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  • Matthew Hadodo

Subs NOT Hoagies: Different Names for the Same Thing

(Originally published July 27, 2014

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What is a dialect? The average person tosses this word around in a variety of contexts, but what exactly is a dialect from a linguist’s perspective? This actually is a really tough question to answer because it truly does depend on the situation. The simple version would be that a dialect is merely some variation of a spoken language. Further complicating matters, a dialect can have features (either pronunciation, sentence structure, words, etc.) that differ based on geography (geolect), ethnic grouping (ethnolect) or sociocultural factors such as socioeconomic status, age and gender (sociolect), among many others. This still is kind of confusing. Let’s examine the topic from another point of view. All spoken languages (as well as extinct languages, for that matter) have multiple dialects. Some speakers can easily understand some of these dialects, while some are harder to figure out. Using English as a starting point, let’s compare UK’s Standard English (AKA Received Pronunciation or RP) to Standard American English. These basic groupings would be considered geolects because we are comparing their differences specifically based on location. The most noticeable feature that is different (or salient) would be the pronunciation (phonetic/phonological data), or what the average person calls a “foreign accent.” In this example, the English vowels and pronunciation of “r” at the end of words probably is most noticeable. We can keep getting more and more specific comparing various elements of speech within members of same or different communities. A good example of an ethnolect would probably be what is now in the linguistic community commonly referred to as African American (Vernacular) English (AAVE/AAE), formerly Ebonics. AAVE is a dialect that many (though not all nor exclusively) African Americans, regardless if living on the West Coast or East Coast, North or South, share. Having several characteristics in common with Southern English (pronunciation, use of the verb copula ‘be,’ vocabulary), it is not inherently better or worse than any other dialect of English. Still, we often hear of judgment calls on people who speak a specific way, mainly, differently from what we are used to.

The famous quote “a language is merely a dialect with an army and navy” showcases the arbitrary nature of language and how such designations hold real weight. The common example of how Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all dialects of the same language (based on their structure) yet are identified as unique languages because of political reasons, shows just how powerful aligning one’s identity with one language over another can be. The same goes for Hindi and Urdu, which represent the ideological differences of Hinduism and Islam over what was once one group of people who now have two separate nation states, even adopting different writing systems to further distinguish themselves from one another.

Despite knowing that language is so arbitrary, individuals still are so adamant about maintaining their specific speech habits. Social Media is filled with so-called dialectal maps, accent tags and other quizzes that will determine where you are from based upon your pronunciation and word choice in specific contexts. We are drawn to these because they validate an innate sense of self that we identify with in our speech. Regardless if you say grinder, sub, hoagie, hero or sandwich, the word spoken does not change the inherent quality of that sandwich. However, you probably shudder when you hear someone pronounce car-mel instead of ca-ra-mel, if that’s what you are accustomed to. This is because we establish emotional connections and bonds to objects based on how similar or different they are to us and to what we recognize as home.

Have you moved around a lot? Encountered anyone from a different part of the English speaking world? How did it feel to hear them say things differently, either with a distinct pronunciation or using completely different words than you would? As always, I’m excited to hear your comments!

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