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Accent and Dialect Differentiated

Prompted by a query about the difference between the terms “accent” and “dialect” from a loyal subscriber (Julia Arvin of Manchester, Vermont) with a keen interest in language and languages, YHB would like to set down some observations about these two terms and how they are used.

Accent is meant to refer to the acoustic physiognomy of a person’s speech––specifically, the phonetic profile or peculiarities––when that profile differs from the expected norm for a given language taken as a whole (and not just the standard). Thus, we say that a person has a “Southern accent” when we hear a typical speaker from the American South––say, Georgia or Alabama––because that person’s speech is identifiably and patently different from what is called Standard American English (SAE). They may be speaking English that conforms to all the grammatical and lexical norms of SAE, but phonetically their speech still exhibits features of a regional dialect to one or another extent. An educated Alabamian in his seventies––say a Huntsville aerospace scientist with a Ph. D.,  for example––may maintain all the features of a regional dialect despite having lived as well in places other than the South. From the point of view of an observer or interlocutor, his speech is what will be characterized as a Southern accent. Moreover, such a speaker is also necessarily cognizant of the fact that he “speaks with an accent.” Any ensemble of differences from SAE that are perceptible enough to be recognized as such will make such a characterization perfectly understandable and natural.

The adhesion of the word “foreign” to the word “accent” is a different matter. In such a case, we are obviously not talking about a regional dialect lying at the base of a native speaker’s phonetic profile because the accent is identifiable as a variety of speech stemming from the superimposition of a foreign language’s pronunciation habits on the target (non-native) language. Thus, American English spoken by native Russians has typical features with a clear source in Russian phonetics, and it is the ensemble of such features that constitutes a “Russian accent” (as occasionally exemplified in the public consciousness via some famous utterance, as in the case of “I [vant] to be alone,” attributed in this slightly inaccurate form to Greta Garbo [a Swede playing a Russian] in Ninotchka). Foreign accents occupy an interesting place in a native speaker’s (typically unarticulated) conceptualization of their language in the round. Stylistically, there is typically a range of values attaching to the production by foreigners of one’s native language. Thus, a Frenchman’s heavily accented English is regarded by most people as “charming;” not so that of a Japanese or a Chinese (or a Russian, for that matter), regardless of the degree of adherence to the grammatical norm.

Finally, the word “dialect” can extend terminologically beyond its regional (geographical) home terrain to encompass speech that is characteristic of a social group, such as a profession. Social dialects in this sense are often called “jargons” or (more strictly) “argots,” as in “thieves’ argot” or “sailors’ argot.” An interesting linguistic variety of the condition the French call déformation professionnelle is the supervening preference for jargon in the speech of professionals like academics, scientists, lawyers, and doctors. This habit is so seductive for some younger speakers, who are not professionals themselves but aspire to elevated social status, as to cause them to mimic such argots incongruously enough to elicit the (disapproving) comment from older family members (e. g., an uncle to a nephew), “You talk like a lawyer!”


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