Standard Dialects

By Michael Gasser

The following appears on the website of a person who spent some time in Pittsburgh: “probably relating to the rest of Pittsburgh’s terrible dialect, which I, fortunately, did not pick up”. Why would some dialects be thought of as “terrible”?
Some dialects within a language may be singled out for special status. When we’re dealing with a political unit, such as a nation, in which related dialects are spoken by most people, one dialect is often treated as the standard dialect. The standard dialect is often the only dialect that is written, and it is the one that is taught in schools and (with some exceptions) used in the media. Thus in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland, it is Standard German that is taught in the schools and used in broadcasting, even though most people in this region are not native speakers of the Standard German dialect. This means that most people in the German-speaking countries end up bidialectal. The same situation holds in Japan, where it is Standard Japanese, based on Tokyo dialect, that is taught in the schools and used in the media. Note how this makes it possible to speak of a German or Japanese speech community, even when the native dialects of people in these communities are very different from one another, because all educated speakers in these communities share the standard dialect, often as a second dialect.

So what do we mean when we say “German” or “Japanese”? There are two possibilities. “German” could mean Standard German, that is, one of the set of dialects spoken in Germany and also the basis of written German. Or it could mean the collection of related dialects, some mutually unintelligible, which are spoken in Germany and other countries where Standard German is the official language (Austria) or one of the official languages (Switzerland). When linguists refer to “German” or “Japanese”, without specifying the dialect, they normally mean the standard dialect.

Dialects of English in the US and England

In the United States, the situation is somewhat simpler than in Germany or Japan because the differences among most of the dialects are not nearly as great; native speakers of English in the United States have little trouble understanding each other. (An important exception is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), spoken mainly by many African-Americans.) As in Germany and Japan, we have an (informal) standard dialect, for vocabulary, grammar, and usage, if not for pronunciation. Thus children in Pittsburgh learn in school to write sentences like the school needs to be renovated rather than the school needs renovated, which would be grammatical in their local dialect. Americans tend to be relatively tolerant of differences in accent, however. Teachers in schools throughout the country teach the standard grammar but use their own local pronunciation. If we have a standard accent, it is the one people associate with television announcers, the accent characteristic of much of the Midwest and the West. This accent is called General American; I will have more to say about it later.

The situation in England is similar to that in the United States, and the standard vocabulary, grammar, and usage that children learn to write in English schools are very similar to the American standard. However, in England, there is a stronger idea of a standard accent than in the United States and more pressure for children to learn this accent if it differs from their home accent. This accent is referred to as Received Pronunciation (RP); it is based on the speech of educated speakers in southern England. (Note that RP is standard English English pronunciation, not British English; in Scotland, there is a quite different standard accent.)

“Just” a “Dialect” or a Full-blown “Language”

The existence of a single standard dialect among a set of non-standard dialects has important social implications. The non-standard dialects have less prestige, and their use may be discouraged in formal situations, not just situations in which writing is called for. Sometimes, as in the Ryukyu Islands in Japan or in some regions of France and Spain, this leads to the decline and possible death of the non-standard “dialects” (which would be considered languages by the mutual intelligibility criterion). In other situations, speakers of non-standard dialects retain pride in their local speech patterns, while recognizing that they are not appropriate in certain situations. Finally, this pride, along with other cultural differences separating the speakers of the non-standard dialect from the speakers of other dialects (non-standard or standard), may lead to pressure to have non-standard dialects given official status, especially if they differ significantly from the standard. At this point the words dialect and language become politically charged terms because the supporters of official status for the non-standard dialect may feel the need to argue that it is not “just” a dialect of the larger language but rather a language in its own right. This has happened in the United States with AAVE and in Europe with many languages that are normally considered “dialects” of other languages.

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