Dialect – how to understand it
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Dialect – definition
The term dialect refers to any variety of a language used by a group of speakers.
It refers to the content of the utterance rather than the pronunciation.
There are two main types of dialect in English:
- Regional varieties of speech which relate to a particular geographical area.
- Standard English which is used by speakers and writers in any area.
The term dialect used to refer to deviations from Standard English which were used by groups of speakers.
Political awareness has now given us the current concept of dialect as any developed speech system.
Standard English itself is therefore now considered to be a dialect of English — equal in status with regional dialects such as Scottish or social dialects such as Black English.
The concept of dialect embraces all aspects of a language from grammar to vocabulary.
NB! Dialect is not the same thing as accent.
Linguists take a descriptive view of all language phenomena. They do not promote the notion of the superiority of Standard English.
This is not to say that Standard English and Received Pronunciation are considered equal to other forms by the majority of speakers, but certainly attitudes are becoming more liberal.
This may be as a result of the increase in mass media in Britain and the exposure this provides to varieties of English such as American English and Australian English.
The past participle ‘gotten’ as in ‘he had gotten into his car’ is Standard American English — whereas it would be an aberration if used by a native British speaker.
The concept of a dialect used to be applied to a deviant form of the standard which had no written version. This is no longer the case. The written form of Standard English is now considered as a dialect. Thus we may write in a variety of dialects — one of which is the Standard English which most of us employ.
Dialect poetry has become popular recently, along with the shift in perception which political correctness has demanded.
Writers have for centuries attempted to represent dialect utterances in their work. Shakespeare often gave his yokels such items. Snout the tinker in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says “By’r lakin, a parlous fear.”
The novelist D.H.Lawrence represented the Nottinghamshire dialect in many of his novels by interspersing Standard English with utterances such as “Come into th’ut” spoken by Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Perhaps the most interesting factor here is that the writer needs to use the English alphabet in the attempt to write dialect terms. This is not always possible, and so one of the skills a dialect writer needs is the ability to select those words which lend themselves to representation by means of the orthodox alphabet.
Some contemporary regional dialect forms are ones which have remained as such after being eliminated from what is now Standard English. An example of this is the Scottish ‘kirtle’ which was replaced in Standard English during the Old English period by ‘skirt’.
Some of the terms used to command the sheep dogs in Cumbria and Northumbria are unrecognizable in any dialect. They have remained intact since Old English or Middle English times.
This is an interesting phenomenon and explicable when one considers that the utterance is necessarily one-way, with the dog as the listener! For this same reason, we can’t accurately define this set of commands as a contemporary dialect.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2003
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