All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. The way we speak is influenced by many factors — the roots of our elders, our social and educational background, our working environment, our friends and our own sense of identity. As we move across the country we experience the changing landscape and architecture. At the same time we notice a gradual change in the sounds we hear — the accents
that immediately conjure up a sense of the place to which they belong. The terms accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, although in strict linguistic terms they refer to different aspects of language variation.
What is a dialect?
is a specific variety of English that differs from other varieties in three specific ways: lexis
(structure) and phonology
(pronunciation or accent). English dialects may be different from each other, but all speakers within the English-speaking world can still generally understand them. A speaker from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, for instance, might pepper his speech with localised vocabulary, such as gan
for “to go” or clarts
for “mud”. He may often use regional grammatical constructions, such as the past tense constructions I’ve went
and I’ve drank
or the reflexive pronouns mysel
etc. In addition he probably uses a range of local pronunciations. For all these reasons he could be described as a Geordie dialect speaker.
What is an accent?
, on the other hand, refers only to differences in the sound patterns of a specific dialect. A speaker from Newcastle-upon-Tyne who generally uses mainstream vocabulary and grammar, but whose pronunciation has an unmistakeable hint of Tyneside, should properly be described as having a Geordie accent. In other words, dialect is the umbrella term for a variety of linguistic features, one of which is accent. True dialect speakers are relatively rare, but despite popular belief we all speak with an accent.
In this section you can listen to original recordings of dialect speakers from across the UK, recorded at different times last century. You will also find recordings of RP speakers and minority ethnic communities. Consider the following statement and click on the highlighted words for more information about particular types of language variation:
’ ‘she was
’ a ‘mask
Attitudes to language variety
For many years, certain English dialects have been viewed more positively than others. Many of us make assumptions based on the way people speak — judging certain dialects or accents as too posh, harsh, aggressive, unfriendly, ‘unintelligent’ or ‘common’. Unfortunately many individuals have suffered as a result of this irrational prejudice. No one dialect is better at communicating meaning than another. The fact some dialects and accents are seen to be more prestigious than others is more a reflection of judgements based on social, rather than linguistic, criteria. We live in an increasingly homogeneous society and so the vocabulary, structure and sounds that define the speech of a particular region, should be and indeed are for many speakers, a source of great pride and an important expression of cultural identity
All languages change over time, and vary from place to place. They may change as a result of social or political pressures, such as invasion, colonisation and immigration. New vocabulary is required for the latest inventions, such as transport, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, or for sporting, entertainment and leisure pursuits. But a language can also change by less obvious means.
Influenced by others
Language also changes very subtly whenever speakers come into contact with each other. No two individuals speak identically: people from different geographical places clearly speak differently, but even within the same small community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background. Through our interactions with these different speakers, we encounter new words, expressions and pronunciations and integrate them into our own speech. Even if your family has lived in the same area for generations, you can probably identify a number of differences between the language you use and the way your grandparents speak. Every successive generation makes its own small contribution to language change and when sufficient time has elapsed the impact of these changes becomes more obvious.
Listen to these recordings in this section, which illustrate important, recent changes in spoken English. Consider the following statement and click on the highlighted words for more information about particular types of language change:
“we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes
because we hadn’t
Attitudes to language change
some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever (...) it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing
Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote these words in 1712. They express a sentiment we still hear today — the idea that language should be fixed forever, frozen in time, and protected from the ravages of fashion and social trends. Language change is almost always perceived as a negative thing. During the eighteenth century, Swift and many other influential figures felt the English language was in a state of serious decline and that a national institution, such as existed in France and Italy, should be created to establish rules and prevent further decay. Even today we hear people complaining about a supposed lack of ‘standards’ in spoken and written English. New words and expressions, innovative pronunciations and changes in grammar are derided, and are often considered inferior. Yet because of its adaptability and durability, English has evolved into an incredibly versatile and modern language, retaining a recognisable link to its past.
Change can be a good thing
Most contemporary linguistic commentators accept that change in language, like change in society, is an unavoidable process — occasionally regrettable, but more often a means of refreshing and reinvigorating a language, providing alternatives that allow extremely subtle differences of expression. Certainly the academies established in France and Italy have had little success in preventing change in French or Italian, and perhaps the gradual shift in opinion of our most famous lexicographer, Dr Johnson, is instructive. A contemporary of Swift, Dr Johnson, wrote in 1747 of his desire to produce a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed
and its purity preserved
, but on completing the project ten years later he acknowledges in his introduction that:
Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.
Johnson clearly realised that any attempt to fix the language was futile. Like it or not, language is always changing and English will continue to do so in many creative and — to some perhaps — frustrating ways.