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Term Definition

The term dialect refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class.

A dialect is a form of a given language that is particular to a group, place, or culture. There can be many different kinds of dialect within any one language, depending on how widespread that language has become in the world. 

In general, the speaker of one dialect of a language can understand the speaker of another dialect of the same language. 

Difficulties may emerge, though, as a result of the use of slang on the one hand and the presence of accents on the other. Most of these difficulties are lessened in the formal written mode of the language. 

Dialects of the English language

One clear example of the reality of dialect can be seen in the differences between American, British, and Australian versions of spoken English. In general, an American English speaker can of course understand a British English speaker. Comprehension may become strained, though, depending on the extent to which a given person is ensconced within his specific dialect (think, for example, a rural Scotsman with a heavy accent and lots of slang). 

There are two main ways to define a dialect as opposed to a language. The first is based on mutual comprehension: a dialect is a dialect and not a language if speakers of one dialect can understand the speakers of another dialect. 

The other main definition is sociopolitical in nature. According to this definition, a language is more formalized and has a standardized written form, whereas a dialect may be more rural or provincial and not be in accordance with the standardized written form of the language.  

Other cultural uses

The term dialect sometimes has a pejorative connotation, especially when people try to define dialect in the sociopolitical sense. This is related to the way that some people in America are considered to have no "accent", whereas others are said to have accents. From the perspective of the way English is spoken on cable news, for example, Southerners could be said to have their own specific dialect of English, in the sense that their usage of English deviates from the standardized norm as found on television. 

From a broader perspective, though, the argument can clearly be made that there is something arbitrary and heavy-handed about defining a dialect in this manner. It would seem clear, for instance that there is a relativity at play here: there is not just a dialect versus a standardized language, but rather just two different dialects of the same language. 

The sociopolitical definition of a dialect, then, can often become a ground of cultural contention. Naturally, most speakers of a minority dialect do not appreciate having their subculture marginalized in this way, and they may engage in struggle in order to get their own dialect recognized as a more legitimate form of the language as a whole within the context of the broader society. Writers who work within a dialect can be especially instrumental in making such a cultural change happen, insofar as embedded a dialect into a written form is one of the first steps into turning it into a more universal language. 

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Synonyms: dialect

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