dialect, variety of a language used by a group of speakers within a particular speech community. Every individual speaks a variety of his language, termed an idiolect. Dialects are groups of idiolects with a common core of similarities in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Dialects exist as a continuum in which adjacent dialects are mutually intelligible, yet with increasing isolation between noncontiguous dialects, differences may accumulate to the point of mutual unintelligibility. For example, in the Dutch-German speech community there is a continuous area of intelligibility from Flanders to Schleswig and to Styria, but with Flemish and Styrian dialects mutually unintelligible. Adjacent dialects usually differ more in pronunciation than in grammar or vocabulary. When a dialect is spoken by a large group of speakers of a language, it often acquires prestige, which leads to the development of a standard language. Some countries have an official standard, such as that promoted by the French Academy. The first linguistic dialectology focused on historical dialects, written texts serving as the basis for establishing the dialects of a language through the methods of comparative linguistics.

The methods of modern linguistic geography began in late 19th-century Europe with the use of informants rather than texts, and resulted in the first linguistic atlases of France, by Jules Gilliéron, and of Germany, by Georg Wenker. Those techniques were refined in the United States in the preparation of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States (Hans Kurath et al., ed.) and its derivative works. In recent years linguists have become increasingly interested in social dialects, such as the languages of social groups within an urban population and the languages of specific occupations (farmers, dockworkers, coal miners, government workers) or lifestyles (beatniks, drug users, teenagers, feminists). In the United States much work has been done in the area of black English, the common dialect of many African Americans. See also slang.

See H. Orton and E. Dieth, ed., Survey of English Dialects (1962-70); H. B. Allen and G. N. Underwood, Readings in American Dialectology (1971); R. H. Bentley and S. D. Crawford, ed., Black Language Reader (1973); H. Kurath, Studies in Area Linguistics (1973); P. Trudgill, Dialects in Contact (1986); C. M. Carver, American Regional Dialects (1987).

A dialect (from the Greek word διάλεκτος, dialektos) is a variety of a language that is characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class. In popular usage, the word "dialect" is sometimes used to refer to a lesser-known language (most commonly a regional language), especially one that is unwritten or not standardized. This use of the word dialect is often taken as pejorative by the speakers of the languages referred to since it is often accompanied by the belief that the minority language is lacking in vocabulary, grammar, or importance.

The number of speakers, and the geographical area covered by them, can be of arbitrary size, and a dialect might contain several sub-dialects. A dialect is a complete system of verbal communication (oral or signed, but not necessarily written) with its own vocabulary and grammar.

A dialect that is associated with a particular social class can be termed a sociolect. Other speech varieties include: standard languages, which are standardized for public performance (for example, a written standard); jargons, which are characterized by differences in lexicon (vocabulary); slang; patois; pidgins or argots. The particular speech patterns used by an individual are termed an idiolect.

A dialect is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (phonology, including prosody). Where a distinction can be made only in terms of pronunciation, the term accent is appropriate, not dialect (although in common usage, "dialect" and "accent" are usually synonymous).

Standard and non-standard dialects

A standard dialect (also known as a standardized dialect or "standard language") is a dialect that is supported by institutions. Such institutional support may include government recognition or designation; presentation as being the "correct" form of a language in schools; published grammars, dictionaries, and textbooks that set forth a "correct" spoken and written form; and an extensive formal literature that employs that dialect (prose, poetry, non-fiction, etc.). There may be multiple standard dialects associated with a single language. For example, Standard American English, Standard British English, Standard Indian English, Standard Australian English, and Standard Philippine English may all be said to be standard dialects of the English language.

A nonstandard dialect, like a standard dialect, has a complete vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but is not the beneficiary of institutional support. An example of a nonstandard English dialect is Southern English. The Dialect Test was designed by Joseph Wright to compare different English dialects with each other.

"Dialect" or "language"

There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, although a number of paradigms exist, which render sometimes contradictory results. The exact distinction is therefore a subjective one, dependent on the user's frame of reference.

Language varieties are often called dialects rather than languages:

  • solely because they are not (or not recognized as) literary languages,
  • because the speakers of the given language do not have a state of their own,
  • because they are not used in press or literature, or very little.
  • or because their language lacks prestige.

The term idiom is used by some linguists instead of language or dialect when there is no need to commit oneself to any decision on the status with respect to this distinction.

