What is a dialect?

Dialect, the speech characteristics of one group of people in contrast to those of another group using the same language. Dialects differ from one another in vocabulary and pronunciation and often in grammar. Since they retain the basic character­istics of the language, however, the various dialects in a language can nearly always be understood by a person who can speak any one of them. Within the past 75 years the scientific study of dialects has become a major branch of linguistics.

Dialects fall into two general subdivisions. Vertical, or class, dialects are those of particular social classes. One example of a vertical dialect is the literary dialect of formal writing. Another is the general dialect of the educated class, which in the United States is known as Standard English. Horizontal, or regional, dialects are those of various geographical areas. The study of horizontal dialects is called linguistic geography.

Dialects develop because, when one group of people becomes separated from another, the constant process of language change gradually produces differences in the language. If the differences finally become so great that one group can no longer understand the other, the dialects are said to have become distinct languages. This process occurred with the Romance languages French, Spanish, Italian, and Romanian. The four languages originally were dialects of Latin.

American dialects reflect the history of the settlement of the United States. The Northern dialect is that of New England and New York and of the people who moved west from there into the north-central area. The Midland dialect is that belonging to Pennsylvania and Delaware and to the people who moved west into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. A South Mid­land area stretches south along the Appalachian Mountains and west into the Ozarks. The Southern dialect is that of the South Atlantic Coast and of the people who moved westward from there toward the Mississippi River. In each of these areas are subdivisions with their own special features. West of the Mississippi the dialect patterns become blurred because of the mixture of the population that took place during the westward migration.

In Europe and other parts of the world, people generally have stayed in the same locality for many generations. As a result, dialect distinctions are much sharper and more complex than those of the United States. In England, for instance, the dialect of Sussex and that of Yorkshire are less mutually intelligible than any two dialects in the United States. Sometimes one common writing system will make communication possible among speakers of dialects that are not mutually intelligible, as with Chinese.

Regional dialects have often been used in literature to lend realism and color to a work. Among famous writers who have included dialect forms in their works are the British authors George Bernard Shaw and Robert Burns and the Americans Bret Harte, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mark Twain.