Defining English Language Varieties - Dialect, Accent, and Style

English Language Varieties

English-language-varietiesMany of us think that there is a single object called "English", which we must learn. But there are actually many varieties of English, as there are of any language. There are many varieties of the English language spoken around the world. Speakers of English around the world have been described in many ways: "native speakers" who speak English as their "1st language", and "non-native speakers" who are "2nd language" speakers, or speak "English as a foreign language." But these distinctions are being questioned. What really matters for international communication may simply be a level of proficiency in a standard variety of English. Most speakers of English today are multilingual -- they speak more than one language.

English is actually spoken in a variety of ways all across the world, and indeed, within the U.K. as well. No two people speak in precisely the same way. What is important for international communication is the our "accent" should be as "neutral" as possible: it should not have obvious regional characteristics or personal idiosyncrasies.

What model of standard English should we follow? There are to international models; British and American. These are two varieties of the same language, with the same well-known difference, but with much, much more in common. 


We can have "purist" attitude to language, which always tries to be "correct", or we can adopt a "permissive" attitude, which believes that a language belongs to whoever speaks it, and what they naturally say is all right. In a formal situation, for example, we do not mix words from the other languages we know into the English we speak. But informally, all over the world, many multilingual speakers of English do mix their own languages up with English. This is called "code-mixing" and is seen as a source of creativity in language use.

Whether you are a foreigner or a native, the first thing I must impress on you is two British subjects speak exactly alike.

-George Bernard Shaw(1856-1951), British playwright and social and political commentator, in a recording he made for the Linguaphone Institute.

Dialect, Accent, and Style

Language changes over time and across space. One variety of language may differ from another in three ways:

➤ pronunciation, 
➤ vocabulary,
➤ grammar.

If a variety of language differs from another in all three ways, we call it a dialect.
But the most common difference among the varieties of a language is the first one: pronunciation, or the way we speak it. But such a difference, in pronunciation only, is called an accent.

The accent is the most obvious and visible quality of our language use. We can readily tell British from American speakers of English by their accent. 

Let us see what Bernard Shaw, whom we quoted at the beginning, tells us about his experiences as a member of a committee of educated and well-known persons, set up by the BBC to determine how utterances should be pronounced over the radio in order to be a model of correct speech. The committee included a playwright - Shaw himself, an actor, and a Poet Laureate. Shaw tells us that even on this committee, there were different accents: "The simplest and commonest words in any language are 'yes' and 'no'. But no two members of the committee pronounce exactly alike."

It is true that no two people speak in an identical way. Human beings are not robots produced in a factory or clones produced in a laboratory. Our speech reflects our individuality. Yet all of us do wish to be understood by one another and to understand one another. (Linguists call this "being intelligible" to one another.) So Shaw continues:

"....every member pronounces them [the words 'yes' and 'no'] in such a way that they would not only be intelligible in every English-speaking country but would stamp the speaker as a cultivated person as distinguished from an ignorant and illiterate one".

Are you now saying, "well: that is good enough for me: that is how I desire to speak", as Shaw thinks you will?
How are you to speak in an "intelligible and cultivated" way? In order to do that, you have to understand what Standard English is, and think of possible models of speech for you to follow. But first, we need to understand one more idea.

Different Styles in Language

We have now understood what a dialect is, and an accent. We must now understand that there are different styles in language. Some of you may already know that we can say the same thing in different ways depending on where we speak, and who we speak to. Let's take an example,

➤ I'm fagged out.  
➤ I'm very tired.
➤ I'm exhausted.
These are three ways of saying nearly the same thing. The first, "I'm fagged out", is labeled "informal" in the dictionary, because it uses colloquial words or slang. Such a style is suitable for use only within a close social group, such as friends. The second, "I'm very tired", uses ordinary words that are formal enough to be acceptable - they are not slang - but informal enough to be used even by a child. In contrast, the third uses a more formal, learned or educated word, "exhausted", that a young child may not know.

Now just as we choose our words according to the style of interaction - very informal or in-group, slightly more formal in an everyday sense, or very formal - we also choose or make difference in, the way we speak. Let's listen to Shaw again, speaking in the recording for the Linguaphone Institute:

"I am at present speaking to an audience of many thousands...If I were to speak to you as carelessly as I speak to my wife at home, this record would be useless; and if I were to speak to my wife at home as carefully as I am speaking to you, she would think I was going mad."

A Neutral Accent

If you want to speak in English to a person with a different accent - a person from some other language group than your own - then the more "neutral" your own accent in English is, better you will be understood. That is why nowadays we speak of "accent neutralization" in training in spoken English for the information technology industry. We don't expect everyone to mimic the way the British royal family speaks; but if we want all kinds of people to understand us, - people whom we do not know, or who speak very different languages than us, - we cannot speak English just as we please.

So when you speak in English to a person with a different accent, the more "neutral" your own accent in English is, the better you will be understood. The criterion for an acceptable pronunciation is intelligibility or understandability.

"Accent training" is unlearning obvious regionalism and arriving at a neutral speech style. It is also learning to slow down our rate of speech, speaking to a rhythm, and articulating with clarity.

Sing it, don't say it

While working at welder at a plant, I met Art, an Englishman whose accent sometimes made it hard to decipher what he was saying. Another memorable characteristic of his was that he liked to sing while he worked, in a voice as clear as a bell.

One day in the lunchroom, where things could get pretty noisy, Art was trying to tell us something he obviously thought was important, but nobody could understand him. In frustration, I said, "Art, for heaven's sake, just sing it".

He did, and we understood every word.

-Jack Kruhlak

Further Reading

Gail Robinson, "Culturally diverse speech styles", in Wilga Rivers(ed.) (1987), Interactive Language Teaching.

Robert J. Baumgardner, ed. South Asian English: Structure, Use and Users (1996).

See Also

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