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.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.


Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.