English dialect study – an overview

By Clive Upton

What is a dialect?

Dialect is one of those words that almost everybody thinks they understand, but which is in fact a bit more problematic than at first seems to be the case. A simple, straightforward definition is that a dialect is any variety of English that is marked off from others by distinctive linguistic features. Such a variety could be associated with a particular place or region or, rather more surprisingly, it might also be associated with a certain social group—male or female, young or old, and so on.

But whether the focus is regional or social, there are two important matters that need to be considered when defining ‘dialect’. We have to decide what the building blocks of a dialect might be. And even before this, we could usefully confront the most common mistakes that people make when referring to ‘dialect’.

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Dialect or accent?

A common mistake is to confuse a ‘dialect’ with an accent, muddling up the difference between words people use and the sounds they make, their pronunciation. If vocabulary and grammar are being considered alongside pronunciation, then ‘dialect’ is a reasonable term to use. But often, when claiming to discuss a dialect, someone will concentrate just on pronunciations. If what is being spoken about are sounds alone—that is, accent—then the area of language study is rather pronunciation, or phonology.

It will be obvious from this that accent, or pronunciation, is a special element of a dialect that needs separate attention to be properly understood. Arguably the best-known phonological distinction in England is the so-called ‘BATH vowel’, the quality of the a sound differing between north and south. Another, still more significant on the world stage, concerns the issue of rhoticity, relating to whether or not written r is sounded when it follows a vowel. Whilst most people in England and Wales do not pronounce the r (and are therefore non-rhotic), those in the English West Country and parts of Lancashire do. In this they are joined by most Scots and Irish speakers of English, and by the majority of North Americans. Although the English tend to regard rhoticity as an exotic aberration, it is in fact numerically and geographically the dominant form in world terms.

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Where do dialects begin and end?

Another fundamental mistake is to think of the ‘standard’ variety of a language as the language, with dialects relegated to substandard status. By subscribing to the definition of ‘dialect’ as a distinct variety, we are agreeing that the standard variety itself is a dialect. Of course, that variety is special in that, for a space of time at least, it is regarded as a model for purposes that include language teaching and the general transmission of day-to-day information. But structurally there is nothing inherently superior in the make-up of a ‘standard dialect’: non-standard dialects have vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation which are equally detailed in structure, and indeed are often imbued with pedigrees far older than those of the standard variety of the day.

A good case of pedigree is that of while, which in West Yorkshire usage today (and well into the twentieth century in usage much further south) can mean ‘until’ in such expressions as ‘wait while five o’clock’. It would be easy to dismiss this as quaint or even wrong, but its documented history goes back at least to the fourteenth century, and it was doubtless in spoken use well before then. At the level of social dialect, young men are often vilified, not least by their female friends, for calling young women birds. That this is too easy a judgment becomes apparent when one notes that burd has a long history, and is defined as a poetic word for ‘woman, lady’.

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Place and upbringing

Undoubtedly the most accessible part of a language that we can study is its vocabulary, or lexis. As we move from one part of a country to another we hear words that are entirely strange to us. Or the words might be ones we understand but do not use, i.e. words that are in our passive rather than active vocabulary. Depending on where a person comes from in England, they might use the word gully or entry, ten-foot or ginnel, snicket or twitten, or some other word, to refer to a narrow path between buildings. In parts of the Midlands and north of England people use pikelet to describe what most people, and all the supermarket retailers, call a crumpet. People might be criticized for ‘getting it wrong’ with this usage, but it is not in fact a mistake. Rather, it’s a good example of distinctively regional vocabulary, and most of us who have roots in one particular area have special words, or use well-known words in a special way, that we only discover are ‘strange’ to others when we travel away from home.

But distinctive vocabulary does not only mark us out as local to particular places. No matter where one comes from, one might eat pudding or dessert or sweet or afters, depending on a whole range of social factors, such as family, education and career, that influence the way a person talks. This brings us to another aspect of dialect that is sometimes forgotten. People with different upbringings or social backgrounds or aspirations often speak differently from one another, even though they live in the same community. So do people of different ages, with young people perhaps using words or phrases or pronunciations which older people do not, and which older people may disapprove of: minger used to describe a person judged to be unattractive is an excellent example. On occasions men may also speak differently from women, though this has less to do with their sex than with the roles that they play in society and the expectations placed on them. Differences like these are most definitely what we can call dialect, but it is social rather than regional dialect.

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Dialects and grammar

Another area of language difference, besides phonology and lexis, has to do with the way in which words can be changed to slightly alter their meaning, making them plural for example, and the way in which they are linked together in longer units to create messages. This is all the area of grammar.

