How do dialects differ?

Sometimes languages break down into dialects as populations spread over larger areas. However, it is often the people who move farthest away from their “homeland” who preserve the older patterns of speech. American English, for example, still has many words (such as “gotten”) which were once common in English. Similarly, we still pronounce the letter W in the old, Anglo Saxon way, but in most other Germanic languages it now sounds like our V. (The modern German for “warm” is spelt the same as in English, but pronounced “varm”.)

Also, new waves of settlers, such as the Vikings, bring in words, phrases and grammatical forms which are then adopted by the natives, simply so they can communicate with the newcomers.

Very often, the dialect spoken by the richest or most powerful section of the population gradually takes over and becomes the “standard” language of a nation. This is certainly true of English, where the speech used in the triangle of land between London, Oxford and Cambridge eventually became what we now call “Standard English”. “Standard English” is still a dialect, but is based more on social class rather than on region.

Sometimes words from older, native languages are taken up by newcomers. The English spoken in the Welsh Borders is partly influenced by Welsh itself. Also, the Vikings who settled in the North West of England came via Ireland, where they had already learned some Gaelic. Consequently, there have been Irish words in Lancashire speech since long before the victims of the Irish potato famine settled there in the 1840s!

Other variations are harder to explain. Seven hundred years ago, we went to sea in “boots” and wore “boats” on our feet. Similar changes affected other European languages at about the same time (the Great Vowel Shift) and nobody is quite certain why. Some English dialects, such as Geordie, still use the older form. Newcastle is the only place England where blackboards fly and lay eggs… think about it!

Until about 1700, most English speakers (whatever their dialect) pronounced the letter R very clearly in words where it followed a vowel such as in “farmer” and “carter”. After 1700, this custom died out quite rapidly and is now virtually unknown in Standard English, It survives, however, in the dialects of the West Country, parts of Lancashire and small pockets of Yorkshire. It is also a standard feature of the English spoken in Scotland, Ireland, and of course, North America. Nobody is quite sure why it disappeared from Standard English, but its loss was certainly noticed at the time. Some eighteenth-century folk complained about “R-dropping” the way people complain about “H-dropping” today!

Sometimes a particular accent or dialect simply becomes fashionable, and other people start to copy it. It is said that the speech of young people today is being influenced by American and Australian TV programmes. Similarly the tendency to pronounce TH as F (as in think – fink) which was once almost unknown outside London is now quite common as far west as Bristol… but only amongst teenagers and children. Only time will tell if these changes spread or stick.

Dialect is not disappearing, but it is always changing.

For an explanation for why people in West Yorkshire speak the way they do, click here.

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