Accents and Dialects – Why Do They Exist?

So similiar, yet so different at the same time!

While I was applying for TEFL teacher jobs, I came across a website’s requirements –

“Must be a U.S. Citizen and have a normal American accent.” 

I thought this requirement seemed strange.  This made me wonder, “WHAT IS NORMAL?”  What makes one accent or dialect better than another?  The reality is what’s normal for one person may make no sense to another!

What is the difference between an accent and a dialect?

Keep this in mind – everyone has a particular accent and dialect.  Even you.

Accent

An accent refers to the sounds that are made in a person’s language.  So in other words, this relates to how the words are pronounced when speaking.  For example, a French person will still have his or her accent shine through when speaking the English language.

Dialect

A dialect is a variation of a language that differs in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.  Most of the time, this means that dialects are a completely different version of a language and is usually unique to a particular region or group in the country.  For example, American English and British English are two different dialects of the English language; they are different, but still understandable to each other.  But, in some cases dialects can be so different that speakers can’t even understand each other such as Moroccan Arabic and Baghdadi Arabic.  Dialects also include slang (for example, some regions may say “Yo!” to get someone’s attention whereas another location may use “Hey” or “Ehy!” for the same purpose.

Example

A dialect may include different words, where an accent uses the same words, but sound differently when spoken.

American Speaker:   “That’s hard, ain’t it?”

British Speaker:  “That’s hard, isn’t it?”

Here, both speakers are able to understand each other; but there are different words use for the same purpose (this would be the difference in dialects – ain’t it/isn’t it), and the pronunciation of every word in the sentences will sound different although they are the same words used in each language (accent).

Why do we have different accents & dialects?

How did different dialects and accents come to exist?  One word – isolation.

Language varies as you travel across a region of a country, and back in the day it wasn’t as easy for people to just pick up and travel for leisure as we do nowadays.  Without devices for media or communication such as television, radios or telephones, different expressions and slang developed according to the lifestyle of people in certain villages, towns or tribes.  For example, there are some remote villages in France that have a dialect that is similar to Spanish, although French is still considered the national language!  (Isn’t that a shocker?)  Perhaps this tiny town had an influence from the Spanish (either by travelers or the geographic location) and this was never shared with other parts of France since it was such a hassle to do a lot of travelling in the old times.

So…America has different accents and dialects too?

Now, if we go back to the mini-conversation that we had at the beginning of this article, the United States has MANY varieties of accents and dialects as well.  (Apparently SOME people assume that we all speak the same which isn’t true AT ALL.)  Since America is a nation of numerous races and ethnic backgrounds, AND let’s not forget that people settled in different regions during different time periods from different countries throughout the years – this has all contributed to the many different variations of speech that you hear today.  When these populations become separated and aren’t able to talk much to each other, each particular group will develop different accents and vocabulary words.  For example, people from California won’t have the same accent as Texans.  In the state of Wisconsin, a sort of Scandinavian accent lingers in their speech because of the influence of northern Europeans who settled there hundreds of years ago.  From stereotypical southern drawls to fast talkers in the North, language varies.  And if you wanna talk about dialect, let’s take the word “soft drink” – you’d be surprised as to how many words there are for this across the U.S. –

New York City – soda

Upstate New York – juice

Seattle & Los Angeles – pop

Dallas & Atlanta – Coke

Language changes.

Just think, the way that we talk now, may be different 10 years from now.  Why?  Because language evolves.  Some phrases that were popular during your parent’s youth make absolutely no sense to us young’uns today.  Thanks to media, new ways of thinking and interaction from other people across the globe, our vocabulary words and accents will change with time.  This is called “linguistic evolution” – if you give an accent enough time, it will change into a new language.  For example, take Latin – this dead language only now used by scientists has evolved into Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese (just to name a few).  Think about it, if languages didn’t evolve, we’d probably all be running around grunting at each other 24/7.

Accents and dialects say a lot about us as people and should be embraced.  It shows the evolution of humans and also exciting to think of what it will lead to in the future (Maybe there will be some new languages that emerge in the future?  In my opinion, the differences in the way we speak is part of the beauty of the world we live in!

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Posted in English, Language learning, Learning English, Travel, United States
  1. bernard tumbleweed says:

    we have accents because we are hard

  2. santha kumar says:

    very good site. Thinks

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