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. [Ed. Note, 1/17/15: For the record, I no longer agree with this statement. I think the difference between pronunciation and grammar is helpful for everyone to understand, and that misunderstanding the difference can be dangerous for those who seek to “correct” others’ language.]
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.