Inspiration From The Distant Past

Inspiration From The Distant Past
Found note in an old book... warms the cockles of my bookish heart...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dinner Dictionary; Dialect


This Friday I had the pleasure of dining with my friend Miriam and her lovely girlfriends. We had Thai takeaways and watched an episode (they are movie length, but episodes just the same) of Montalbano.

At the table were four of us

  • A French woman
  • An American (me, clearly)
  • A first-generation Australian of Italian descent, and
  • A first-generation Australian of Maltese descent.

Each speaks at least two languages, and naturally the conversation turned to linguistics. The Italian woman explained that her parents were from different areas of Italy, and spoke different dialects. She said that her own Italian was a mish-mash of Standard Italian and the two quite different dialects.

We then debated the definition of 'dialect' and whether or not English had any. We agreed that maybe Cockney fit the definition, but there were probably no English dialects, since most English speakers could understand one another (except maybe Americans who are rarely exposed to other Englishes).

My search of internet wikis and dictionaries has proved us both wrong and right. Cockney is, indeed a dialect, but there is an enormously long list of English dialects. I should have thought of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which I understand and have to translate for my Aussie husband. There's even Texan, my native language.

'Dialect' is defined as differing from a language in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, while still being mutually intelligible.


This is in contrast to the way Italo-philes (and Wikipedia) define Italian dialect. In Italy dialects are not understood by one another or Standard Italian speakers. In reality, these should be called languages. So, by our definition as Romance language speakers and Mediterraneans, English doesn't have any dialects.

If you're curious, the website where I got the US map explained it all really well.

What with all the talking and nibbling and chatting and eating (at the table--the hostess was French, after all!) we didn't actually finish the movie until one in the morning. It's a rare evening when I crawl into bed at two am, but it was worth it!

Have a look at the list of global Englishes and see which dialect you speak. We'd love to see a comment below.


  1. So, for the record, I grew up speaking Texan English and understanding AAVE. Now after 21 years I speak Australian English so well people think I was originally Canadian!

  2. I guess I speak Texan, though not sure I totally agree with the Wiki definition. I understand Chicano Spanish, Spanglish (which is NOT a dialect, but still can be hard to understand), and Tejano Spanish.
    I also understand AAVE and used to understand Jamaican English (patois).

    I get asked quite often, "Where are you from?" for my accent. People think I am a fair skinned Latina - usually from South America, but sometimes central Mexico. Not real sure why, but maybe because I enunciate?

    Language is pretty fascinatin', but I'm fixin' to go, yall.

    p.s. Yall can also be used for ONE person and ALL YALL to mean the group...hee hee hee! Love me some Paula Deen!

  3. DeLynne, I still suspect you are a Canadian changling. The poor little Texan baby was probably teased for saying skeeters, maters and taters and grew up into a misunderstood Canadian woman. ;o)

    Many vocabulary and language tests that speech paths use in the US have special scoring criteria for AAVE and Appalachian English. Those are the only two ever singled out.

    In one of the Special Agent Pendergast thrillers, he and his sidekick an NYC cop of Italian descent went to Italy-- the cop bragged about his fluency then had a time trying to communicate with the locals. I wondered if that was an accurate representation.

  4. I don't have much of an accent (raised in the American South by Yankees). When I was a kid and went to Australia, overall I found them very easy to understand - in fact in the US I've noticed that after about 10 years here, most Brits start to sound Aussie - so my sister and I were very surprised when our tennis coach was completely unintelligible. His Australian accent was so thick - we'd ask him to repeat himself twice, and then we'd just shrug. So there are certainly dialects everywhere!

  5. DeLynne.. Hubs said, "your cousin has an Australian accents. " My reply, "In Australian, I suspect they think she has an American accent"
    Stuart said my "Texas" got worse after I moved to California.. maybe I forgot how it sounds and got lazy, y'all.

  6. Carin, I wonder which part of Australia he's from. Queenslanders are notorious!

    Tracy, you are spot on with my accent, and I wish I was like you and had retained more of my Texan.

    Leslie, I've never seen Paula Deen (deprived, I know), but I'll never forget Hubby's astonishment when a friend from New Orleans said, 'All ya'll'.

  7. and another favorite...speaking of two people (sometimes just one), "Tell your wife ,'n'em I said 'hi'!"

    Translated: "Tell your wife and them..."
    "Them" meaning just one other person, or possibly no one else!

  8. I think although there are dialects in English, usually it is just the odd word that is used rather than a whole way of speaking. I know plenty of regional British people who use dialect words but have no trouble understanding them as most of their speech is pretty standard. An interesting article

  9. I have to say I find your assertion that English doesn't have dialects hilarious.

    My husband is from the Black Country in England. I am English (using Received Pronunciation - in other words the Queen's English) and I can't understand a word when he "talks Black Country" and I doubt very much any of you other English speakers could either.

    Some choice samples for you:

    They bay bin bays bin they.
    Ebahgum ar big un, yow keep on 'atin like tha' yow'll be as fot as a bonk 'oss in a wik.
    Ian get that bobowler ahtu ere o cor stond em.

  10. There's been a bit of research done on Australian regional accents over the past 10 years.

    I've read a couple of linguistic articles, so I'll summarize what I can recall.

    I come from rural NSW (a very snobbish country town) and my partner comes from South Australia. We pronounce words like 'school' and 'France' very differently - but they are subtle differences that only Australians, New Zealanders and linguists would notice.

    Here is an amazing project run by Macquarie university (in Sydney) that's been going for a long time and has actual recordings:

    Australian regional accents

  11. Um, Kate, what did you just say? I *HOPE* it wasn't what I THINK you said! LOL!
    No, really, what were you saying?


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