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Ernest Woods. Click for larger image.

Ernest Woods of Haywood County, North Carolina, stresses a point about Appalachian speech.

Credit: Neal Hutcheson

Vestor and Dorothy Mcgaha. Click for larger image.
Vestor and Dorothy Mcgaha of Haywood County, North Carolina, explain some unique phrases of Appalachian English.

Credit: Neal Hutcheson

What They Are

Different language communities have certain ways of talking that set them apart from others. Those differences may be thought of as dialects —not just accents (the way words are pronounced) but also grammar, vocabulary, syntax and common expressions. Often a group that is somewhat isolated regionally or socially from other groups will develop a characteristic dialect.

Many people wonder, "What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?" There are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing them, and the difference is often a matter of degree rather than of kind. The Dictionary of Linguistics defines dialect as a variety of a language used by people from a particular geographic area. Many historical linguists view every speech form as a dialect of the older medium from which it was developed; for example, modern Romance languages such as French and Italian developed from dialects of Latin. Other linguists point out the role of historical and political developments in the formation of a dialect

Regardless how one defines them, dialects are fascinating and relevant to the general study of language differences.

Why They Matter

Research in dialects helps scientists understand the fundamental principles that underlie language differences, language innovation and language variation in time and space. The research also helps the public understand language diversity and offers a new perspective on national debates associated with various dialects – for example, should people be encouraged to eliminate “nonstandard” ways of speaking?

Ocracoke Resident. Click for larger image.
Researchers Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes interview Ocracoke resident Rex O’Neal about the changes taking place on the island over the past several generations.

Credit: Herman Lankford

Walt Wolfram of North Carolina State University helped launch the national awareness about the role of dialects in American society and education. Now he is conducting research on several dialects in North Carolina, including the Ocracoke brogue and African American Appalachian dialects.

For more about Wolfram and his research, see:

Related Links:

Dictionary of American Regional English

PBS program “Do You Speak American?”

A National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English

By Elizabeth Malone

Language and Linguistics A Special Report