The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Dialect: As traditionally defined, a way of speaking or using a language that is particular to a geographic region or social group and that varies considerably from the speech and usage patterns predominant within that language. In modern linguistics, dialect is defined more broadly, referring to any form of a language whose grammar differs systematically from other forms of the language. So used, dialect includes the dominant form of any language, often called the “standard” or “prestige” dialect. Some dialects differ so dramatically from the dominant form of the language that they are, in effect, separate languages. Although linguists tend to distinguish between dialect and language based on mutual intelligibility, they recognize that other factors, including political boundaries, influence classification. The often questionable boundary between dialect and language is pointed up by an aphorism attributed to twentieth-century Yiddish linguist Max Weinrich: “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Dialect involves not only pronunciation but also vocabulary and syntax that may be entirely unfamiliar to speakers of other dialects. Thus, it is distinguishable from accent, which refers to distinctive but generally comprehensible regional speech patterns and intonations. When a person with a pronounced East Texas accent says, “That gah might could help you,” native speakers of American English readily understand this to mean “that guy might be able to help you.” By contrast, the Yorkshire dialect spoken by the character Joseph in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1848) proved extremely difficult even for nineteenth-century British readers to understand — as when he scolds the children Catherine and Heathcliff, “T’ maister nubbut [only] just buried, and Sabbath nut oe’red [over], und t’sahnd [sound] uh’t gospel still i’ yer lungs, and yah darr [you dare] be laiking [playing]!”

In any given language, the earliest literary productions were typically popular lyrics and narratives in verse that were spoken or sung in regional dialects; passed down orally from one generation to the next; and, in many cases, later committed to writing. The best-known poems written in what we now call Middle English were composed in different dialects, with the anonymous fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1366—87) both written in West Midland dialect and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) written in the East Midland dialect spoken in London. Both because London was the capital and largest city in England and because Chaucer’s works became so popular and influential, the East Midland dialect eventually evolved into the nation’s predominant dialect, sometimes referred to as Standard English.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Nineteenth-century English writer William Barnes wrote poetry in the Dorset dialect, and Thomas Hardy — who came from the Dorset region and admired Barnes — occasionally used it in his novels (Far from the Madding Crowd [1874]) and poems (Wessex Poems [1898]). In D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), Walter Morel, a character based on the author’s own coal-miner father, speaks in a Nottinghamshire dialect that readers today, even in England, strain to understand. Told by his abused wife Gertrude “The house is filthy with you,” Morel drunkenly responds, “Then ger out on’t.”

Other dialect writers include turn-of-the-century poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, noted for his African American dialect poetry, including “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” (1895); Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, whose Songs of Jamaica (1912) depicted black life in Jamaica; and many twentieth-century Italian poets, such as Pier Paolo Passolini (La meglio gioventù [The Best of Youth] [1954]). The Full Monty (1997) and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Are Thou? (2000), employ dialects from Northern England and the Southern United States, respectively.