Anthropological linguists define dialect as the specific form of a language used by a speech community. In other words, the difference between language and dialect is the difference between the abstract or general and the concrete and particular. From this perspective, no one speaks a "language," everyone speaks a dialect of a language. Those who identify a particular dialect as the "standard" or "proper" version of a language are in fact using these terms to express a social distinction.

Often, the standard language is close to the sociolect of the elite class.

In groups where prestige standards play less important roles, "dialect" may simply be used to refer to subtle regional variations in linguistic practices that are considered mutually intelligible, playing an important role to place strangers, carrying the message of where a stranger originates (which quarter or district in a town, which village in a rural setting, or which province of a country); thus there are many apparent "dialects" of Slavey, for example, by which the linguist simply means that there are many subtle variations among speakers who largely understand each other and recognize that they are each speaking "the same way" in a general sense.

Modern-day linguists know that the status of language is not solely determined by linguistic criteria, but it is also the result of a historical and political development. Romansh came to be a written language, and therefore it is recognized as a language, even though it is very close to the Lombardic alpine dialects. An opposite example is the case of Chinese, whose variations such as Mandarin and Cantonese are often considered dialects and not languages, despite their mutual unintelligibility, because they share a common literary standard and common body of literature.

"A language is a dialect with an army and navy"

The Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich published the expression, "A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot" ("אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָט", "A language is a dialect with an army and navy"; in Yivo-bleter 25.1, 1945, p. 13). The origin of this statement is, however, uncertain — Weinreich explicitly says that he did not coin it. It illustrates the fact that the political status of the speakers of a variety influences its perceived status as language or dialect. Most governments establish a standard variety of their language (or languages) to be taught in schools and used in official documents, courts and so on; often it is also promoted for use in the media.

Political factors

Depending on political realities and ideologies, the classification of speech varieties as dialects or languages and their relationship to other varieties of speech can be controversial and the verdicts inconsistent. English and Serbo-Croatian illustrate the point. English and Serbo-Croatian each have two major variants (British and American English, and Serbian and Croatian, respectively), along with numerous lesser varieties. For political reasons, analyzing these varieties as "languages" or "dialects" yields inconsistent results: British and American English, spoken by close political and military allies, are almost universally regarded as dialects of a single language, whereas the standard languages of Serbia and Croatia, which differ from each other to a similar extent as the dialects of English, are being treated by many linguists from the region as distinct languages, largely because the two countries oscillate from being brotherly to being bitter enemies. (The Serbo-Croatian language article deals with this topic much more fully.)

Similar examples abound. Macedonian, although mutually intelligible with Bulgarian, certain dialects of Serbian and to a lesser extent the rest of the South Slavic dialect continuum is considered by Bulgarian linguists to be a Bulgarian dialect, in contrast with the contemporary international view, and the view in the Republic of Macedonia which regards it as a language in its own right. Nevertheless, before the establishment of a literary standard of Macedonian in 1944, in most sources in and out of Bulgaria before the Second World War, the southern Slavonic dialect continuum covering the area of today's Republic of Macedonia were referred to as Bulgarian dialects.

In the 19th Century, the Tsarist Government of Russia claimed that Ukrainian was merely a dialect of Russian and not a language in its own right. Since Soviet times, when Ukrainians were recognised as a separate nationality deserving of its own Soviet Republic, such linguistic-political claims had disappeared from circulation.

In Lebanon, the right-wing Guardians of the Cedars, a fiercely nationalistic (mainly Christian) political party which opposes the country's ties to the Arab world, is agitating for "Lebanese" to be recognized as a distinct language from Arabic and not merely a dialect, and has even advocated replacing the Arabic alphabet with a revival of the ancient Phoenician alphabet - which missed a number of characters to write typical Arabic phonemes present in Lebanese, and lost by Phoenician (and Hebrew) in the second millenium BC.

This is, however, very much a minority position - in Lebanon itself as in the Arab World as a whole. The Varieties of Arabic are considerably different from each other - especially those spoken in North Africa (Maghreb) from those of the Middle East (the Mashriq in the broad definition including Egypt and Sudan) - and had there been the political will in the different Arab countries to cut themselves off from each other, the case could have been made to declare these varieties as separate languages. However, in adherence to the ideas of Arab Nationalism, the Arab countries prefer to give preference to the Literary Arabic which is common to all of them, conduct much of their political, cultural and religious life in it, and refrain from declaring each country's specific variety to be a separate language.

