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Dialects and grammar

Another area of language difference, besides phonology and lexis, has to do with the way in which words can be changed to slightly alter their meaning, making them plural for example, and the way in which they are linked together in longer units to create messages. This is all the area of grammar.

Morphology: the alteration of words

  • Do you refer to two or more swimming creatures as fish, or fishes?
  • Do you say ‘I came to town yesterday’, or ‘I come to town yesterday’?
  • Do you say ‘I was’ or ‘I were’?
  • Do you say ‘themselves’ or ‘theirselves’?

In each example, the differences are caused by our selecting respectively from various ways of making individual words: the plural of nouns, the past tense of verbs, and reflexive pronouns. Many categories of words undergo change like this, involving word endings or other alterations (or non-alterations) of form. This feature of grammar, ‘word-grammar’, is morphology.

Syntax: the arrangement of words

The second aspect of grammar, when words come together in various combinations so that they have collective meaning, is syntax. When asking for something to be given to them, most English speakers say ‘give me it’. But several million speakers of British English, largely but not only in the English West Midlands, are more likely to say ‘give it me’, which does not sound at all strange to them although it does sound strange, and even confusing, to many others. (There is, of course, the possibility of saying ‘give it to me’, using an alternative grammatical construction which neatly avoids this particular problem altogether.) Choices like this are not at all random, but depend a lot on where someone lives, or at least on where they lived when they learnt the language. Grammatical differences of syntax like this, and those of morphology, are all dialectal.

See more from What is a dialect?