Dialect vs. Accent

Many people ask me about the difference between a “dialect” and an “accent.”  Really it’s pretty simple:

  • An accent is the way that particular person or group of people sound.  It’s the way somebody pronounces words, the musicality of their speech, etc.
  • A dialect describes both a person’s accent and the grammatical features of the way that person talks.

To provide an example, you could say somebody from Alabama has a “Southern Accent,” meaning that they pronounce words differently than somebody from the Northern US.  However, “accent” would not refer to a Southerner’s use of the word “y’all.”  That would fall under the category of Southern dialects.

This distinction is not that important for a layperson.  Unless you’re a linguist, the difference between these two words is pretty abstract.

One thing you’ll notice is that I use the word “accent” about as much as I use “dialect” on this site.  That’s because “accent” makes it easier for laypeople to find this site–people search for “Australian Accent” far more in Google than they do for “Australian Dialect.”  ”Dialect,” although a commonplace word for anybody with a basic knowledge of linguistics, is still a bit obscure to most of the population.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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4 Responses to Dialect vs. Accent

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  3. Lulu says:

    Does this mean that all the english “accents”–Australian, American/Canadian, British etc.–are just dialects?

  4. Dennis says:

    It would be a dialect technically, depending on what is said. So I noticed you lumped America/Canadian english together. An example of an accent would be how the word “about” is pronounced. Most Americans would pronounce this word “ah-bout” whereas a Canadian would pronounce this “ah-boot”. For a dialect, its both the pronunciation and the context of the words. Example: if a British and American goes shopping, and the Brit said: “Need to buy a new pair of knickers and trousers, and some tunics. Might cost you afew quids chap”. American equivalent of the words are underwear, pants, and shirts. A quid is a slang for the British Sterling Pound, like how the US Dollar is called a “buck”. A dialect in short, is basically how local terminology/slang words and that country standard way of speaking are said.

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