Interestingly, such moves may even appear at a local, rather than a federal level. The US state of Illinois declared "American" to be the state's official language in 1923, although linguists and politicians throughout much of the rest of the country considered American simply to be a dialect.

There have been cases of a variety of speech being deliberately altered to serve political purposes. One example is Moldovan. In 1996, the Moldovan parliament, citing fears of "Romanian expansionism," rejected a proposal from President Mircea Snegur to change the name of the language to Romanian, and in 2003 a Moldovan-Romanian dictionary was published, purporting to show that the two countries speak different languages. Linguists of the Romanian Academy reacted by declaring that all the Moldovan words were also Romanian words; while in Moldova, the head of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, Ion Bărbuţă, described the dictionary as a politically motivated "absurdity".

In contrast, spoken languages of Han Chinese are usually referred to as dialects of one Chinese language, to promote national unity. The article "Identification of the varieties of Chinese" has more details.

In the Philippines, the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (Commission on the Filipino Language) declared all the indigenous languages in the Philippines dialects despite the great differences between them, as well as the existence of significant bodies of literature in each of the major "dialects" and daily newspapers in some.

The significance of the political factors in any attempt at answering the question "what is a language?" is great enough to cast doubt on whether any strictly linguistic definition, without a socio-cultural approach, is possible. This is illustrated by the frequency with which the army-navy aphorism discussed in the preceding section is cited.

Historical linguistics

Many historical linguists view any speech form as a dialect of the older medium of communication from which it developed. This point of view sees the modern Romance languages as dialects of Latin, modern Greek as a dialect of Ancient Greek, Tok Pisin as a dialect of English, and Scandinavian languages as dialects of Old Norse. This paradigm is not entirely problem-free. It sees genetic relationships as paramount; the "dialects" of a "language" (which itself may be a "dialect" of a yet older tongue) may or may not be mutually intelligible. Moreover, a parent language may spawn several "dialects" which themselves subdivide any number of times, with some "branches" of the tree changing more rapidly than others. This can give rise to the situation where two dialects (defined according to this paradigm) with a somewhat distant genetic relationship are mutually more readily comprehensible than more closely related dialects. This pattern is clearly present among the modern Romance tongues, with Italian and Spanish having a high degree of mutual comprehensibility, which neither language shares with French, despite both languages being genetically closer to French than to each other: French has undergone more rapid change than have Spanish and Italian.


One language, Interlingua, was developed so that the languages of Western civilization would act as its dialects. Drawing from such concepts as the international scientific vocabulary and Standard Average European, linguists developed a theory that the modern Western languages were actually dialects of a hidden or latent language. Researchers at the International Auxiliary Language Association extracted words and affixes that they considered to be part of Interlingua's vocabulary. In theory, speakers of the Western languages would understand written or spoken Interlingua immediately, without prior study, since their own languages were its dialects. This has often turned out to be true, especially, but not solely, for speakers of the Romance languages and educated speakers of English. Interlingua has also been found to assist in the learning of other languages. In one study, Swedish high school students learning Interlingua were able to translate passages from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian that students of those languages found too difficult to understand. It should be noted, however, that the vocabulary of Interlingua extends beyond the Western language families.

Concepts in dialectology

Concepts in dialectology include:

Mutual intelligibility

Some have attempted to distinguish dialects from languages by saying that dialects of the same language are understandable to each other.


Another problem occurs in the case of diglossia, used to describe a situation where, in a given society, there are two closely-related languages, one of high-prestige, which is generally used by the government and in formal texts, and one of low-prestige, which is usually the spoken vernacular tongue. An example of this is Sanskrit, which was considered the proper way to speak in northern India, but only accessible by the upper class, and Prakrit which was the common (and informal or vernacular) speech at the time.

Another example of diglossia are the ancient Egyptian languages Demotic and Hieratic.

Dialect continuum

A dialect continuum is a network of dialects in which geographically adjacent dialects are mutually comprehensible, but with comprehensibility steadily decreasing as distance between the dialects increases. An example is the Dutch-German dialect continuum, a vast network of dialects with two recognized literary standards. Although mutual intelligibility between standard Dutch and standard German is very limited, a chain of dialects connects them. Due to several centuries of influence by standard languages (especially in Northern Germany, where even today the original dialects struggle to survive) there are now many breaks in intelligibility between geographically adjacent dialects along the continuum, but in the past these breaks were virtually nonexistent.

