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Place and upbringing

The most accessible part of a language that we can study is its vocabulary, or lexis. As we move from one part of a country to another we hear words that are entirely strange to us. Or the words might be ones we understand but do not use, i.e. words that are in our passive rather than active vocabulary. Depending on where a person comes from in England, they might use the word gully or entry, ten-foot or ginnel, snicket or twitten, or some other word, to refer to a narrow path between buildings. In parts of the Midlands and north of England people use pikelet to describe what most people, and all the supermarket retailers, call a crumpet. People might be criticized for ‘getting it wrong’ with this usage, but it is not in fact a mistake. Rather, it’s a good example of distinctively regional vocabulary, and most of us who have roots in one particular area have special words, or use well-known words in a special way, that we only discover are ‘strange’ to others when we travel away from home.

But distinctive vocabulary does not only mark us out as local to particular places. No matter where one comes from, one might eat pudding or dessert or sweet or afters, depending on a whole range of social factors, such as family, education, and career, that influence the way a person talks. This brings us to another aspect of dialect that is sometimes forgotten. People with different upbringings, social backgrounds, or aspirations often speak differently from one another, even though they live in the same community. So do people of different ages, with young people perhaps using words or phrases or pronunciations which older people do not, and which older people may disapprove of. On occasions men may also speak differently from women, though this has less to do with their sex than with the roles that they play in society and the expectations placed on them. Differences like these are most definitely what we can call dialect, but it is social rather than regional dialect.


Read more about regional words for alleyways here.

See more from What is a dialect?