate part of a dialect, while a dialect is a subordinate part of a language.

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What means to be a standard dialect?

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Dialects are often associated with specific geographical locations and can be classified into two categories:

  • Standard dialects that are approved and supported by institutions.
  • Non-standard dialects that are not supported by institutions.

Standard dialects represent prestigious varieties that are used on formal occasions and are taught at schools. Such varieties have higher social status and are commonly used by more educated speakers and people belonging to a higher social class. Non-standard dialects lack prestige and have the status of stigmatized variety because of their association with low-status groups. Non-standard varieties are typically unacceptable at schools.

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The meaning of regional and social dialects

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Another way to classify dialects is based on the social class of the speaker and geographical background. If we take into account these criteria, dialects can be classified as regional dialects and social.

  • Regional dialects represent the differences that you can notice while traveling through a wide geographical area where a specific language is used. Linguists also use this term to describe separate geographical distributions of different linguistic features of a language. Geographic or regional dialects are the most widespread type of differentiation.
  • Social dialects represent differences that you can notice in speech associated with the class of the speakers or with a social group and differentiate speakers of one social group from speakers of the other social group.

In other words, regional dialects demonstrate separation by the physical location of the speakers and tell where the speakers come from. While social dialects show the separation by social conditions of the speakers and tell who we are.

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Language vs dialect - what’s the difference?

A man comparing differences among dialects and languages.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to decide whether two language varieties are dialects or closely related languages. Unfortunately, there is no standard method to do that and all the criteria are completely arbitrary.

Typically, linguists take into account mutual intelligibility. If speakers of two language varieties can understand each other, these varieties are considered dialects of the same language. However, this criterion is quite relative. Speakers of closely related languages, for example, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, can communicate to some extent when each of them uses their native language too.

So, a practical criterium for determining a language is an institutional one - is there a country that has recognized that language as its national?

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Why do languages have different dialects?

Interactions between people that create new dialects.

The main cause is linguistic change. All living languages are constantly evolving and undergo changes in different elements. Every language is an extremely complex system of signs so it’s quite natural that linguistic evolution affects different elements and transforms them in different ways in different localities where the language is spoken.

These changes are slow and gradual but they inevitably accumulate with time. If changes appear only among one part of the speakers, they create a dialectal difference that can be adopted or rejected by other members of local communities. Dialects are usually impure in nature because they borrow a lot of words from the primary language and include other speech varieties like slangs, jargons, argots, and pidgins.

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What are areas of language development?

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Dialectologists typically distinguish:

  • focal areas of a language that provide a lot of important innovations – they are the centers of economic and cultural activities;
  • relic areas towards which those innovations are spreading – out-of-the-way regional pockets;
  • transitional areas are on the borders of dialects and often combine different features of the neighboring dialects.

When certain dialects get to be broadly used in written form – in literature, government documents, and contracts - it becomes a standard language. When a language variety is used by the most powerful, richest, and highly educated members of a society, it becomes the model for other people. Scholarly institutions, dictionaries, grammar as well as government interventions establish new linguistic norms and work on eliminating the deviating ones. Most standard languages have a variety of accents and may have some regional variations in grammar and vocabulary.

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What are noteworthy examples of a dialect?

A man looking at the quote in a new dialect.

The USA is a vast country and, despite the fact that most Americans speak one language, there are a lot of regional dialects that come in many flavors and can be further subdivided into local subdialects so you can hardly find consensus on how to say something. Here are some dialect examples:

  • People from the Southern states say “y’all” while most of the US citizens say “you guys”.
  • There are different words for a sweetened carbonated beverage – coke, soda, and pop.
  • Most Americans call a big road where you can drive relatively fast “a highway” and some people in the West call it “a freeway”.
  • Most of the country will say a pair of “tennis shoes” while in the Northeast and in south Florida, they put on “sneakers”.

Speaking about language varieties, we have to admit that there is no such thing as “correct English.” If you speak in a manner that follows the rules of a specific dialect, your English is correct. Such words like ain’t in some dialects are real words so they are perfectly acceptable to use.

But we often judge people by the way they speak and there are certain prejudices within our society. Different dialects have different levels of social prestige. General Northern dialect is also referred as General American and is used by people in almost two-thirds of the entire country. Southern dialects have the lowest prestige because many northerners think that people who speak a southern dialect are less educated and less intelligent than they are. That’s why some educated southerners are likely to “correct” their speech to meet northern standards. The most disliked and parodied of all of the American dialects is the New York City dialect.

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Some examples of different accents

A girl listening to a recording of accented speech.

The canonical examples of different accents of the same language are:

  • American English and British English accents.
  • Standard German and Southern German accents.
  • Spanish accents as they are spoken in Latin America and in Spain.

If you are curious how big the difference between accents can be, check out Accent Hero’s free tests for American and British accents:

Each test takes less than 5 minutes, and the final scores can sometimes be a surprise.

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Accent vs dialect – a difference in perception

A man and a woman perceiving accented speech differently.

According to a recent Wharton study, there is a widespread bias against people who speak English with an accent. Job seekers with non-native accents are less likely to get management positions, and entrepreneurs with foreign accents are less likely to get funding.

The problem is that non-native English speakers are perceived to be less “politically skilled” than native English speakers. Political skills are important in entrepreneurial and executive settings and require not only effective communication but also the ability to be perceptive and influence other people.

Scientists suggest that the reason for the bias is in the way how our brains process speech with foreign accents. Our brains must make additional efforts to process such speech, making it harder to understand. That’s why people are less likely to believe something that is said with a foreign accent: it’s harder to understand, and, therefore, perceived as less likely to be truthful.

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How to adjust an accent?

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Despite the challenges that non-native speakers face, there are solutions that can help. One can hire an accent coach or take a pronunciation course. Sure, that takes time, but when your goal is to be fully accepted into a society, it is totally worth it.

If you consider taking a pronunciation course, we suggest to check out Accent Hero’s online accent courses, which are provided completely free of charge.