A dialect encompasses various traits of a group, including vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology). Is there a common term specifically for the phonological elements of a dialect? I’d like to ask another question about those, and I’m wondering whether there is a more succinct way to refer to them.

The specific context I’m thinking of is the way people typically have a different “dialect” when they sing, but generally only pronunciation-wise. I’d like a way to refer to that kind of “dialect” without using scare quotes and then explaining at length exactly what I’m talking about.

For a related example, people often change their vocabulary to suit the occasion, and we call that kind of “dialect” a register. I’m wondering whether there’s an analogous term for phonology.

  • It wouldn't be phonemes or set of phonemes?
    – David M
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:11
  • Phonology is a system of phonemes, yes. But I'm hoping for something easier to say (and understand) than “like a dialect, but just pronunciation” and getting into “system of phonemes” isn’t that. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:17
  • How about diaphonemes? You can say they seem to shift diaphonemes when singing. (See below)
    – David M
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:26
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    What's wrong with accent as in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_accent
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 6:21
  • Nothing wrong with it! I think I just had a mental lapse when I was thinking about this. Got some good answers anyway though so I'm glad I asked! Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 6:38

3 Answers 3


I might just use the word accent. It sounds like you wish to say that people shift their accents when they sing. This is a very noticeable phenomenon, although it seems less prominent amongst "folksingers" than polished performers. So, I'm not certain if it is subconscious or consciously affected.

If you needed more scientific terminology you would just refer to the (sub)set of phonemes.

Compare that with diaphonemes which, as I understand them, are phonemes that are realized differently by dialects, but are considered the same by speakers. (A set of all the different ways that a particular speech sound is pronounced in all the dialects of a language, or a member of this set.)

With regard to the singing question, it would be a shift of phonemes or diaphonemes. But, accent is probably a more accessible term for this.

  • Interesting, I hadn't heard of diaphonemes before. That's a related concept but not really what I'm looking for. Really, I want a word akin to register that is easily recognized and expresses the idea of a consistent but different set of pronunciation rules. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:28
  • @BraddSzonye Done.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:46
  • Just noticed this in the Wikipedia article: “Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation (including prosody, or just prosody itself), the term accent is appropriate, not dialect.” So um duh I think you may be right here, and I may be guilty of asking a general reference question. I think I may have just been blinded to it by the singing angle on the question. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:53
  • @BraddSzonye If it was general reference, it wasn't res ipsa loquitur. In reality, EVERY question is general reference at some level. Or else, they are POB.
    – David M
    Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 21:17
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    Thanks! I just feel bad because I've criticized other people for doing the same thing. But I'm glad I asked, because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten Jim's excellent answer. I will probably end up using a combination of your two answers, so I am accepting yours and I plan to award Jim a bounty once the question is eligible. Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 21:24

I'm assuming that the objective in your question is to have a colloquial or conversational way to discuss the difference between speaking and singing dialects (which is what you say in your second paragraph).

Professional singers will often adopt a different dialect for singing than the one they speak with. This is discussed in the article Why Do British Singers Sound American?, for instance.

That article discusses at least one technical term that is used as a measure of dialect modification between singing an speaking. That term is rhoticity, which is a measure of how R's are pronounced under different circumstances.

But rhoticity is just one aspect, and there are probably a multiplicity of others. And all of them would fail to meet the objective of having a conversational expression of what this is all about.

In that case, you might consider the term vocal dialect. This is used in ornithology for describing the regional differences in the singing voices of birds of the same species. (ref)

Your simplest choice might be to use the terms speaking dialects and vocal dialects, which, when used together in this context, are almost self explanatory. Throw in a rhoticity and talk about the Beatles if you must, to get your point across.


Another word that comes to mind, and it's also very colloquial is articulation. When it comes to singing, this is a common word used by vocal critics. (I learned this from watching Simon Cowell, who, despite his quirks, has a very astute and technical ear.) Articulation sometimes changes when switching from speaking to singing. For a much more detailed review of the topic, you might have a look at this article: Articulatory Phonetics. If you want to get more technical when talking about it, just about every buzz word on the subject is covered in that article.

  • Thank you, this is very helpful! I wish I could accept both your answer and David’s! Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 21:20
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    @Bradd Szonye - By the way Bradd, I just ran across this and thought it might be on topic and of interest to you. Check out Christina Bianco on google and youtube. She has quite a range of vocal dialects that you can watch in her videos. Her videos might even help you illustrate your point. I see she has her own web site. Commented Mar 16, 2014 at 19:44
  • @Jim Thanks, I will check that out when I can! You may want to edit it into the answer so that it doesn't get lost if comments get purged for some reason. Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 22:16

I believe it is code-switching.

Both in popular usage and in sociolinguistic study, the name code-switching is sometimes used to refer to switching among dialects, styles or registers, as practiced by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings.

code-switching [mass noun] Linguistics The practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation

There is also a more specific type called situational code-switching

Situational code-switching refers to the tendency in a bilingual or multilingual community to use different languages or language varieties in different social situations, or to switch varieties in order to mark a change in situation.

So in summary, code-switching can be a shift in speech within the same language also.

  • Interesting! I think David's answer hits on the exact point I was looking for, but this is very cool too – thanks for posting it! When I get around to asking the question specifically about singing, this may play a significant part. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 4:59
  • Yes, accent would be a better answer regarding to phonology. I think code-switching is related to conversation mainly and it is a more general term that can cover accent shifts also. Regards to singing, it is usually used when speaking about shifts between two languages.
    – ermanen
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 5:12

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