8 Language and Culture

Learning Outcomes

After studying this chapter, you should be able to discuss:

  • the definition of dialect and the types of dialects
  • accents and their connection to dialect
  • the definition of register
  • the ways language changes

Sociolinguistics: Dialect

Sociolinguistics investigates the link between language and society by way of examining linguistic variation. Linguistic variables, or two or more ways of doing the same thing, are the primary object of study. Sociolinguistics has uncovered facts about linguistic structure, social structure, and the process of language change by examining the patterns of variation between the two (or more) variants of variables and the sociocultural context.

Sociocultural factors include style, place, social status, gender, and ethnicity, but there is a wide array of factors that have been found to be important to understanding linguistic variation. While early sociolinguistic research sought to explain variation by finding correlations between these kinds of social factors and patterns of variation, modern approaches to sociolinguistic variation focus on how people use language for identity, to both align and disalign from others, and to shape and reshape the social context.

Dialects and accents can vary by region, class, or ancestry, and they influence the impressions that we make of others. Research shows that people tend to think more positively about others who speak with a dialect similar to their own and think more negatively about people who speak differently. Of course, many people think they speak normally and perceive others to have an accent or dialect.

A dialect is a variety of a language that is spoken by a particular group of people. Although dialects include the use of different words and phrases, it’s the tone of voice that often creates the strongest impression. For example, a person who speaks with a Southern accent may perceive a New Englander’s accent to be grating, harsh, or rude because the pitch is more nasal and the rate faster. Conversely, a New Englander may perceive a Southerner’s accent to be syrupy and slow, leading to an impression that the person speaking is uneducated. Accent is the particular way words are pronounced. It’s important to note that accent is just one part of a particular dialect.

The term ‘dialect’ can be considered as a head term for various types of dialects. These can be defined on the basis of the type of variation from the standard language:

  • Regional dialect
  • Social dialect
  • Phonological dialect

What’s the difference between a language, a dialect, and an accent?

Regional Dialects

Mostly, the term dialect is associated with some sort of regional difference between the speakers of a language. Their use of their language identifies their regional background.

The United States has a great number of regional dialects. Many of them are based on geographic region of the country. Linguists can even tell with a reasonable degree of certainty where you are from based on your answers to questions like, “How would you address a group of people?” A linguist named Bert Vaux designed the Harvard Dialect Survey in the 1990s to do just this. It went online in 2002, revised with the help of Scott Golder, and was published by the New York Times in 2013 .


Can you guess where I am from?


These regional differences in America are a result of the immigrants who settled into these areas and the migration routes of other settlers as they moved west to settle in new areas.

The first permanent English settlement of the New World began with the arrival of England’s second expedition in 1607. Most of these colonists came from a particular part of England, and it is believed that the dialect spoken there is the closed to Shakespeare’s English. This access exists today in some places in the US, and it is known as Tidewater. Puritans, Quakers, and other immigrants also arrived in the New World, all originating from different parts of England. Of course, these English immigrants were followed by the immigration of people from Ireland and Scotland, as well as other areas of the world. The places where these different people settled influenced the dialects spoken in these areas today.

This video gives a great explanation of how these immigrants’ languages have influenced American dialects:

Here’s part II:

This video from the 1950s demonstrates some differences in common American dialects.

What follows are some examples of different United States dialects. Remember that a dialect includes both accent variation and other linguistic variations. Some of the videos refer to dialects as simply accents, but, if you pay attention, you’ll notice how vocabulary and usage are different, as well.

Northeastern American English

The Northeastern United States has a wide variety of distinct accents and dialects. The diversity that exists in the modern Northeast is partially a consequence of its older settlement history: communities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia have been around longer than similar-sized communities in the Western U.S. As a result, the speech of each urban community has had more time to diverge from the dialects of other nearby cities.

Smith Island, Maryland


Moms of the Northeast

Other Regional Dialects

The Pacific Northwest



While some might not think Arizona has a particular dialect…

…some contend that Arizona actually has several dialects.

These siblings expound on their Tucson dialect:

Okracoke Brogue

The Okracoke brogue of North Carolina, which is disappearing, is an great example of how the origins of early immigrants to the US influenced the way language developed. After watching the video, check out the comments from folks in England who identify British dialects in the Okracoke brogue.

