What Is Dialect?

Dialect is a variation of language spoken by people from a particular culture, geographic region, or socioeconomic class. Urban slang is a dialect; so is the form of the English language spoken in Appalachia. There are dozens of British dialects in the United Kingdom alone, not to mention the number of English dialects that exist worldwide.

Some dialects have evolved into regional variants of what is essentially the same language, like Quebeqois, which is the type of French spoken in the Canadian Province of Quebec. Other dialects, like Mandarin and Cantonese, are distinctly different spoken languages that have a shared written language.

How Do You Identify Dialect in Writing?

Writers use dialect in literature in order to identify characters by social type, race, and class. Usually, the narrator employs standard English, leaving dialect up to individual characters. Sometimes, however, entire stories and novels will be narrated by a character who speaks in dialect.

The purpose of dialect is to emphasize the role that class distinctions, racial differences, and regional customs have in determining character conflict. Dialect can also be used to enhance the setting or to give an accurate historical depiction of characters.

Examples of Dialect

Dialect Example 1. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, part of the unfamiliar atmosphere of Mary’s new home is the broad Yorkshire dialect spoken by the scullery maid who cleans her room.

Dialect Example 2. Words like “a crapella” (singing badly while wearing headphones), “baby bump,” and “bootylicious” come to us from Urban Dictionary, which lists the slang terms of the new millennial dialect as it develops.

Dialect Example 3. Mark Twain heightens the contrast between Huck and Jim by using dialect. Jim says, “We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels. Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it.” Huck’s response, “I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know” is much more formal.

Dialect Example 4. Toni Cade Bambara narrates the story “The Lesson” in a girl’s first person dialect to highlight the contrast between the rebellious young girl and the older black woman who tried to impress on her the importance of education.

Dialect Example 5. The film Trainspotting, which takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland, is often hard to understand because the dialect is so strong it almost sounds like a different language.


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