In the world of linguistics, precise language is important. Well, language, in general, is important in linguistics. But using the proper terms to refer to everything is important in any scientific field. However, when these terms are then brought to the general public, they sometimes can get a bit muddled. Here, we’ll try to clear up some of the confusion on the differences between languages, accents and dialects.
Language vs. Dialect
To start, we should note that we’re not talking about the abstract sense of language, which you can read all about here. This distinction is about why English and Spanish are “languages,” but Spanglish and New Mexican Spanish are “dialects.” The exact distinction is a little bit murky.
The most popular description of the difference between languages and dialects comes from the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who allegedly heard it from an audience member during a lecture he was giving: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” While this is primarily a catchy, funny phrase, it does sort of get to the difference between languages and dialects. The decision for something to be called a language is tied up with how countries identify their boundaries, how many people speak the language and other political considerations.
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
There’s not really a scientific way to split languages apart from each other. You can say that Japanese and Swedish are clearly different languages, but some languages are very similar. Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all very close, to the point where they’re pretty much mutually intelligible. The dialects of Chinese, on the other hand, are not all mutually intelligible, but they haven’t earned the title of language. Really, there’s no exact difference between languages and dialects. In some writing, you might see that people say dialects are just spoken, whereas languages include both written and spoken aspects, but for linguists, they’re pretty much the same. Languages are just self-important dialects.
It’s worth knocking out one pervasive myth about languages and dialects. What you’ll most commonly see is that a “language” is considered the ideal form of a way to talk, like Standard English, and a “dialect” is a deviation away from this ideal, like Black English or Southern English. This imposes a hierarchy on language that is, frankly, elitist. It’s better to imagine language as an umbrella category for all of the dialects of English, including Standard English. There is no one dialect that is superior to any other.
Bottom Line: There is no scientific difference, but when you’re reading an article the writer will likely refer to “the standard” as a language and everything else as a dialect.
Dialect vs. Accent
The good news is that the difference between accents and dialects is much less murky than that between dialects and language. The bad news is that there are some disagreements on what those differences are.
In most uses, “accent” and “dialect” are used interchangeably. Accent seems to be used far more than dialect, as “dialect” sounds slightly more scientific. Both words are used pretty liberally in our series The United States Of Accents, as well as in a number of other publications, but they are not the same.
The definition of accents and dialects used most often by people who work with language is that accents are just one part of a dialect. An accent refers to how people pronounce words, whereas a dialect is all-encompassing. A dialect includes the pronunciations, grammar and vocabulary that people use within a group. Thus our series would be more aptly named The United States Of Dialects, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Another definition that has been used to explain the difference is that dialects refer to the way people speak their mother tongue, and accents refer to how someone speaks another language. A person speaking English with an Italian accent, for example. This doesn’t really capture all of the ways “accent” is used, however, because having a New York accent doesn’t mean you ever spoke another language. Closer to the the first definition, some people use “accent” for pronunciation and “dialect” for the words people use. This can be useful for writers to talk about these two aspects differently. Unless otherwise specified, however, the first definition is likely the one that’s being used.
Bottom Line: Many non-academic articles might use the words interchangeably, but for the most part, accent is how a person pronounces words and dialect includes a person’s pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
Bonus Word: Variety
In order to avoid the messy connotations of “dialect” and “language,” linguists now use the word “variety” instead. The word refers to variation in the language, and it is used to group together linguistic clusters in a more exacting way.
There are geographic varieties (Southern English, Boston English), social varieties (upper-class Spanish, middle-class English), standard varieties (Standard English, Standard French) and much more. You also have your own personal variety, called an idiolect, which is a way of talking that’s specific to you. It hasn’t been used among non-linguists very often, but it’s the most useful term if you really want to break down how language works.