Southern States English

The term Southern States English refers to a number of varieties of English spoken in many of the Southern States, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and parts of Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. Although these varieties are not uniform throughout these states, they share certain common characteristics that differentiate them from other varieties found in the Northern and Western United States.

Dialects were also influenced by speakers of other languages as settlers moved into new areas. Ways of speaking and words were borrowed from contact with speakers of Spanish, French, Native American languages, as well as enslaved peoples of African descent who spoke their native languages. Geographic boundaries (islands, mountains) would have kept some of these ways of speaking linguistically isolated from others (Light, 2018). (see the video below about the accent of Tangier Island, VA).


This PBS site explores more American dialects, and the North American English Dialects site provides a wealth of information about regional dialects.

Social Dialects

When two people speak with one another, there is always more going on than just conveying a message. The language used by the participants is always influenced by a number of social factors which define the relationship between the participants. These factors must be considered in order to effectively convey the message to the other participant. They influence the choice of variety or ‘code’:

  • Participants: How well do they know each other?
  • Social Setting: formal or informal
  • Interlocutors: Status relationship/Social role
  • Aim or Purpose of Conversation
  • Topic

Communication accommodation theory is a theory that explores why and how people modify their communication to fit situational, social, cultural, and relational contexts (Giles, Taylor, & Bourhis, 1973). Within communication accommodation, conversational partners may use convergence, meaning a person makes his or her communication more like another person’s. People who are accommodating in their communication style are seen as more competent, which illustrates the benefits of communicative flexibility. In order to be flexible, of course, people have to be aware of and monitor their own and others’ communication patterns. Conversely, conversational partners may use divergence, meaning a person uses communication to emphasize the differences between themselves and their conversational partner.

Convergence and divergence can take place within the same conversation and may be used by one or both conversational partners. Convergence functions to make others feel at ease, to increase understanding, and to enhance social bonds. Divergence may be used to intentionally make another person feel unwelcome or perhaps to highlight a personal, group, or cultural identity.

For example, African American women use certain verbal communication patterns when communicating with other African American women as a way to highlight their racial identity and create group solidarity. In situations where multiple races interact, the women usually don’t use those same patterns, instead accommodating the language patterns of the larger group.

While communication accommodation might involve anything from adjusting how fast or slow you talk to how long you speak during each turn, code-switching refers to changes in accent, dialect, or language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). There are many reasons that people might code-switch.


In addition to geographic location, how we speak is often related to our age, as well as gender and ethnicity.  For example, females are more likely to use “high rise terminal” or uptalk, which turns a declarative sentence into a question. (Say these two sentences aloud to hear an example: “The sky is blue.” “The sky is blue?”)


Females are also thought to use vocal fry more. Vocal fry, or the creaky voice (see click below), is the dropping of the pitch at the end of a word or phrase. It’s primarily associated with the Kardashians, but traces its roots to the 2000s with the way Paris Hilton speaks.


Uptalk and vocal fry are thought to be “obnoxious” or “unprofessional” by most people. National Public Radio’s “This American Life” received a number of complaints about female reports using vocal fry, but no one complained about the vocal fry of the host, Ira Glass. In fact, all genders use uptalk and vocal fry, though it is most associated with young women. Linguists have found that vocal fry and uptalk signal submissiveness or being non-threatening in social situations. Studies have found that while some see these vocal patterns as unprofessional, many young women perceive it as belonging to an upwardly mobile and well-educated group of women.


Our ethnicity may also shape how we speak.

African American Vernacular English

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is an example. This linguistic variety is also referred to as Black English (BE), Black English Vernacular (BEV), African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), Inner City English (ICE), or Ebonics.

AAVE is thought to have originated among polyglot enslaved Africans exposed to the English of the upper classes and poor whites, as it includes features of West African languages, Standard English, and non-standard English dialects of the 17th century British Isles.


Though viewed as not standard English, AAVE is a complex and functional language. It has its own grammatical rules, vocabulary, and pronunciations. It as just as much a vernacular as standard English, Scottish English, or a Southern accent.

American Indian English

Another example of a dialect influenced by ethnicity is American Indian English, also known as Native American English, and, more recently, the “rez accent.”  This term refers to the many varieties of English that are spoken by indigenous communities throughout North America. Some examples of AIE are Mojave English, Isletan English, Tsimshian English, Lumbee English, Tohono O’odham English, and Inupiaq English. A 2022 article explains how a 2016 study found that many of these AIE dialects share “similar patterns of pitch, rhythm and intonation” (Hilleary).

