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Accent vs Dialect

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English

People often get confused between accent and dialect because they are similar terms, both describing how our speech changes in relation to where we live.

What are Accent and Dialect

Accent is a broad term that dialect falls under. Accent refers to how voices sound as a result of geographical location. Accents have developed throughout history by people conversing in isolated communities and adopting their speech habits. This took place before it was easy to travel around the country, meaning everyone in a particular community only had contact with other people who sounded like them, thus developing regional accents.

Dialect derives from accent, but rather than describing how our voices sound it refers to how where we live impacts our grammar and lexical choices. Dialect is a mode of speech that differs from standard English. Our dialects are dependent on our geographical location, as where we live impacts the words we use.

For example, 'chuddy', and 'chewy' both mean chewing gum in various Northern dialects. These words derive from the standard English term 'chewing gum'.

Other Relevant Definitions

Slang is a specific type of colloquial language featuring abbreviations such as 'innit' or 'ain't'. It also encompasses phrases predominantly used by young people that are not in the dictionary, such as 'peng' (meaning something highly appealing) and 'bare' (to have or be something in vast quantities).

Sociolect is a dialect dictated by your class/position in society. Examples include school jargon used between school children, criminal jargon, office jargon, etc.

Jargon describes particular words and expressions used by groups of people (generally in the context of the workplace) that are difficult for others to understand. For example, most people would find legal jargon difficult to understand unless they work in the legal sector.

Table of Similarities and Differences of Accent and Dialect

Similarities Differences
Both accent and dialect are influenced by location Accent describes how our voices sound
They both deviate from standard English Dialect dictates word and grammar choices
Both accent and dialect influence speech patterns Dialect can change over time
Accent and dialect can be detected both audibly and in writing Accents are more set in stone
Understanding both accent and dialect can help a non-native person speak the language better Accents are more widely understood, whereas dialects can often be more cryptic because of the words they involve, such as 'barm' meaning bread roll in a Manchester dialect
Accents help with the pronunciation of words. For example, to speak a language well you must speak it in an accent

How Can You Tell The Difference Between Accent and Dialect?

We can tell the difference between accent and dialect by observing how far the words deviate from standard English, looking at the grammatical/lexical choices, and the way the voice sounds (or we can imagine how it sounds if the words are written phonetics). If the sentence would be understood by most people in the country it is likely a result of an accent. If the meaning of the sentence is hard to decipher it is likely a dialect. This is because different dialects use different words to say things which can be confusing for people from a different region, whereas accents only influence how we sound.

Task: These two sentences mean the same thing. Can you work out which one is spoken in dialect and which one is an accent?

'Ay up duck can ya bring me some chuddy?'

'Ello luv can ye bring mae some chewing gum?'

Both these sentences are instances of people asking for some chewing gum. One is spoken with a Sheffield dialect, indicated by the phrase 'Ay up duck' used in place of a friendly greeting, and 'chuddy' meaning chewing gum. The dialect causes the speaker to choose alternative words to the standard English: 'hello, can you bring me some chewing gum?'.

The second example is written in a northern accent. The phrase itself is the same as standard English in that none of the words used are different words for 'hello, can you bring me some chewing gum?', but rather just alternative ways of speaking standard English.

What is the Difference Between Slang and Dialect?

Whilst slang and dialect are very similar because they are both versions of non-standard English that dictate your lexical and grammar choices, they are also different from each other:

  • The term slang refers to words and phrases, whereas dialect is a way of speaking.
  • Slang is not always region-specific like dialect. Slang presents itself in communities like students and divisions within the student bubble. For example, you wouldn't expect a group of gamers to say something like 'I stan cookies so much, they are so peng', they would most likely have their own slang in relation to their hobby.
  • Slang terms continuously change as time goes by; in the past 5-7 years we have witnessed the rise and fall of many slang terms such as 'goals', 'eyebrows on fleek', and 'YOLO', which most people would not use now, but were popular in the period between 2013-2015.

Let's compare some examples of slang from the 21st century and the 90's to highlight just how much slang changes.

Task: Next time you watch Friends (1993-2003), Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996), Seinfeld (1989-1998), or any other 90s TV show, see if you can notice these 90's slang terms being used .

90s slang

  • Da bomb - meaning something really cool or amazing
  • Eat my shorts - dismissive comment
  • Aiight - modified phrase of alright, used as a greeting or in agreement.
  • All that and a bag of chips - when something is so good it's 'all that' and more ('a bag of chips'). Because chips are good, this means something is really, really good!

