Friday, October 13, 2006

How do we define Dialect? (Dialect versus SE)

A 'Non-Standard English' seminar on wednesday made me think, so I thought I'd share.
We were asked which of the three following descriptions best describes dialect:

  • 'One of the subordinate forms of varieties of a language arising from local peculiarities of pronunciation and idiom.' [OED]
  • 'Variety of a language spoken by a group of people and having features of vocabulary, grammar, and/or pronunciation that distinguish it from other varieties of the same language. Dialects usually develop as a result of geographic, social, political, or economic barriers between groups of people who speak the same language. When dialects diverge to the point that they are mutually incomprehensible, they become languages in their own right' [Encyclopedia Britannica]
  • 'A dialect is a complete system of verbal communication (oral or signed but not necessarily written) with its own vocabulary and/or grammar.' [Wikipedia]
Most chose the Encyclopedia Britannica version because it was more specific and we felt it encapsulated more about what dialect was. However, the issue was raised on further examining the OED *cough*crappy*cough* definition: can dialect be defined without explaining, comparing to or having some firm idea of the Standard?

Rather humourously (in a forced ha-ha type way i guess for uni), one of the guys in the class raised the 'very important' point, that in the animal kingdom, there isn't a standard form of species from which we define the other varieties (i.e. a mallard duck isn't described as a deviant form of the standard duck), so what makes English language any different?
(oh- apart from the fact that it's less visual seeing as it's the way we speak you buffoon? Guffaw, guffaw, you're hilarious.)

The OED obviously presents dialect as 'subordinate' and 'peculiar' in relation to SE; is it possible to understand dialect without having the idea of how lanuguage 'should' be in the prescriptive sense? Are we agreeing more with the Ency'Brit' definition because it's more descriptive and we think we should be descriptive more than judgemental? Think about it.

Without thinking about or using the phrase Standard English, define dialect. Doable or no?

Have fun..


Dan said...

The OED definition is bad for all the reasons you say. But then, even the term "non-standard" (which is usually perceived as better to use than "incorrect" etc) conveys the sense of deviation from a standard.

The Ency Brit one seems to be the one that gets nearest, but then it is the longest...

Someone once said "a dialect is a language without an army" (except they put it the other way round, "a language is a dialect with an army") so that's my favourite one!

*Chrissyfloss*- ex SFXian said...

that someone was Max Weinreich- that was on our handout too!- ha!

on a more serious note, you're saying that rather than dialect being undefineable without the concept of SE, it has to be defined in relation to what language is?

Dan said...

Not sure... but I suppose a true descriptivist would say you'd define it by decribing its features (such as describing the phonetic characteristics of a particular accent) without necessarily holding it up against another as a comparison.

Then again, that's easier said than done for stuff like grammar where probably 99% of the grammatical features of a regional dialect will be identical to those of the standard and vica versa.