The following video demonstrates an exaggerated version of the “rez accent”:

Additional videos of Native Americans included in the Hilleary article demonstrate the common musicality of AIE.

Here is an excerpt of a video describing the origins of the indigenous tribes in North America:

Connections: Arizona’s Indigenous Languages

Navajo: Dark Winds has been criticized for its lack of authenticity.

Yavapai: Preserving Language is More than Just Words; The Yavapai Voice, A Struggle for Distinction; Havasupai Habitat;

White Mountain Apache: Issues in Language Shift


Strictly speaking, a phonological dialect or accent differs from the standard language only in terms of its pronunciation.


The two variants: He did it vs. He done it are thus true dialectal variants, since more than just the pronunciation differs. Usually speakers of different dialects have different accents, too.


Accents are distinct styles of pronunciation (Lustig & Koester, 2006). There can be multiple accents within one dialect. For example, people in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States speak a dialect of American English that is characterized by remnants of the linguistic styles of Europeans who settled the area a couple hundred years earlier. Even though they speak this similar dialect, a person in Kentucky could still have an accent that is distinguishable from a person in western North Carolina.

Regarding accents, some people hire vocal coaches or speech-language pathologists to help them alter their accent. If a Southern person thinks their accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their accent with much practice and effort. Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings.

In the early 20th century, a new accent was created specifically for actors:



In linguistics, the register is defined as the way a speaker uses language differently in different circumstances. Think about the words you choose, your tone of voice, even your body language. You probably behave very differently chatting with a friend than you would at a formal dinner party or during a job interview. These variations in formality, also called stylistic variation, are known as registers in linguistics. They are determined by such factors as social occasion, context, purpose, and audience.

Registers are marked by a variety of specialized vocabulary and turns of phrases, colloquialisms and the use of jargon, and a difference in intonation and pace; in “The Study of Language,” linguist George Yule describes the function of jargon as helping “to create and maintain connections among those who see themselves as ‘insiders’ in some way and to exclude ‘outsiders’.” In other words, register helps us to create our identity in certain contexts.

For example, if I take a sip of a beer and, using the jargon of craft beer connoisseurship, ask “am I detecting a hint of Cascade hops on the finish?” I am staking a claim as a member of the craft beer drinking community; I am expressing that I not only enjoy and am knowledgeable about the drink but that I am the kind of person who enjoys and is knowledgeable about the drink and all the social associations that might entail (perhaps masculine, millennial, a hipster, and not too serious like those *wine* people!) (see Konnelly 2020). This example of register includes specific vocabulary related to the craft beer community, “Cascade hops” and “finish.” The use of specific vocabulary words can both be inclusive and exclusive.


That specific vocabulary is called slang or jargon. Jargon refers to specialized words used by a certain group or profession. Since jargon is specialized, it is often difficult to relate to a diverse audience and should therefore be limited when speaking to people from outside the group—or at least be clearly defined when it is used.

In defining register as a specific vocabulary (slang or jargon), occupational registers might come to mind. A community college professor in Arizona, for example, will likely know that the AGEC is the Arizona General Education Curriculum and that the ATF refers to Arizona Transfer, and not Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Such registers can both create a cohesive understanding among members of a particular group, but it can also have the effect of excluding people from that group. For example, when faculty members discuss particular educational issues, students might feel they are hearing a foreign language.

This example of teacher jargon is pretty entertaining:

Another example of a register that might exclude a population who needs to understand the language is the medical profession. Medical professionals often speak in medical terms that patients might not be able to understand. While the language is necessary for doctors and nurses to communicate accurately, patients need to be educated about jargon that impacts their care.


The Language of Gamers

Gamer Speak is another example of a register based around a shared vocabulary.

Watch this video. Is she speaking English?

Here’s an explanation of how Gaming language evolved:

This site explores the unique language of gamers.

The language of gamers is just one example of how a particular hobby or career can create its own jargon or register. What registers do you use?

Language & Culture

Language Change

When languages meet, they change. More importantly, they often change each other. As we’ve learned, new words can be created as a result of languages and cultures mixing. Sometimes dialects and even new languages can form because of an interaction with another language/culture. Unfortunately, the meeting of cultures can also cause the extinction of languages, as one group dominates the other, as with many indigenous languages. Why is this important? Because often language is intimately tied to culture and identity. Blurring the Lines argues that language and culture are interwined.


