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 Ling 131: Language & Style

 Topic 6 (session A) - Style and Style variation > Language Variation: Dialect

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Language Variation: Dialect

Dialects are semi-permanent language varieties of language which vary mainly according to geographical region and social class (cf. Yorkshire dialect, Lancashire dialect, working class dialect, middle class dialect). But dialects can also be related to other factors (it is arguable, for example, that male and female language varieties and language differences related to age are dialectal). Many people equate dialects with accents, but accents only account for dialect variation in relation to pronunciation (phonetics), and dialects also vary in terms of other linguistic levels, particularly lexis and grammar.

Many non-linguists assume that Standard English (the English typically spoken, for example, by BBC newscasters and university lecturers) is not a dialect, but is 'proper English'. But linguists would argue that Standard English, the language of the educated, is also really a dialect related to class and educational background which just happens to have a higher status and more widespread use than the other dialects. There are, in any case, many different varieties of standard English (for example English Standard English is different from American and Australian Standard English, and within the UK linguists often distinguish between Northern and Southern varieties of Standard English (mainly, but not exclusively, in terms of accent).

An indication that dialects are semi-permanent is that you can change your dialect, but only if you work at it hard over quite a long time. Think for example, of Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's More about George Benard Shaw, 0000-0000 Pygmalion. She came from an East London working class background, and Professor Higgins (whose characterisation, incidentally, was based on the famous early C20 phonetician Daniel Jones) had to work very hard to win his bet with Colonel Pickering that he could teach her to 'talk like a lady'. He manages eventually, of course, but in Act 3, when he thinks he's managed it, he tries her out in a social situation, which works fine until the very end:


[nodding to the others] Goodbye, all.


[Opening the door for her] Are you walking across the Park, Miss Doolittle? If so -


[with perfectly elegant diction] Walk ! Not bloody likely. [Sensation] I am going in a taxi. [She goes out]

Pickering gasps and sits down. Freddy goes out on the balcony to catch another glimpse of Eliza.


[suffering from shock] Well, I really cant get used to the new ways.

Professor Higgins has managed to change her accent, but doesn't yet quite have control over her lexical choice!

Mick Short's linguistic history can also be seen as an example. Mick comes from a working class family background. His family lived in the country in East Sussex, and so he grew up speaking a Sussex country dialect. Then, when he went to grammar school he gradually lost his dialect ('had it beaten out of him', he sometimes claims). He now speaks a form of standard English, but his wife and children always laugh when he loses his temper or goes to visit relatives in Sussex, because he soon reverts to an accent similar to the one he had when he was a child. Want to hear what he sounded like then and now?

[To do an audio recording of two different versions of the same thing]

chuckle stop!


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