Thursday, 9 October 2014

Do We All Speak in a Dialect?

Some bloke who may or may not be speaking in a dialect
(photo by David Goehring)


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[French dialecte or Latin dialectus, from Greek dialektos discourse, way of speaking,
from dialegesthai converse with, discourse, formed as DIA- + legein speak.]

1 obsolete. Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of logical disputation. M16-M18

2 A manner of speaking, language, speech;
especially one peculiar to or characteristic of a particular person or class;
idiom. L16

3 A form of speech peculiar to a district;
a variety of a language with non-standard vocabulary, pronunciation, or idioms;
any language in relation to the language family to which it belongs. L16

4 COMPUTING. A particular version of a programming language. M20

Do we all speak in a dialect? I would argue that we don't, and this was the subject of a debate at a party I went to a year or so ago. It was just before my post on the word bidialectal, and I was discussing the fascinating subject of bidialectalism with another partygoer. Say what you want about us dictionary-readers, but we know how to party!

Anyway, I was discussing this with two charming chaps from Belfast, a place which, if you're not familiar with it, has a very distinctive accent and (dare I say) dialect. The debate centred on whether or not I speak with a dialect, having been brought up in Oxfordshire, England, and speaking in a very standard, slightly BBC middle-class fashion. I say that no, I do not speak in or with a dialect; my esteemed Belfast friend posited that I only think I don't, and that everyone speaks in a dialect.

The crux of my argument is this: I have never in my life met another English speaker in the world that can't understand the form of English I use. While two people from, say, Belfast, Glasgow, Cork, London, Newcastle, New York or any number of places could have a conversation that would be very difficult, if not impossible, for an outsider to follow, I could never do that with another person from Oxford; we simply do not possess a unique enough vocabulary or manner of speaking to make ourselves incomprehensible to others. What's more, no one that ever meets me can ever say: "Oh you're from Oxford!" They can tell I'm from England, of course, and vaguely from somewhere in the south, but it doesn't get more specific than that. So, therefore, can I be said to speak in a dialect? By extension, does every language have non-dialectal speakers?

Any finally, may I just point out that there's no snobbery here; there's no "I speak in a superior form of English and you speak in an inferior dialect!" Rather, it's more an admission of the linguistic paucity of speaking in bog-standard English. After all, who doesn't want people to not understand what they're saying from time to time? Do please discuss.

And if you don't know what an Oxonian sounds like, here's Tim Henman, from Oxfordshire.

Do you speak a dialect?

Do you (like me) think that you don't speak in a dialect?

Do please leave any comments in the box below.


  1. I speak dialect, and I'm very damn proud of it. Dialects are so often frowned upon, "peasant language", stuff like that. But a dialect can tell so much about the area where it's spoken! Like, for example, there's lots of English, French and German influences in mine, and we all know how that came to be... Or not.

    (It's because Flanders, and especially the west where I live, is the favourite pit stop for just about any European army in history. I don't know how much other people know about Belgium.)

    1. You're right, Bibi - dialects are very often frowned upon. But they're so rich and interesting and fascinatingly diverse.

      So, Bibi, my question is this: is there anyone in Belgium that doesn't speak in a dialect?

    2. (just a side note - I was in a history lecture in university yesterday, and it was all about how the Germans invaded France by crashing straight through Belgium, something which the French hadn't anticipated ... however, what the Germans hadn't anticipated was the level of Belgian resistance, who were most uncooperative in their resilience)

    3. Most uncooperative... I like that!

      I can only speak for Flanders as I'm not familiar with the situation in Wallonia... Hmm, every region has their dialect. Not just accents but also a different vocabulary, and grammar. The younger generations (listen to me, old fart) are starting to lose their connection to the regional languages though, and turn to standard Dutch (no idea why, the misconception that you can't both be intelligent and hold up a conversation in dialect?).

      Standard Dutch is like Frankenstein's monster. It's a theoretical language, a written language, scholarly in a way. Many may try to adapt it into everyday conversation, but wait until they get angry or frustrated. That's when the true language shows. :P

    4. So actually... You do speak a dialect! It's just that the standard English language has a lot of its roots in the dialect that just so happened to be yours.

  2. Oxford is to dialects like homeopathy is to dilution. The longer you stay there, any dialect you started with is succussed until it becomes just a faint memory of the original. I have seen it happen from personal experience. Originally from Croydon, South London, and with a Dad born when, with no wind and a sharp frost, he could just faintly hear the sound of Bow Bells, we had a distinctive dialect. Also I could readily tell if someone was a local lad, or from a few miles up the road in Bermondsey, or over the river from Bethnal Green, or even Chingford in Essex; all by listening to the dialect. I can still do that, but my own dialect has been Oxfordized as a result of the time I spent there at the University. Traces of the dialect must still linger on, though, as several Americans I have met over the years have enquired whether I came from Australia.

    1. So Oxford is where dialects go to die, eh. Very interesting. I've seen that happen, now that you mention it, with people who aren't from Oxford but were educated there. The thing is, I'm sure those people have retained their dialects, or at the very least the ability to understand their native dialect. But having been in Oxford for so long, they've become bidialectal, and can then switch between the two forms of English.

      The thing ... being from Oxfordshire ... I think I grew up without a dialect. I didn't even have one to dilute. All I ever had was the standard, taught-in-schools, textbook English.

    2. You can see why English is confusing and frustrating to learn even for us natives. Di already means two; although you will tell me it doesn't in this case. Being dialectrical means that when I go back to Croydon, (Croyn Dene) in Old English, I can easily slip back into their lingo. When visiting Buckingham Palace, which I recently did, then it is Oxford English all the way old chap.

      Now you mention being Bidialectic. Wow! Although, I must admit some actors do better even than that; tribidialectic?

    3. You're right - I am going to tell you it doesn't!

      DI- as a prefix does mean 'two', but DIA- means 'through', so it's literally 'through speaking', which references the first, obsolete meaning of 'dialect', as in getting to the bottom of things by speaking about them.

  3. As I was raised in the North of our Country in a country environment, there are words, accents and ways of speaking there - that I still know though is hardly noticeable - that I know and that, surprisingly, arises every time I visit. It would drive my mother crazy (I was raised by my paternal Aunts) that I would instantly turn into that dialect as soon as I stepped into town, when visiting.

    I remember at my first job a nurse who could tell which school or area of Lisbon we were from just by our accent and mannerisms so I wonder if we really speak dialects ;)

    I wish you a nice weekend,

    1. There you go, Teresa. You may very well be bidialectal, you lucky duck.

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