Dialect vs. Accent: Nuances of Language

It can be challenging to choose between the terms accent and dialect, as these words are closely related to one another. The word accent refers solely to the style with which a person pronounces words. Dialect is a broader term. Accent can be part of a dialect, but dialect involves more than just pronunciation. Discover the key differences and similarities between these two terms, so you'll have a solid understanding of when to use dialect vs. accent.

dialect vs accent definition examples dialect vs accent definition examples

What Does Accent Mean?

In reference to speech patterns, accent refers to a distinct type of pronunciation associated with certain regions. It relates to how people who are native to a certain area tend to pronounce words, use inflection, and which syllables are stressed and overall tone.

  • A person can speak their native language with an accent, such as native English speakers from the southern region of America who speak with a southern accent. The southern accent is often referred to as a drawl, with long vowel sounds and even longer syllables.
  • Accents can vary within regions. The southern accent isn't the same everywhere throughout the South. It's common for people from New Orleans, Louisiana to speak with an accent more commonly associated with the northeast (think Boston and New York) region of the US.
  • People who learn a second language often do so with an accent influenced by their native language. That's because not all languages have the same sound rules for pronunciation.

What Does Dialect Mean?

The definition of the term dialect refers to variations associated with how groups of people speak a particular language. Dialect refers to an overall way of speaking, not just pronunciation. Accent is part of dialect, but dialect is a more encompassing term. Dialect involves the usage of distinct vocabulary choices (including slang) and grammatical patterns.

  • Dialect can be linked to a particular geographic area. For example, there are many dialects of the Chinese language, including Mandarin and Cantonese, that are spoken in different parts of the country.
  • Geographic dialogue differences don't have to impact the entire language, but can rather be specific to a few words, such as whether people in a certain region describe carbonated beverages as soda, pop or coke. Another similar example is whether a big sandwich is a hero, a sub or a po-boy.
  • Dialect can also vary based on social class or cultural group. When there is an overall manner of speaking (not just accent) associated with a particular group, that is dialect. For example, the cockney dialect of English is associated with working-class people from London.

Dialect vs. Language

The primary difference between dialect and language has to do with the difference between spoken and written communication. Language can be spoken or written, whereas dialect tends to just be used in spoken communication. A person from England may speak using either a Brummie or Cockney dialect, but both speak the English language. Another way to look at it is to consider language as formal or official, while dialect represents informal or unofficial variations.


Slang vs. Accent vs. Dialect

Slang is closely related to dialect, and it can also be related to accent as well. Slang is informal terminology that tends to be restricted to certain groups of people. It is used more in spoken language than in written communication.

  • When slang is linked to a broad geographic area, such as American slang, it can be spoken with any of the various accents associated with that area, depending on who is speaking.
  • When slang is associated with social class or a specific geographic area, it becomes part of a dialect. Hillbilly slang is an example of this. Not everyone in the South uses hillbilly slang, as it's associated with certain parts of the region, but you're only likely to hear it spoken with a southern accent.
  • When slang is associated with a particular occupation, such as military slang, it is independent of accent or dialect. The same is true with the jargon of a particular occupation.

Vernacular vs. Dialect

When you learn to speak a second language, you learn the formal, official rules for that language. When you visit an area where that language is spoken, the people who live there may easily be able to tell that you are not a native speaker even if you are using words correctly. That's because you're not using the vernacular, which is the ordinary, spoken form of the language.

Most people take a much less formal approach to communication when speaking vs. when they are writing. True fluency in a second language involves going beyond formal mastery of the language to being able to speak the way native speakers do. This includes elements of dialect, but also other common elements of everyday communication, such as knowing when to use formal vs. informal diction.


Expand Your Linguistic Expertise

Accent and dialect are important concepts in the field of linguistics. Both terms refer to the way a person speaks, but they don't mean the same thing. Accent is a very narrow term, while dialect is more broad in scope. Now that you are able to distinguish between dialect vs. accent, expand your linguistics expertise by reviewing some examples of semantics. From there, move on to explore examples of syntax. Soon, you'll be an expert in all of the nuances of language!