Your browser is unsupported

We recommend using the latest version of IE11, Edge, Chrome, Firefox or Safari.

5.4.2021 – Lainey on the dialects of the world!

White Chevrolet pick-up truck with a large Mexican flag waving from the rear truck bed.

In my high school Spanish classes in small town Illinois, we worked a lot on memorizing nouns. We learned how to say different foods, clothing items, animals, utensils, and so on. Oftentimes, when our teacher would introduce us to a new noun, students who were native speakers would disagree with her on the translation of the word. When she told us that the word for ‘lunch’ is ‘almuerzo,’ they replied that it was ‘lonche.’ They also did this for words like ‘truck,’ saying ‘troca’ instead of ‘camión’ and using ‘el fil’ instead of ‘el campo’ to talk about a field. Our teacher explained to us that there can be more than one way to say things and that this is due to the existence of dialects.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘dialect’ as a particular form of a language which is specific to a certain region or social group. Almost all languages have dialects, which may affect the accent a person has when speaking, give a new meaning to some of the words they use, or ignore traditional grammar rules. The general rule of thumb is that if two people can understand each other with little to no confusion, they are speaking the same language but perhaps in different dialects. However, if two people from the same area cannot understand each other, they are more than likely speaking a different language.

There are exceptions to this rule, though. In Italy, the 34 regional dialects are actually different languages, so some Italians, for example, might speak both Sicilian and the standardized Italian. Someone else who is learning Italian would be able to understand when a native speaks Italian but not when they speak Sicilian. With Spanish, there is much variation. Like Italian, the Spanish language has influence over many indigeneous dialects, but these languages are not interchangeable with Spanish. Furthermore, Spanish also has an assortment of dialects, including but not limited to European Spanish, Carribean Spanish, and Mexican Spanish, which can all be broken down into smaller, more distinct groups as well. The diversities in these dialects can consist of the use of loanwords, the omitting of prepositions, differences in how verbs are conjugated, or how pronouns are used.

In comparison, the United States has dialects like the General American dialect, the Cajun dialect, AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and so on. These are all the same language and people who speak these dialects can understand English speakers of other dialects easily. That being said, some people will hold certain dialects above others or claim that certain dialects are more accurate and proper. This phenomenon is known as prescriptive linguistics.

Prescriptive linguistics attempts to lay down norms defining preferred or “correct” use of language, but the fact is that native speakers of a language cannot speak that language “incorrectly.” Of course, grammar rules like spelling must still be used, but if a word or grammar structure is used widely within a language by groups who speak that language, then nobody can say it is wrong or that it does not exist. Furthermore, just because a word is not in the dictionary, does not mean it is a false word. Prescriptive linguistics are taught in schools and used by those in power to set themselves apart from poor people and minorities, but the cycle can be stopped.

Unlike prescriptive linguistics, descriptive linguistics strives to understand how language is formed and how it evolves while also describing how language is used by different groups of people. Descriptive linguistics realizes that variation and the mixing of language is not only normal but to be expected and that the way a person speaks is not necessarily a matter of intelligence but of a combination of factors involving age, gender, nationality, race, geographic location, and social class.

Next time you want to be the grammar police and correct someone’s speaking, consider whether their way of speaking is actually incorrect or if it is just different than yours.