Increasing outsourcing and globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching. Call center workers in India have faced strong negative reactions from British and American customers who insist on “speaking to someone who speaks English.” Although many Indians learn English in schools as a result of British colonization, their accents prove to be off-putting to people who want to get their cable package changed or book an airline ticket.

Now some Indian call center workers are going through intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers. What is being called the “Anglo-Americanization of India” entails “accent-neutralization,” lessons on American culture (using things like Sex and the City DVDs), and the use of Anglo-American-sounding names like Sean and Peggy (Pal, 2004).

As our interactions continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture and power and think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be based on cultural biases.


Not only can the connection of different cultures cause small changes in a language, they can also result in the creation of a new “bridge” language. An example of such a situation can be found with pidgins. Pidgins are not full languages, but communication systems with the bare minimum ability to communicate, usually for a specific context, like trade or colonialism. They are not spoken by anyone as a first language and are not learned by children. They’re only learned by adults for a specific application, and, for this reason, have risen in many colonial situations.

For example, an English based pigeon in Canton and Guangdong China emerged when there was a large European presence in the region, but neither group needed or wanted to properly learn the other’s language. So, speakers of the languages made do with creating a pidgin that started in the 18th century. It had mostly English words with some Chinese grammar and a few words of Portuguese.  The phrase, “sen one piece cooly come my sop look see” in the pidgin would translate to “send a servant to come to my shop and see.”



A pidgin can become a full language. The result is called a creole.  Creoles are learned by children, and there are full rules of grammar. There are a number of creoles spoken in the US including Gullah, which is spoken mostly off the coast of the Carolinas. Gullah was created from the pidgin spoken by enslaved West Africans and white plantation owners, and a Creole spoken in Hawaii, which is confusingly referred to as a pigeon.

There is also a family of Caribbean English-based Creoles including Jamaican Patois, which is related to Gullah and developed for similar reasons. As such, it contains words from Scottish and other non-standard dialects of English that were picked up by enslaved people from the indentured servants who they worked alongside.


Language Extinction

Another aspect of language change is language extinction. There are currently 6,000 to 7,000 languages in existence today, but, in the next 100 years, over 80% of these could become extinct. Languages die because of contact with a larger, more powerful groups. For example, the indigenous residents of the British Isles spoke a Celtic language. Aspects of this language were incorporated into the Latin spoken in the area after the Roman invasion, which was then incorporated into the Germanic languages spoken by German invaders, with a bit of sprinkling of Viking language from their invasion. Together these became Old English.

If languages do not evolve into other languages, they become dead ends. This limits the diversity of the world because we know language, culture, and thought are intricately connected. Groups speaking languages facing extinction have sought revitalization efforts, such as teaching their language to the next generation. A project to protect the Omaha and Ponca languages was undertaken in 2006 to teach the language to college students and the larger community.   You can explore the site here.

Indigenous people have been working for years to try to preserve their languages by increasing the number of people who can speak them. People with Linguistics training can play a valuable role in language preservation and revitalization efforts by helping to document the language and by contributing to the development of teaching materials for the languages.


Language and communication are embedded in cultural power systems. However, as we’ve discovered in this chapter, no one speaks the same way all the time in every social setting. When I am in the South for long periods of time, my speech changes, and my accent becomes more pronounced. Similarly, you probably do not speak to your grandparents the same way you speak to your peers. In fact, you may have thought of several examples of your own use of dialect, accent, and register in different situations as you read this chapter.

Although society may stigmatize some forms of speech, there’s not a scientific sense in which one grammatical pattern or an accent is better or worse than another. Communication is about relaying messages. If the message can be understood, then it is an effective form of communication.

The same is true for dialects, or a variety of speech or language variation. Languages are spectrums. All forms of language, all dialects, are equally functional and equally valid forms of communication.


This chapter is licensed CC BY NC SA 4.0.

Content in this chapter adapted from the following:

Language and Communication” by Taylor Livingston Licensed CC BY NC.

VLC205-Varieties of English by Jürgen Handke, Peter Franke, Linguistic Engineering Team under CC BY 4.0

Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd Edition by Catherine Anderson licensed CC BY NC SA 4.0.

Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under  CC BY NC SA.

Register by MHS Library licensed CC BY NC SA.


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