Accent vs. Dialect vs. Language: What’s the Difference?

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Part of the fun of getting to know an English speaker from somewhere else—be it a different U.S. region or a whole other country—is debating how to say certain words. To you, pecan is “pih-KAHN.” To them, it’s “PEE-can.” Neither is incorrect, though seeing the phonetic spellings might cause you to favor the former. 

Another part of the fun is comparing notes on what terms you use for certain things. To you, a long sandwich might be a sub or a hero. But to any self-respecting Philadelphian, that’s a hoagie. In other cases, one word has two different meanings in two different places. Biscuit in the U.S., for instance, describes a soft bread roll, while a British biscuit is hard, sweet, and cookie-like.

The aforementioned examples help illustrate the difference between accents and dialects. As Rosetta Stone explains, an accent only involves pronunciation. No matter how you say the word pecan, you’re still talking about the same soft nut (though it’s technically not a nut) that makes for a tasty pie filling. 

A dialect, on the other hand, encompasses a number of linguistic features including grammar and vocabulary. The sub-vs.-hoagie and American biscuit–vs.–British biscuit discussions both explore the variations between English dialects, as does anything else that has to do with semantics, sentence structure, regional phrases, and so on. And because accents are typically specific to certain demographics—just like other features of dialects are—they fall under the dialect umbrella, too. In other words, pronunciation can help define a dialect just as much as word usage can. 

Dialect vs. Language

It’s not exactly wrong to say that a language is made up of many dialects. But that can be an oversimplification of the somewhat indefinable distinction between dialects and languages. As Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich once put it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” (though, per Babbel, the comment reportedly first came from someone at a lecture Weinrich was delivering). In other words, geopolitical factors often influence whether we consider a dialect its own language or just a single variation of some overarching one. 

A popular way to illustrate this concept is to compare Scandinavian “languages” and Chinese “dialects.” As linguist John McWhorter writes for The Atlantic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are all similar enough that if you speak one, you can more or less understand the other two without studying them. But because Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are all separate countries, we consider their languages separate, too, rather than viewing them as dialects of, say, “Scandinavian language.” China, on the other hand, has many dialects that aren’t mutually intelligible: The main reason it’s not uncommon to hear Mandarin and Cantonese called “dialects” rather than “languages” pretty much boils down to the fact that they both hail from the same country. 

What Exactly Is “Standard” English?

We tend to slap standard in front of the name of a language to indicate a dialect that’s most widely spoken or formal. But that can perpetuate the idea that there’s some sort of core “correct” form of the language, and every other dialect is just an aberration of that.

“This imposes a hierarchy on language that is, frankly, elitist,” Babbel explains. “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.”

Take, for instance, African American Language (AAL), also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or African American English (AAE)—a dialect spoken by many Black Americans with its roots in their African ancestry. Linguists have long fought the falsehood that AAL is just incorrect English, instead arguing that it’s its own fully realized dialect with grammatical structures and vocabulary that often transcend those of Standard English (and frequently get appropriated by speakers of the latter).

But even calling AAL a dialect can get a little dicey, because there’s not just one version; you could argue that it’s really more of a language that comprises a group of dialects. To avoid this kind of confusion—and get away from the preconceptions that come with dubbing something a dialect versus a language—sociolinguists have backed off from the terms dialect and language in general. These days, variety is often used instead.