One of the most difficult abstract issues in linguistics that is still an issue today is to distinguish between language and dialect. At first glance, when two people are speaking differently, there seems to be two obvious possibilities. If they understand each other, they must be speaking dialects of the same language, if not, it can be said they are speaking different languages. However, in some cases, it is not so simple to distinguish between the two elements. By shedding light on this latter issue, this article will then focus on some cornerstones of sociolinguistics, like the difference between dialects and accents and the concepts of register and style.
Language vs. Dialect
What is the difference between a language and a dialect? Is there a wide distinction between traffic circle or roundabout, or between a rabbit and a hare? Most linguists would agree that it is problematic to give general definitions to distinguish languages from dialects, yet the subject has long fascinated experts and non-experts alike. While there are numerous definitions of a language, language can be defined as a means of communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional manner, used by a particular community or country. Generally, this concept can be applied to any type of language.
What is the definition of a dialect? Dialect is defined as a particular form of a spoken language in a specific region or area or spoken by a specific group. Simply put, it is a subordinate variety of a language. It can be distinguished by grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary. When travelling, one can observe people from different countries speaking a particular language but in different dialects. For example, British English, American English, Canadian English are just some of the dialects of the English language. It is estimated that over 160 different English dialects exist around the globe (Knetemann, 2018). Although there are that many, one can distinguish them from one another by looking at certain features like grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
Being significantly different in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary does not necessarily define dialects as separate languages. One of the most common ways of identifying the difference between language and dialect is a concept called mutual intelligibility. It is most commonly found among languages that are closely related to one another; however, closely related languages are not always mutually intelligible. Specifically, if the speakers of group A can understand the speakers of group B without difficulty or without intentionally learning the other language, then A and B must be the same language. Ideally, if two dialects are mutually intelligible, they belong to the same language, but if two dialects are not mutually intelligible, they belong to different languages.
In some instances, languages can be mutually intelligible to a greater or lesser extent. For example, native Danish speakers can understand Norwegian and Swedish only slightly, while native Norwegian speakers also usually understand Danish only slightly but Swedish to a much greater extent (Holloway, 2022). There can also be imbalanced mutual intelligibility between some languages; a concept known as asymmetric intelligibility. This means that it is easier for speakers of language A to understand language B than for speakers of language B to understand language A. There could be differences in pronunciation, making it difficult to understand the spoken form but not the written form. With this in mind, there is no globally accepted standard to distinguish the difference between a language and a dialect.
Dialects vs. accents
To make things more complex, people often confuse the difference between the words people use and the sounds they make, i.e. their pronunciation. Both dialects and accents refer to a distinctive way of using a specific language and are associated with a particular country, region, or social class. An accent is a special element of a dialect that needs close attention to be properly understood. One must understand that accents are only a part of what makes up a dialect. An accent is a specific manner of pronunciation that can be defined as how one pronounces words. It should be understood by other speakers of the same language. Therefore, an accent is a subordinate part of a dialect, while a dialect is a subordinate part of a language. Accents are recognizable within a country because of the sound, but dialects are more noticeable in terms of grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation.
What are registers?
In addition to dialects, two other aspects that are important are register and style. While dialects expose where people come from, register gives an indication of what they are doing. When discussing the register of a word, we mean the use of language for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For instance, when speaking in formal settings, an English speaker may likely use aspects of prescribed grammar such as father instead of dad or child instead of kid. At a level of formality, people will often refrain from using words considered non-standard, such as ain’t. In register, there is more consideration of the situation or context of use, subject matter or topic, and the audience or relationship between participants (Romaine, 1994). Most importantly, it must be taken into account that different situations and people call for different registers. In a hospital, for example, doctors discussing a patient’s laboratory results use the register of medicine; in a police station, police detectives review a murder case, which reflects a particular register associated with their profession and the subject at hand. This can also be present in sports bulletins with announcements such as ”Now onto men’s football, the Arizona Cardinals had two victories in the past week against both Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions. The Cardinals crushed the Bears by a final score of 46-34 last Thursday, making them jump to first place in the league;”here, the register of sports reporting is easily detected. Therefore, when identifying different registers, a specific vocabulary is chosen in relation to a particular situation.
From register to style
A notion related to register is style, which is also sometimes used to refer to situational variations, which can range from formal to informal depending on social context, relationship of the participants, social class, sex, age, physical environment, and topic (Romaine, 1994). Style is the variation in how an individual chooses to express themselves, and also how people switch from one style to another. The key issue here is that style is less predictable and more dependent on personal preferences than register. Although both are associated with a specific speech situation, register is more concerned with specific language such as the vocabulary chosen in a particular setting to address certain topic areas. To put it simply, register is defined by the language user, but style is defined by the use of language.
Language and society are irrevocably linked. The purpose of language is to assist speakers in expressing thoughts and feelings. A type of interaction between language and society is one in which particular forms of a language, referred to as dialect, are linked to the usage of function in society. In this social mechanism, language reforms social interactions and social interactions reforms language. However, one aspect that must not be neglected is that society controls how language is used by determining the norms as to what is acceptable or not. For example, standard language can be used in formal situations and non-standard language in non-formal situations. When society evolves, language evolves as well, resulting in unique impacts. This observation, however, should not raise any kind of amazement; language is neither uniform nor consistent; it is constantly evolving at all times.
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