21st century slang

  • Bang - Appealing / attractive. Used in relation to people, things, and situations.
  • 'I stan him so much' - Stan means a hardcore fan. Originally used in relation to pop stars, now it can mean anything you really really like.
  • 'Ugh that's basic' - Basic has been used as a derogatory term meaning something boring and uninspiring. This goes further than the original meaning of something practical and essential.
  • 'Okay boomer' - Boomer describes a person born between 1946-1964 (the baby boom period), but young people use it to describe anyone over the age of 35/40. Usually used in a dismissive way to veto the opinions of the older generation online.

Now we have looked at some examples of slang, let's have a look at some examples of dialect to see how they differ from each other.

Dialect

Newcastle - goon oot on tha toon - going out on the town

Notice how this sentence contains variations of English words such as 'toon' meaning town, and 'goon' meaning 'going', rather than entirely made-up words like 'peng', or words used in completely different contexts to their original meaning, such as 'bare'. This is the difference between slang and dialect. Whilst dialect and slang are variations of English language, slang is more inventive and strays further from Standard English.

Slang vs Accent

Let's have a look at some differences between slang and accent.

  • Slang is usually in the form of phrases, whereas an accent impacts everything the speaker says, not just a small portion.
  • Slang is not region-specific like accent is, instead it is community-specific.
  • Slang is more fluid than accent, developing over time. While accents can change slightly over time, they are a lot more fixed than slang.

Accent

People with a scouse accent would pronounce 'what's that?' as 'woss tha?'.

Dialect

The Essex dialect (like many Northern dialects) involves missing out words. For example, they might say 'let's go shops' instead of 'let's go to the shops'.

We can tell that the first example is an example of an accent because the actual words they say sound different from standard English, whereas the dialect example doesn't change how the words sound but instead the word order (grammatical choices).

Why is Dialect Important in Language?

Dialect is important for a number of reasons:

  • Dialects preserve the cultural heritage of particular regions. This is because dialects express the individual qualities of a town, city, or county.
  • Unique ways of pronouncing words help distinguish different parts of the UK, constructing the region's identity.
  • Dialects help expand our minds by helping us learn new words and ideas from alternate perspectives.
  • They enhance cultural differences and celebrate what makes one place different from another.

Why are Accents Important in Language?

Accents are important too:

  • Accents represent history as they are a product of historical conversation.
  • They are a part of our identities. If someone grew up in multiple places their accent would be an amalgamation of those different influences.
  • They represent where we come from and our past, including where we grew up.
  • They can be used in literature to help establish where characters are from.

Accent vs. Dialect - Key Takeaways

  • Whilst both are specific to particular regions, accent refers to how the voice sounds and dialect influences word and grammar choices.
  • We can tell the difference between accent and dialect by observing how far the words deviate from standard English, looking at the grammatical / lexical choices and the way the voice sounds (or we can imagine how it sounds if the words are written phonetically).
  • If the sentence would be understood by most people in the country it is most likely a result of an accent. If the meaning of the sentence is hard to decipher it is most likely a dialect.
  • Slang changes with the times, whereas dialects and accents do not.
  • Accents and dialects are important to our language because they represent individual cultures and differences between different places. They represent our history and heritage, allowing language to become part of our history and celebration of where we are from.

Accent vs Dialect

Whilst both are specific to particular regions, accent refers to how a voice sounds, dialect influences the word and grammar choices of the speaker.

The difference between accent and dialect is that accent refers to how a voice sounds and dialect describes the grammar and lexical choices made by the speaker.

We naturally adopt the speech and sound patterns of those around us as we are growing up, manifesting our 'accent', as we develop our independent voice.

Accents have developed throughout history. They were established when people lived in more isolated environments, as there were fewer connections between cities, so the number of people that people interacted with was limited.

Similar to accents, dialects are developed in isolated communities between people who develop their own speech habits.

Final Accent vs Dialect Quiz

Question

How are accents developed?

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Answer

Accents have developed throughout history. They were established when people lived in more isolated environments, as there were fewer connections between cities, so the number of people that people interacted with was limited.

Show question

Question

True or false: Accent and dialect are the same things.


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Answer

False. Unlike accent, dialect refers to the grammar and lexical choices specific to a geographical location, whereas accent describes the way a voice sounds in a particular area. 


Show question

Question

How are slang and dialect different?


