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The definition that I have had in my head for most of my life is:

dialect: a variation of the original language (usually regional), sometimes even using different vocabulary and grammar

accent: a discernible influence of another language (usually because the speaker is not talking in his native tongue)

Yet, I keep hearing about Southern, Scottish or New York accents...shouldn't these be more accurately called "dialects"?

I could see that the answer might not be as clear cut in the US as in the UK because there are probably far more "native" American speakers whose ancestors' native language was not English...

Disclaimer: I'm German myself and I'm more or less assuming that "accent" and "dialect" directly correspond to their German "lookalikes": "Akzent" and "Dialekt". Maybe the semantics of those two words are simply different in English? If so, feel free to close this question.

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  • 1
    A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.
    – vanden
    Aug 14, 2010 at 15:32
  • Merriam-Webster gives a definition for “accent”: “2b : a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region”
    – nohat
    Apr 14, 2011 at 4:33

7 Answers 7

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A dialect, as rightly pointed out by Splash, is a regional variation of a language. Accent difference is only one aspect of dialect. Dialects differ from each other not merely in pronunciation or accent, but also in vocabulary, spelling and even grammar. For eg. British and American English are two different dialects of English that differ not only in pronunciation (eg. 'schedule'), but also spelling (eg.fulfil vs fulfill) and grammar (eg. 'different from' vs. 'different than').

11

I would say they are related (and often go hand-in-hand) but are separate things.

I would describe a dialect as a regional variation on a language which is differentiated from others by the use of different words (or words in different contexts). For example (bad example but the only thing I could think of), some people from more northern regions of the UK might consume a barm. However, me with my southern origins would most likely be eating a 'bap' or a 'roll' instead.

I would describe an accent as differences in the actual sounds produced when pronouncing words ("tow-may-tow" vs "tow-mar-tow"). It would be perfectly possible for me to speak a more northern dialect (referring to barms and other typically northern terms) but I would still maintain my normal southern accent. The reverse would be true of someone from the north.

I hope that makes sense...?

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  • 1
    Yes, being a Glaswegian, it seems correct to me that accent is pronunciation and dialect is vocabulary.
    – Fara
    Aug 13, 2010 at 22:51
5

I've often read the definition that different dialects vary in what they say (truck vs. lory, football vs. soccer, etc.) where, on the other hand, different accents vary in the way a specific word is pronounced (rothic vs. non-rhotic).

3

One could speak what one might term "Standard American English" with a Southern accent, or speak the Southern dialect with a Scottish accent, the accent influencing the pronunciation of the dialect.

I tend to think of dialect as a difference in language that might produce a difficulty in understanding between two speakers due to the differing vocabulary or grammar.

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  • 1
    This is the definition I would use too.
    – apaderno
    Aug 13, 2010 at 14:00
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In Scotland, they have adopted Gaelic words such as "Craig" (rock), "Ben" (hill), "Glen" (Valley) and "Firth" (fjord or inlet). There are others, of course.

Does that make Scottish and English dialect? Well, I think in the case of Scotland, maybe. It's probably one of the more difficult to understand "accents" and it's perhaps different enough to be considered a dialect.

The thing about dialects is that they're usually different enough in vocabulary to be very difficult to understand for speakers of the Standard language (most spoken variety). I don't think you could call most North American accents dialects unto themselves(Texas, California, Boston, New York), as they don't differ enough in vocabulary from each other.

It also depends on what you're basing the dialect... more English speakers around the planet use "North American" English, so if we use that as a base, the Queen's English may be considered a dialect. It's all how you look at it, I guess.

OTOH, Japanese has quite a few "Ben" which are considered dialects. They used different grammar-endings and are at times hard to understand. The word "ben" is translated as "dialect" although apart from a few cases, like in Aomori, most people can understand what's being said.

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I think that the abstract concepts of accent and dialect are no different than the correponding concepts of Akzent and Dialekt in German.

The difference is their particular application to the English and German language contexts. In most of the English-speaking world, universal schooling has increasingly marginalized what could be called true non-standard dialects of English - forms of English such as Scots, older Yorkshire English or Gullah which, even allowing for differences in accent, would show marked divergence from standard Englsh once transcribed.

There are exceptions, but increasingly, the most salient differences between most native English-speakers in different parts of the world are simply the different accents of people speaking things which are identical to or closely approximate standard English, with relatively limited differences in vocabulary (as between British and American English) and very limited variation in grammar. As a result, the term "dialects" is now often applied to these different varieties, which may in fact be spoken in areas where the accents have grown out of those those of formerly heavily dialectal speech.

Of course, in the German-speaking parts of Europe, true dialects are very much an everyday fact of life and go far beyond mere variation in accent in Standard German - though particular dialects may be associated with particular accents in Standard German.

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Max Weinreich famously said (quoting someone else), "A language is a dialect with an army." Maybe a dialect is an accent with a Visitors Bureau.

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