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. [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.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched 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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12 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.

    • Joe says:

      “Ah-boot” is actually really uncommon. It’s hard to find outside of backwoods Northern Ontario.

      • Dylan says:

        Not true at all. Every Canadian I know says ah-boot and none of them are from “backwoods Northern Ontario.”

      • Rachel says:

        Far from the truth as michigan, Wisconsin, parts of Montana, and Minnesota maybe even norther Washington will all pronounce as such. Which in fact may be misconceived as you already do pronounce in this manner.
        And lots of Michiganders and Minnesotans migrate around the country

    • Ryan says:

      Tunic?? I don’t believe that word has been used on these isles since prior to the discovery of America! We use the word shirt much like yourselves. In addition, the plural of quid is quid and British is not a noun. Other than that, the misuse of colons and commas, pretty much spot on. Thanks.

      • Rachel says:

        Well yes British is in fact a noun as it is a person and a thing
        To be a noun it must be a person place thing or sometimes an idea to qualify as a noun

        • Elliott says:

          British is not a noun. It is often used in a noun phrase where the subject is implied i.e. The British love tea. In this case, British describes the implied noun “people.” If you want a true noun, you’d probably have to use something like “Brit.”

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  6. nappyboy says:

    Am yet to understand the difference till now