The Romance languages—Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan/Provençal, French, Sardinian, Romanian, Romansh, Friulian, other Italian dialects, and others—form another well-known continuum, with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.


A diasystem refers to a single genetic language which has two or more standard forms. An example is Hindi-Urdu or Hindustani, which encompasses two main standard varieties, Urdu and Hindi. Another example is Norwegian, with Bokmål having developed closely with Danish and Swedish, and Nynorsk as a partly reconstructed language based on old dialects. Both are recognized as official languages in Norway.

In a formal sense, the diasystem of a set of dialects can be understood as the underlying language for which each dialect has a typical realisation (language of metaphonemes). An example can be taken with Occitan (a strongly dialectilized language of Southern France) where 'cavaL' (< late latin *caballu-, 'horse') is the diasystem form for the following realizations.

  • Languedocien dialect: [kaɞal], spelled 'caval' (v is pronounced as in Spanish and -L > -l, sometimes velar, used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chival' or 'chivau');
  • Limousine dialect: [tʃavau], spelled 'chavau' (ca > cha and -L > -u regularly);
  • Provencal dialect: [kavau], spelled 'cavau' (-L > -u regularly, and used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chival' or 'chivau');
  • Gascon dialect: [kawat], spelled 'cavath' (intervocalic v is w and final -L is -t, sometimes palatalized, and used concurrently with French borrowed forms 'chibau')
  • Auvergnat and Vivaro-alpine dialects: [tʃaval], spelled 'chaval' (same treatment of 'ca' cluster as in Limousine dialect)

This conceptual approach may be used in practical situations. For instance when such a diasystem is identified, it can be used so as to define the way these dialects are written in a common form that eases greatly written communication with the highest tolerance to the various spoken form. After such a unification, the dialects appear as mere 'accents' of the diasystem. 'Yes, people from region A pronounce [X] what we spell z, while in region B, they pronounce it [Y]'.


A pluricentric language has more than one standard version: English and Portuguese are two examples of these languages.

The Ausbausprache — Abstandsprache — Dachsprache framework

One analytical paradigm developed by linguists is known as the Ausbausprache - Abstandsprache - Dachsprache framework. It has proved popular among linguists in Continental Europe, but is not so well known in English-speaking countries, especially among people who are not trained linguists. Although only one of many possible paradigms, it has the advantage of being constructed by trained linguists for the particular purpose of analyzing and categorizing varieties of speech, and has the additional merit of replacing such loaded words as "language" and "dialect" with the German terms of Ausbausprache, Abstandsprache, and Dachsprache, words that are not (yet) loaded with political, cultural, or emotional connotations.

Examples from Many Languages

A useful set of examples of the difficulty of distinguishing languages from dialects may be found in the article cited above.

Dialects of English (in Great Britain & Ireland)


  • /ʊ/ instad of /u/ in butler, cut, some
  • /æ/ instead of /a/ dance, grass, path
  • /u:/ instead of /au/ in cow, down


  • /s/ instead of /z/ in six
  • rhotic r--r prnounced after vowels, even before consonants and pauses
  • /ɔ/ instead of /ə/ in cinema, not used elsewhere in the British Iles in words such as cinema


  • /a/ instead of /æ/ in tap, bath


  • rhotic r--r pronounced after vowels, even before consonants and pauses
  • monophtongal articulation [e:, o:] instead of diphthongs (vowels become short instead of long) in take, home


  • rhotic r--r prnounced after vowels, even before consonants and pauses
  • nondistinctive length lad/lard, fud/ food, cot/caught (first word in pairs short, second word in pairs long)

Selected list of articles on dialects

See also


^ Oxford English dictionary

^ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

^ Note, for example, the use of "dialect" in the following sentence from a biographical portrait of Theodore Roosevelt (The river of doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's darkest journey (2005) by Candice Millard, Doubleday), "... and Rondon, although he knew ten different Indian dialects..." (p. 80). A perusal of current newspaper columns shows the same usage.


^ a b Morris, Alice Vanderbilt, General report. New York: International Auxiliary Language Association, 1945.

^ a b Gode, Alexander, Interlingua-English Dictionary. New York: Storm Publishers, 1951.

^ Gopsill, F. P., International languages: A matter for Interlingua. Sheffield: British Interlingua Society, 1990.

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