Dialects and Languages

By Michael Gasser

Two Americans are talking about a couple they have just met.
“She sounded English to me, but he doesn’t seem to have any accent at all.”
Two English people are talking about the same couple.
“He sounded American to me, but she doesn’t seem to have any accent at all.”
What’s going on here? Who has the accent?

What I know about my language and how to use it is called my “idiolect”. It almost certainly varies in minor ways from the idiolects of all other speakers. But what is an idiolect? That is, what kinds of things do I know? In one sense, this whole book is an answer to that question, but we need to have a first cut at the answer here to help us get started. I know words. I have a vocabulary, a set of words which I know how to pronounce and use appropriately. For example, I know how to say the word apple, I know that it refers to a particular type of fruit, I come up with this word when I want to refer to a particular apple, and I understand it when I hear it.
I know how to pronounce words and combinations of words more generally. That is, there are aspects of pronunciation that go beyond individual words. For example, I know to pronounce the ending that we spell -ed like /t/ in words like picked and watched but to pronounce it like /d/ in words like signed and burned.
I know how to put words together into sentences in meaningful ways. For example, I know that if I want to ask when a particular train leaves I can say when does the train leave?, but not when leaves the train?.
I know how to use language appropriately to achieve my goals. I know that if I want a friend to lend me $100, it is better to say I was wondering if you could lend me some money than to say give me $100.
I’ll be much more careful later on about how each of these types of knowledge is described, but for now I’ll say (informally) that my idiolect involves knowledge about vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage.

Of course no one is really interested in describing idiolects. Linguists and other language scientists study the speech of communities of people, not of individuals. More specifically, they study the knowledge of vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage that is shared by the members of a speech community. Because the members of the community agree on this knowledge, because it differs (at least in some ways) from the knowledge shared by other communities, and because it is mostly arbitrary, I will refer to the knowledge as linguistic conventions.

But what is a speech community? I will use this term to refer to any group of people that shares a set of linguistic conventions differing in some noticeable way from the conventions found elsewhere. You may know that in the United States people in some cities have some characteristic features in their pronunciation, although they are easily understood by people elsewhere in the United States. For example, people native to Pittsburgh are known for using you uns (or yinz) to mean ‘you plural’. Here’s an example from the (partly tongue-in-cheek) “Pittsburghese” website: if yinz wants served, raise your hands. The number of conventions that distinguish Pittsburghers from other English speakers in the northeastern United States is actually pretty small, but because there is such a set of conventions, we can consider these people to be a speech community. The speech patterns, that is, conventions of vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and usage, of a speech community are called a dialect, so we can speak of a “Pittsburgh dialect”.
Note that a dialect may not be defined entirely on the basis of its physical location. Cities often contain a variety of ethnic and social groups with different speech patterns. For example, the African-American population of many US cities (for example, Pittsburgh) often has a quite different dialect from the Euro-American population of the same cities.

Which dialect do you speak?

There may be a number of possible answers.
What about larger communities? Pittsburghers share some speech conventions with speakers in other cities of the northeast and north midwest, for example, their pronunciation of the a in a word like hands, as in the example above (more on this pronunciation later on). And people in that larger region share some conventions with people in an even larger region encompassing speakers in most of the northern and western United States, for example, their pronunciation of the long English vowels (bite, beat, bait, boat, etc.). And people in that even larger region share many conventions with English speakers all over North America, including most of their grammar and usage conventions, as well as a number of pronunciation conventions, for example, the tendency to pronounce the words latter and ladder in roughly the same way.

This idea of larger and larger communities, each sharing fewer and fewer conventions, is an over-simplification in one sense. The fact is that the boundaries of the communities overlap in many ways. If we look at particular vocabulary, we may find a region with one boundary, whereas if we look at other vocabulary or at some pronunciation convention, we may find another boundary. For example, Pittsburghers tend to say pop (as opposed to soda or some other word) for carbonated drinks, and they share this convention with many speakers in the northern midwestern cities who also share their pronunciation of the vowel in hands, but not with speakers to the east of them, in New York City, for example, who share the pronunciation but not the word. (New Yorkers tend to say soda rather than pop.) Thus where we draw the boundaries around a dialect depends on which convention or set of conventions we’re looking at.
Another way what I’ve said so far is an over-simplification is that there is great variation within any of these regions. Some of this variation has to do with the constant contact between dialects that is a fact of life in most communities. Some of the variation also has to do with the fact that people often know a range of ways to say things and they may sometimes avoid their local dialect in favor of a standard in certain situations.
Each of these shared sets of conventions, whether at the level of a small village, a subculture within a city, or a larger region, is a dialect. And a linguist can be interested in describing any level and any aspect of the dialect at any level (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, usage). The pronunciation associated with a dialect is called an accent.

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