As I've written previously, "When a variety of language is shared by a group of speakers, it is known as a dialect. A dialect — whether standard or nonstandard — includes the full range of elements used to produce speech: pronunciation, grammar and interactive features."

Instructors as well as learners need to understand linguistics and dialects. Learners will be exposed to a variety of dialects, and instructors need an understanding of dialects and how languages work to better prepare their students to operate in the world outside the classroom.

Definition and development

Variations in language used by different groups are referred to as dialects. American English and Australian English are considered English dialects, as are Castilian (Spain) Spanish and Mexican Spanish. Similarly, Brazilian Portuguese and Portugal Portuguese are dialects.

"While the term dialect has various applications, it is used by linguists to refer to a variety of a language that may be understood by other speakers of that language, although they do not necessarily share the same dialect," Winfred Philipp Lehmann wrote.

Knowledge of basic linguistic principles should include dialects — both L1 and L2. Learners at the higher levels need to know that they will encounter different dialects as they interact with native speakers. Often, students pick up "slang" more easily than their classroom lessons.

"University students have developed their own varieties of language, especially for situations of direct concern to them. An easy course may be called a snap; to do well in an examination may be to ace it," according to Lehmann.

Other social groupings with their own dialects include the poorer residents of cities who have developed special forms of language as part of their social groups. Black English and Chicano English are two examples from the United States.

The learners' home language may have several dialects, some of which could be classified as separate languages. For example, Egyptian-spoken Arabic is different from Moroccan-spoken Arabic. Only a common written language prevents a break up into separate languages like the breakup of Latin into the Romance languages.

In the United Kingdom, there are varieties of English that may be hard to follow at first: "Scotsmen or Yorkshiremen speak quite different types of English those spoken in Cornwall or Kent."

People in the same language group will develop dialects if they are isolated from each other.

"Those differences may be thought of as dialects — not just accents (the way words are pronounced) but also grammar, vocabulary, syntax and common expressions," according to Elizabeth Malone. "Often a group that is somewhat isolated regionally or socially from other groups will develop a characteristic dialect."

Spelling and dialects

Words are spelled according to a standardized system put into place after the invention of printing. But they are pronounced differently depending on the dialect.

"Language is constantly changing, and this change, apart from making spelling systems obsolete, also creates different dialects of the same language," Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman wrote.

For example, the word schedule is pronounced skedjule or skejual by Americans, but in the British dialect it sounds like shedyule.

Dialects in England and North America

After 437 AD, Germanic tribes invaded Britain and brought in their own dialects of West Germanic.

"The submergence of the various British Celtic languages (of which Welsh is the only modern survivor) also led to innovations in British English. The Viking invasions resulted in more Norse influence in the north than in the south, thereby contributing another layer to the existing dialects. Likewise, the Norman French invaders influenced the south more than the north, which came to be more conservative linguistically," according to "The Dialects of American English."

As the British settled North America, additional changes occurred. Four main dialects emerged from four migrations:

"From 1629-1640, Puritan religious dissenters fleeing oppression from Charles I fled East Anglia and brought their distinctive twang (a sort of "flat sounding" nasal lengthening of vowels) to Massachusetts.

"New York English, as a special variety of general New England speech, developed after the British took possession of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam in 1664, leading to the rapid conversion of Dutch speakers to English. Dutch left a strong phonetic substrate, however, which sets Brooklyn speech apart from other northern dialects.

"From 1642-1675, the Royalists, also called Cavaliers, fled from the south and southwest England with their indentured servants and settled in Virginia when the English Civil War against Charles I began. They brought with them their south England drawl (a drawing out of the vowels); they also brought such phrases as aksed (instead of asked), and ain't (instead of isn't)."

Black English developed in the Southern states when speakers of dozens of West African languages were abruptly forced to abandon their native tongues and learn English. Slaves brought over from various African countries did not share a common language and could not communicate with each other or with their masters and overseers, so a sort of lingua franca emerged starting as a pidgin and finally as Black English.

The Quakers migrated from England from 1675 to 1725 to the Delaware valley, and their speech gave rise to dialects spoken in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "Scotts-Irish" from Northern Britain and Ireland settled in the Appalachian backcountry from 1717-1775. The Westward expansion let to a leveling of dialects and the creation of a General American Dialect.

"People who are said to speak 'without an accent' are actually speaking with this leveled-out form of speech that developed from the mid-Atlantic stretching westward through the Ohio valley. Most features of Standard American developed from a leveled mixture of dialects mostly from the poorer classes along the middle Atlantic seaboard who immigrated west after the American Revolution to find a better life."


Spoken languages have dialects — forms varying across geographical areas and social groups. But in complex societies that use writing, the needs of communication encourage moves toward a single written norm, codified by governmental, educational and literary institutions.

The prestige of the written standard is then likely to influence speech as well. The prestige dialect has the social function of binding people together and providing a common written form. The prestige dialect is often called H, and the dialects are referred to as L, a reference to High German (in the mountains) and Low German (lower elevations).