In today’s linguistics lesson, we will learn four accent-related words that are important for describing the way English is spoken. These tricky words have overlapping meanings, which sometimes causes confusion. If you have ever been confused about the meaning of accent vs dialect, then you will find the answer in today’s lesson!
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The word ‘accent’ originates from the Latin word ‘accentus’, which means to sing along. The etymology gives us a clue that the meaning of ‘accent’ is related to the sounds our voices produce when speaking. When talking about a person’s accent, we are in fact referring to the specific way that person pronounces words.
At the broadest level, people from different countries have different accents. To mention a couple of examples, we can describe a person as having an English accent, an American accent or a French accent. Depending on your viewpoint (the position from which you are observing), you can also describe a person as having a native accent or a foreign accent.
When observing accents more closely, it is evident that people from different parts of a country often speak with different accents. For example, people from London generally speak with a different accent to people from Birmingham. However, it’s possible to drill down even further when observing and categorising accents: some people can even tell the difference between a South London and North London accent.
A person’s accent is shaped by a few different factors. In Britain, the three most significant factors that shape a person’s accent are: (1) where they come from, (2) their social class (upper class, middle class, working class), (3) whether the speaker is male or female.
Lastly, use of the word ‘dialect’ tends to be restricted to an academic or specialist context. In everyday speech, people almost always use the word ‘accent’ to talk about the way a person speaks, e.g. ‘He has a posh accent.” But never, ‘
He has a nice dialect“.
Accent vs Dialect
The meaning of the ‘dialect’ overlaps with ‘accent’, which is why people are often confused about the difference between these two closely related words. Put simply, ‘accent’ is limited to the way we pronounce words. Beyond this, however, the word ‘dialect’ refers regional differences in accent, grammar and vocabulary. In other words, more linguistic information is covered / included when we take about a dialect.
Examples of dialect differences
Grammatical Differences → Standard English “We were there” VS Cockney English “We was there” (non-standard grammar).
Vocabulary Differences → Southern English “dinner” VS Northern English “tea”.
Accent Differences → Southern English bath /bɑːθ/ Vs Northern English /bæθ/.
Differences between dialects can be subtle, which is why the majority of non-native speakers probably can’t notice them. The exception being differences in accent, of which strong regional accents tend to take a bit of getting used to before they are understood by non-native speakers.
Received Pronunciation Meaning
Received Pronunciation is the prestige form of British English pronunciation. It is the accent of government, academia and broadcasting. This is because the majority of people working in these areas, especially at higher up levels, speak with an R.P. accent.
Personally, I prefer not to use this term because I consider it to be outdated, due to its association with the BBC. In the past, BBC presenters were required to speak with an R.P. accent because their management considered it to be the clearest and easiest to understand British accent (*it still is the clearest accent, but the BBC changed its mind about the importance of this). Nowadays, the BBC pursues a policy of accent diversity instead. This means that they actively seek to feature a range of different accents, rather than R.P. alone.
Standard English Meaning
Standard English is English that follows all the rules in terms of grammar, word choice and pronunciation.
Significantly, Standard English has both a written and spoken form. We encounter the written form of standard English when reading a broadsheet newspaper or academic essay. As for Standard English in its spoken form, it is used whenever the speaker wants to make a good impression.
Theoretically, it’s possible for someone to speak with an R.P. accent without using standard English (not being grammatically correct). However, this is rare in practice. Standard English and Received Pronunciation normally go hand in hand, due to the relationship between the two and the overall educatedness of the individual.
Following the Rules of English
I teach both Standard English and Received Pronunciation because it is the combination of the two that helps you create the best possible impression with your English. For my help to improve your accent and speaking, consider joining one of my accent courses or classes. More information here.
Thank you for reading and/or watching today’s lesson.
Extend Your Learning
▶︎ Did you enjoy this lesson on linguistic terms? If so, you will like this lesson on ‘Words About Words‘.
▶︎ Confused by words that sound the same but have different spellings? Study my Homophones Lesson next.
▶︎ Is it possible to change your accent to R.P.? Read my article to find out!