Language & Language Regions: Definitions & Dialects

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  • 0:08 Lolly Water & Gym Boots
  • 0:59 The Definition of Language
  • 2:25 The Definition of Dialect
  • 3:48 Your Own Dialect
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Do you know what lolly water is? How about gym boots? In this lesson, you'll consider how word choices, accent and pronunciation are all part of our use of language and how this varies by region.

Lolly Water and Gym Boots

What do you call a carbonated beverage? Is it pop, soda, or soda pop? How about a fizzy drink or lolly water? Is it a soft drink? Or do you use the term coke to describe lots of varieties and flavors?

What about shoes you wear for athletics? Are these trainers, sneakers, or tennis shoes? Joggers, sandshoes, or gym boots? How about tackies or rubber shoes?

Although these are all English words to describe common items, English speakers use different words in their particular region of the world. These are two small examples of how languages can vary depending on where they are spoken. This lesson will discuss the definitions of language and dialects. You'll also consider your own dialect, accent, and language background.

The Definition of Language

So, it's clear that words for the same idea can be different even within one language. They can vary from region to region. Yet if a person calls their carbonated drink 'lolly water' while you call it 'pop,' you are still able to have a conversation. You could even discuss these words or joke with one another about that difference. This is because you share the same overall language.

You can think of language as a system of communication in which the meaning of the sounds used by a particular group are understood by others who share the language. In the most basic sense, we can be reasonably confident we share a language in common if you talk to me and I can understand most of the words you're saying, and vice versa. This is known as mutual intelligibility.

Defining language is sometimes a tricky business. If you and I understand one another and we meet a third person who can also understand us, you might think that we all share the same language. But what if WE can't understand THEM? Are we all speaking the same language or not? This is an example of a topic of conversation for those who study languages.

Achieving mutual intelligibility might also be tougher when we have an accent that the other person finds hard to understand, even if the words are mostly in common. Linguistic experts take a look at these types of topics to understand the differences in languages and how they developed.

The Definition of Dialect

So, what about when you can understand some, but not all, of what a person is saying? Is this a different language even if you understand a lot of the words used?

This is where the term dialect can be useful. Dialect describes a variation in a language and may include different ways of pronouncing a word, different spellings, or different choices of words. The different words for carbonated beverages and athletic shoes are good examples of different versions of the same word within a language, a type of regional dialect.

Dialects can get more complicated than a few words here and there. Variations in dialects in certain regions can mean that mutual intelligibility when speaking the language is not that likely. For instance, the Chinese language can have a great many varieties, and not everyone will understand one another. To a lesser degree, if you grew up in the United States and travel to England, you may also have trouble understanding some of the people you encounter, at least at first.

A related but distinct concept is that of accent. Accents are the way that we sound when we pronounce words. Accents can be part of a particular dialect. For example, if you are from certain parts of the United States, you might use the term 'y'all.' This is a regional dialect. The way a person says this and other words is their accent.

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