The “Code”: How Dialects Form in Language

Do you and your friends or family have a secret code?

A “language” that you speak: inside jokes, turns of phrase, or other unique features.

These idiosyncrasies bond us and distinguish our in-group from “others.”

Dialect and accent work similarly. They occur naturally when any localized group comes together, forming its own code.

Sometimes the code evolves into a whole new language.

The Proto-Germanic language is just one example.

You can see the linguistic branches grow from the Proto-Germanic trunk which, itself, is rooted in Indo-European language.

Dutch, Swedish, and English are all branches springing from this one Common Germanic mother tongue.

As the regions grew isolated, their language evolved over centuries into different Germanic languages, just as those of the Dravidian languages in Southeast Asia or the Ibero-Romance group of languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese), which sprung from Vulgar Latin.

This is why the structural features – and oftentimes the vocabulary – of Proto-Germanic languages are similar.

Last week, we talked a little about how accents form in isolation.

Let’s explore this further by looking at the variances in English accents and dialects that exist across the UK today.

The Many Dialects of the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a treasure trove of language.

From its single base language of English, dozens of accents and dialects have sprung up.

Tom F. of Education First writes:

“There are almost 40 different dialects in the UK that sound totally different from each other, and in many cases use different spellings and word structure. In fact, there’s pretty much one accent per county.”

This is due to both the UK’s long history with the language, reaching back through 1400 years of English, as well as to its isolation as an island.

Further, rural inhabitants were largely immobile across many generations, making their villages even more isolated from outsiders.

Accent vs. Dialect

Before we go further, let’s differentiate between accents and dialect.

An accent is the way in which words are pronounced, while dialect is the specific vocabulary used in a region.

When examining accents and dialect under the microscope, the UK, in particular, is an interesting specimen.

In a country the size of Oregon, dozens of unique accents and dialects exist, including Cockney, Brummie, Geordie, Scouse, West Country, Yorkshire…you get the picture.

Although each is speaking a version of English, some accents and dialects are difficult for even other Brits to understand.

They are coded.

Next week, we’ll try to unlock some of these codes.

Insightful Cross-Cultural Analogies: How Hofstede’s Power Distance & Uncertainty Avoidance Aid Understanding

Power distance. Uncertainty avoidance.

We’ve discussed these two dimensions at length in previous posts.

Not only are they stand-alone aspects that aid cross-cultural understanding, but social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, has applied these two dimensions to create cultural analogies that help simplify foreign workplace environments.

Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance Review

These two dimensions relate to workplace behaviors.

Power distance is the degree to which cultures accept and expect the unequal distribution of power amongst members of organizations and institutions.

For instance, those employees in cultures of high power distance will not directly confront a superior; those employees and superiors in cultures of low power distance rely on communication and the consultation of each other, which de-emphasizes the hierarchical nature of status.

Uncertainty avoidance is the measure of acceptance and expectation for unpredictability and chaos in society.

Those cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance have a low tolerance for unpredictability and ambiguity, resulting in rule-oriented, law-abiding societies.

Those cultures with low levels of uncertainty avoidance have a high tolerance for the same, resulting in societies willing to take more risks, tolerate a wider variety of opinions, and not follow rules so strictly.

The Analogies

Arranging these two dimensions on the axes of a matrix, Hofstede produced a set of helpful analogies to better understand the work cultures of the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France.

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With its low uncertainty avoidance and low power distance, a typical English company is like a village market, in that it combines risk-taking with flat hierarchies, resulting in the classic entrepreneurial spirit.

Germany also shares the flat workplace hierarchies (low power distance) with the British; however, German culture has a high uncertainty avoidance, making typical German companies efficient and inflexible, more like a “well-oiled machine” or a clock. Rules are strictly followed, with decentralized decision-making and each equally important wheel working together.

The typical French company is described as a “royal court” or “pyramid of people.” The culture is one of high power distance, where everyone knows their place and decision-making is centralized. They also share high uncertainty avoidance with the Germans, meaning rules are strictly followed, resulting in a complex network of relationships across the levels of hierarchy. Power and authority are highly valued.

The best analogy for a Chinese company is that of a family with a head patriarch. Like France, China values high power distance and, like England, low uncertainty avoidance. This means that, despite having a typical hierarchical society that values company loyalty, risks and rule-bending are embraced, which has helped to position China as an economic superpower.

Although I can’t stress enough that analogies are never perfect and nothing is one-size-fits-all, they do allow managers to form mental models, aiding understanding in the workplace environments of foreign countries.