Accent vs Dialect

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.   

Accent vs Dialect Accent vs Dialect

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Table of contents

    Accent vs dialect definition

    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'.

    Accent vs Dialect, man stepping in gum, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Different dialects may have different words for things - such as 'chuddy' and 'chewy' for 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.

    Dialect and accent

    This is a table showing the differences and similarities between accents and dialects:

    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

    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 of 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.

    Slang vs accent vs dialect

    It's easy to become confused when so many linguistic terms are used in one article, so we'll break down each different comparison to make things clearer.

    Slang vs 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 90s 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 90s 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!

      Accent vs Dialect, girl in 90s fashion, StudySmarterFig. 2 - There was a lot of different slang in the 90s than there is nowadays.

    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).

    Accent and dialect: A-level English Language

    As a bit of a summary, and to round up the reasons why accents and dialects are so important, let's look at each one in turn:

    The importance of dialects

    Dialects are 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.

    The importance of accents

    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.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Accent vs Dialect

    What is the difference between accent and 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.

    Is there a difference between accent and dialect?

    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.

     Why do people have accents?


    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.

    How are accents developed?

    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.

    Why do people have dialects?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is not a dialect?

    Accents are usually defined and recognised based on _____.

    Greater differences in accent are found amongst communities that____?

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