Dialects

Dialects

Dialects

identifies groups within a language. Some people’s speech displays features differentiating it from that used by members of other groups, although those belonging to either group can communicate with each other without excessive difficulty. When the problems in communicating become more severe, the boundary between different (albeit closely related) languages is crossed, as happens on linguistic frontiers. In the UK, often makes it easy to spot a Scot, a Londoner or a Geordie, though all three can legitimately claim to be using English. Variations in the pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants often provide clear markers, as do intonation patterns and such characteristic speech elements as address forms.

Differences in vocabulary also occur, but they appear to be less marked than formerly, before first urbanization and then education and the media contributed to the homogenization of English across the UK. As well as regional dialects English, like other languages, has social dialects. These reflect, in terms of accent, characteristic vocabulary and idioms, and even syntactic preferences, not so much the geographical origins of speakers as their education, trade or profession, age, sex and class. Dialects provide philologists with evidence about historical developments in language, offering, for example, evidence about population shifts. They also attract attention as a cherished part of local culture. There has, however, been a tendency to confer prestige on certain varieties of English and to disparage others. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, command of received pronunciation and mastery of the pernickety distinctions between acceptable and incorrect English —codified in, for example, Fowler’s Modern English Usage—came to be taken as proof of the intelligence and schooling indispensable for access to higher education and the learned professions.

Exceptions were always made for certain regional accents (such as polite Edinburgh Scots), but generally anything smacking of provincialism was discouraged. The BBC used to act as a strong force for uniformity, allowing regional accents only within carefully defined contexts. Wider ethnic diversity has resulted in greater tolerance in linguistic matters, and as regionalism has grown as a socio-political force, the BBC has tended to a more pluralistic attitude even on national television. For better communication, out of courtesy or simply to ingratiate, most speakers deliberately or unconsciously practise ‘accommodation’, adjusting the balance between dialect and standard language according to their perceptions of the person they are addressing.

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