To take the first of these elements of grammar—the alteration of words—do you refer to two or more swimming creatures as fish, or fishes? Do you say ‘I came to town yesterday’, or ‘I come to town yesterday?’; ‘I was or I were?’; Themselves’ or theirselves? In each example, the differences are caused by our selecting respectively from various ways of making individual words: the plural of nouns, the past tense of verbs, and reflexive pronouns. Many categories of words undergo change like this, involving word endings or other alterations (or non-alterations) of form. This feature of grammar, ‘word-grammar’, is morphology. The second aspect of grammar, when words come together in various combinations so that they have collective meaning, is syntax. When asking for something to be given to them, most English speakers say ‘give me it’. But several million speakers of British English, largely but not only in the English West Midlands, are more likely to say ‘give it me’, which does not sound at all strange to them although it does sound strange, and even confusing, to many others. (There is, of course, the possibility of saying ‘give it to me’, using an alternative grammatical construction which neatly avoids this particular problem altogether.) Choices like this are not at all random, but depend a lot on where someone lives, or at least on where they lived when they learnt the language. Grammatical differences of syntax like this, and those of morphology, are all dialectal.

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Studying dialects: early approaches

Because it is so immediately accessible and, more importantly, because it opens a window on the past, it is not surprising that vocabulary played a most important part in the early study of dialect. Undoubtedly the most famous work on dialect lexis is Joseph Wright‘s six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) which remains an essential text for all students of the subject. This pioneering work drew on the collections of the English Dialect Society, set up to gather its data and disbanded in 1896 when it saw its task to having been completed. But the torch was carried forward by innumerable independent enthusiasts and, most significantly amongst scholars, by Frederick Cassidy and the Dictionary of American English (DARE) team in the United States, and in England by Harold Orton and his Survey of English Dialects (SED).

In view of the scale of these efforts, it would be easy to see the lexicon as the prime focus for dialectologists. However, the other areas of study—into phonology and grammar—have not been neglected, and in recent years interest in lexis has rather faded. Decades before Joseph Wright, the English gentleman-scholar Alexander Ellis began to investigate regional pronunciation, no mean feat prior to the invention of the International Phonetic Alphabet and sound recording. Beginning his attempts at description in 1848, Ellis announced his intention to survey accents in 1871, shortly before his famous contemporary Georg Wenker began a German dialect-accent survey designed to test the ‘neogrammarian hypothesis’ that sound changes occur systematically across communities. Ellis’s monumental findings were published in his On Early English Pronunciation Part V, the title of which suggests the historical motivation of dialect studies at this time. Focus on pronunciation also occupied Joseph Wright, as did concentration on grammatical morphology (or ‘accidence’), both of which are discussed in the English Dialect Grammar appended to the Dictionary in its final volume dated 1905. And the widening of the scope of dialectology to encompass all areas of variation continued through the twentieth century: in the USA under the watchful eye of the American Dialect Society and in the UK with the work of the SED, and more recently the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects and the Linguistic Survey of Scotland.

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Social dialectology

The dominance of large-scale geographical dialect surveys was broken in the 1960s with the advent of ‘social dialectology’. Although the focus remained on language change, linguists interested in variation, led in large measure by the American William Labov, began to look at differences of the moment (that is, synchronic variations) within communities, as displayed by speakers with different social profiles. Now the aim was to go beyond the facts of difference over time to reach some understanding of the causes of change. In addition to social sampling, the main tool of such linguists is the ‘variable’. This is a linguistic feature that is expressed in two or more ways (‘variants’) and which, collected in bulk, allows their relative prominence to be statistically analysed. In this kind of study phonology comes to the fore as pronunciation features constantly recur in any collection of data. Just as importantly, distinctions in the pronunciation of any variable (the BATH-vowel, for example) are quite minutely observable. By contrast, lexis—more open-ended in scope and harder to collect naturally than either phonology or grammar—was sidelined in the wake of social surveys.

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Dialect studies today

Until recently it seemed as though the two schools of dialectology, ‘regional’ and the ‘social’, were destined to remain apart, with the latter dominant. Each showed only grudging admiration of the other, even though some leading practitioners of the social route are skilled historians of English and admirers of traditionally-gained insights. Now, however, it is becoming apparent that all areas of variation might usefully be studied. This is made possible by our ability to store and process data electronically, permitting lexical items to be quantified and evaluated alongside those of phonology and grammar. Joseph Wright’s great Dialect Dictionary has been digitized at the University of Innsbruck. And the BBC’s Voices project of 2004-7 has, as part of its contribution to dialectology, provided a very large lexical dataset, tagged for location, age, and gender of speaker. There is thus every reason to suppose that dialect studies can continue to progress with both strands—the historically-oriented study of essentially regional variation, and the socially-focused detailing of differences in speech within particular communities—with each contributing to a better understanding of speech differences, and what these tell us about how a language changes over time.