If you’ve ever visited another country, you’ve probably heard some form of English accent or dialect that sounded foreign to your ears. You may have even had difficulty understanding what someone was saying because of their accent or dialect! There are roughly 20 recognized accents in the United States alone, with dozens more localized varieties, to say nothing of other countries and cultures. In any case, this raises an important question that even befuddles (confuses) many native English speakers. Dialect vs. accent: what’s the difference?
In this article, we will define both terms and help you understand the primary differences between accent and dialect. We will also provide additional resources to expose you to some of the most interesting English accents and dialects in the world!
To understand the similarities and differences between dialect and accent, we must first define both terms. “Dialect” is defined as follows:
A form of language or speech pattern that is specific to a particular region or group of people.
Based on this definition, you may think that “dialect” and “language” share many similarities. In fact, you’re right! That said, it’s easiest to think of dialect as a subset (a smaller part) of a language. For example, you might say that the official language of the United States is English, but people living in certain areas — Chicago, for example — have unique dialects.
As the definition above states, dialect is not limited to geographical location. People can often have a specific dialect based on certain group identification, like ethnicity or social status. For example, one unique dialect in the United States is Gullah, which is unique to small groups of African Americans on the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. This dialect actually blends English with more than a dozen West African languages. If you’re interested, you can listen to a story told in the Gullah dialect!
Differentiating dialect vs. accent requires an understanding of both terms. So, let’s take a closer look at the definition of accent. “Accent” can be defined as follows:
A unique mode of pronunciation within a given language that is specific to a country, region, or social class.
This definition shows that, just like dialect, accent can be specific to different regions or groups of people. However, an accent is not as similar to “language,” due to the fact that accent is inherently linked to pronunciation. You can classify accents based on the way that people pronounce different words.
For example, one famous (albeit rare) accent in English is the Mid-Atlantic accent, also known as the Transatlantic accent. As the name implies, the Mid-Atlantic accent combines elements of American and British English — like a language stuck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! One of the most famous people to have this accent was Cary Grant, the English-born American actor who starred in some of the most popular films of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
Dialect vs. Accent: What’s the Difference?
So, now you know the definitions of dialect and accent, which also means that you probably feel a little confused! The truth is that there is some cross-over between the two terms. They both refer to specific ways of speaking a language that can vary by region or social group. To make things even more confusing, most native English speakers use the terms interchangeably.
However, there are some very important distinctions. So, let’s take a look at how accent, dialect, and language relate to one another:
As you can see, language is the biggest term. It encompasses both the concept of dialect and accent. Languages include English, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, and hundreds of other examples.
Then, you have dialect. A dialect is a form of speaking a certain language. This can refer to a specific form of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Often times, language refers to the “standard” or official form of a language, while dialect refers to one of many “non-standard” forms of a language.
Finally, you have accent. Accent refers to the way in which words of a given language are pronounced. Thus, accent is merely a part of dialect. To return to the image above, accent is the smallest category. It falls within the limits of dialect, while both terms fall within the limits of language.
Examples of Accent and Dialect
Needless to say, accent and dialect are somewhat abstract concepts. However, they do have precise definitions, allowing anyone to identify and sort them. For example, two contrasting dialects in British English are the Scottish dialect and the Welsh dialect. Scotland’s form of English has been influenced by the Gaelic language that preceded English in the country. Similarly, Wales has its own language (Welsh) that influences the English spoken by the people of Wales.
While these dialects are easy to identify, things get a little more complicated in American English. Generally speaking, the different forms of English in the United States are mostly categorized as accents, because grammar and vocabulary do not differ significantly in different regions. However, the pronunciation of words changes drastically based on the region of origin, ethnicity, and social status of the American speaker.
To make things even more complicated, many American accents can be subdivided into even smaller categories. For example, the quintessential “southern” accent has many forms. The southern accent of Louisiana differs greatly from the southern accent of Georgia. You can break it down even further by evaluating the accents of specific cities or social groups in these regions. In short, there are thousands of accents in the English language!
Dialect vs. Accent: Synonyms and Related Terms
Now that we know that dialect refers to a specific form of a language while accent refers to a specific way of pronouncing words, it’s time to look at some synonyms and related terms. In addition to dialect vs. accent, there are a few other comparisons that cause confusion:
- Language vs. lexicon
- Lexicon vs. dialect
- dialect vs. vernacular
- Vernacular vs. accent
- Accent vs. jargon
- Jargon vs. colloquialism
- Colloquialism vs. slang
Even More Definitions
Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed! All of these terms have similar or related meanings. Let’s take a closer look at each one to get a better understanding of how they function in relation to one another:
- Language – A system of communication constructed by words, whether written, spoken, or gestured.
- Lexicon – The vocabulary of a particular person, language, or area of study.
- Dialect – A form of language or speech pattern that is specific to a particular region or group of people.
- Vernacular – The language or dialect spoken by regular people or “commoners” of a given country or region.
- Accent – A unique mode of pronunciation within a given language that is specific to a country, region, or social class.
- Jargon – Specific words used within a given profession or group that are often difficult for outsiders to understand.
- Colloquialism – Informal words or phrases used in everyday conversation.
- Slang – A form of language that makes use of informal, often spoken, words.
As you can see, language is still the only concept that encompasses all of the other terms. Lexicon and jargon refer to the sets of vocabulary within a language or group, respectively. Dialect refers to a specific form of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar within a language. Vernacular generally refers to a kind of dialect, more specifically one used by the “common people” of a region. Accent is a specific form of pronunciation. Jargon refers to specific words used within a profession or group. Finally, colloquialism and slang are both related to informal words and language.
Dialect vs. Accent: Additional Resources
Finally, it’s best to distinguish dialects and accents by listening to them. It’s also a lot more fun! So, here are some useful resources to expose you to different dialects and accents in English:
- British Accents and Dialects
- A Brief History of English Dialects
- A Map of American Dialects
- Listen to Accents from Around the World
While there are many words that get mixed up in the English language, few cause more confusion than dialect vs. accent. As illustrated above, the two terms are closely related but nonetheless different. Additionally, all of the synonyms and related terms have their own distinct meanings.
In closing, we hope you enjoyed this exploration of dialect vs. accent! As always, for all things English conversation, grammar, or job-related, visit Magoosh Speaking today!