Show answer

Answer

The term slang refers to words and phrases, whereas dialect is a way of speaking. As well as this, slang is not always region-specific like dialect.

Show question

Question

True or false: Dialect is a broad term that accent stems from.


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Answer

False: Accent is a broader term that dialect falls under. Accent refers to how voices sound as a result of geographical location. Q5: How can accents be used to establish characters?


Show question

Question

How can accents represent our identity?


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Answer

Accents can represent our identity. If someone grew up in multiple places there accent would be an amalgamation of the different influences of their life. 



Show question

Question

How do dialects expand our minds?


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Answer

Dialects help expand our minds by helping us learn new words and ideas from alternate perspectives.

Show question

Question

How does the example of chewing gum as 'chuddy' and 'chewy' explain how dialect works?


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Answer

The dialect causes the speaker to choose alternative words to standard English. This example shows how dialect influences word choices rather than how the words sound.

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Question

True or False: Your accent cannot change.


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Answer

False. Your accent can mutate over time depending on your surroundings and the primary voices around you.

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Question

What does sociolect mean?


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Answer

Sociolect is a dialect dictated by your class / position in society. Examples include school jargon used between school children, criminal jargon, office jargon, etc

Show question

Question

True or false: Slang is region-specific.


Show answer

Answer

False: Slang is not always region-specific like dialect. Slang presents itself in communities like students and divisions within the student bubble.

Show question

Question

True or False: Accents are defined by sound.


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Answer

True. Accents are defined by the way a voice sounds, and how it differs from Standardized English. 

Show question

Question

What is a boomer?


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Answer

Boomer describes a person born between 1946-1964 (the baby boom period), but young people use it to describe anyone over the age of 35/40. Usually used in a dismissive way to veto the opinions of the older generation online.

Show question

Question

How are slang and accent different?


Show answer

Answer

Slang is usually in the form of phrases whereas an accent impacts everything the speaker says, not just a small portion.

Show question

Question

True or False: Both accent and dialect are influenced by location.


Show answer

Answer

True. Both accent and dialect are influenced by location.

Show question

Question

How can understanding both accent and dialect can help a non-native person speak the language better?


Show answer

Answer

If you understand both accent and dialect you are more likely to be able to speak the language as a native would. As you will sound more like a native speaker and you will understand all types of English speakers in the UK.

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Question

Which of the following is not a dialect?

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Answer

Gaelic

Show question

Question

True or false? 

A sociolect is a dialect?

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Answer

True. A sociolect is a social dialect.

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Question

What is an idiolect?

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Answer

An individual's unique use of language.

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Question

What is an ethnolect?

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Answer

A dialect that has arisen due to the influence of a shared ethnic group. 

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Question

What is a regional dialect?

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Answer

A language variety that develops amongst people who live close together.

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Question

How do dialects differ from standard forms of a language?

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Answer

Dialects can differ from standard forms of a language (e.g. British English [BrE]) in terms of the lexicon (vocabulary), syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence), grammar, and pronunciation.

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Question

In the Geordie dialect, what does 'canny' mean?

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Answer

Nice.

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Question

In the Glaswegian dialect, what is a 'swally'?

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Answer

An alcoholic drink.

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What is linguistic change?

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Answer

The process of variation that all languages go through over time.

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Can native speakers of a language usually understand the different dialects?

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Answer

Yes, to a certain extent.

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True or false, we're born with our accents?

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Answer

False. Our accents develop as we learn to speak based on the people around us.

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Question

How many different accents are there in the UK?

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Answer

It's impossible to say! 

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Question

Accents are usually defined and recognised based on _____.

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Answer

Geographical location.

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Question

What is Received Pronunciation (RP)?

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Answer

An accent used in Southeast England and in official settings, such as reading the news.

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What is Geordie?

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Answer

The accent (and dialect) used by people in Newcastle and the surrounding areas.

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Question

What is a rhotic accent?

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Answer

An accent that pronounces the /r/ sound at the end of words.

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What is a non-rhotic accent?

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Answer

An accent that doesn't pronounce the /r/ sound at the end of words.

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Question

Is the general British accent rhotic or non-rhotic?

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Answer

Non-rhotic. 

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Question

Greater differences in accent are found amongst communities that____?

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Answer

are isolated from other communities. 

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Question

Why do children pick up accents quicker than adults?

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Answer

Because their brains have more plasticity and are able to adapt to new things quicker.

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