Speech Impediment vs. Dialect

In yesterday’s post, I talked a bit about Jonathan Ross’s famous pronunciation of “r,” and how I believe this is actually a dialect feature rather than a speech disorder or impediment. It’s worth taking a look at the overlap between the two.

I have usually thought of a speech disorder as a condition created by some kind of physical or psychological condition. A dialect feature, on the other hand, is something that appears to be created by external factors (i.e. peers, family, media, etc.).

Where these two phenomena overlap is when person x is exposed to dialect group y, and dialect group y either stigmatizes certain features of person x’s dialect or has difficulty understand person x’s dialect.

A few years ago a Canadian friend told me a story about working as a speech therapist in her home province of Alberta. One of her cases was a young boy who had recently moved from a rural part of Newfoundland. To clarify for the unacquainted, the Newfie accent is the largest North American dialect group that is discontinuous from the speech of the rest of the continent; it sounds to outsiders a bit like an Irish accent. This young boy was sent to my friend not because he had an intrinsic defect in his speech, but rather because his accent was so different from Standard Canadian English that he was hard to understand in his newly adopted province.

So it seems there are some vaguaries when distinguishing between genuine disorders and regional quirks. But I’m no expert on the ins and outs of speech pathology. Are there any linguists or speech professionals who can enlighten us about the difference?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-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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5 Responses to Speech Impediment vs. Dialect

  1. Antonia says:

    No expertise.

    I have a colleague from Glasgow who has lived and worked in the south of England for over a decade. He had elocution and speech training and from time to time revisits it because his regional accent was so thick and fast-paced that southern ears (like mine) found it very impenetrable. He has adapted his speech to a degree but his accent thickens periodically, however he can articulate in increasingly southern fashion when he remembers to.

    Sometimes a speech difficulty only crops up if you try a different language or move to a region with very different requirements – pronouncing a friend’s name in an Indian language or trying Italian without an embarrassing accent eludes me as I can’t manage rolling the ‘r’s in the required manner – not a necessity when using the English tongue. I’m unsure whether that is purely a question of getting a better description of the shapes to aim for to form the sound correctly (I’ve tried practicing often enough) or some more fundamental barrier.

    I can’t imagine that my colleague’s habitually thick but fast and soft speech, that he can now alter by focusing on it a little would be described as a pathology, but perhaps my consistent failure with the ‘r’s might be.

    As a counterpoint to your question on patholoty. It would be interesting to know at what point the training required to master the vocalisation of sounds, or the expertise to deliver this, passes from being ‘foreign’ language or accent training to remedial therapy.

    • Antonia says:

      Spellcheck /typo fail – last paragraph should read pathology of course. Apologies for this and any further errors I’ve overlooked.

    • trawicks says:

      Antonia,

      It’s an interesting line to draw, because there are dialect features considered normal in some regions but an impediment in others. “L-vocalization,” for example (i.e. pronouncing final “l”s with something like a “w” so that “pal” sounds a bit like “pow”). This feature is widespread in London, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and yet if you lived in, say, Iowa, it would certainly be noted as a speech defect. Which begs the question: do Speech pathologists identify different impediments in different regions?

  2. cathy says:

    Interesting… I do medical transcription for a (US) national company so have a chance to listen to doctors with all kinds of accents. For the first time I heard an Irish accent (in the course of work) and wondered whether the doctor had a speech defect that caused him to gargle his R’s, or if that was just the accent! Then there was a second doctor with an Irish accent– same effect. If there are several words in a row all with lots of R’s, it sounds like gargling to me and I just cannot decipher it 🙁 It was “impressive” enough that I did a google search on Irish accents!

    • trawicks says:

      Hey, Cathy,

      It’s quite coincidental you mention this! I discussed this in the most recent two posts: in Ireland, there is a type of “r” in which the “velum” (that is, the back of the tongue) is raised slightly. It gives “r” this “gurgled” or “throaty” quality you mention. It’s a holdover from the Irish language.