Understanding Dialects,
American and Otherwise


Many of the Realists devoted themselves to capturing the variety of the American landscape and the mannerisms of the people who live against these backdrops. As part of meeting this challenge, these "regionalists," as they are called, also attempted to represent the exact speech patterns of people living in the state or region they had chosen as their setting. The result is called dialect, and you'll recognize it in your reading by the many apostrophes and odd spellings it contains.

The subject arises, in English class especially, because students sometimes have trouble reading dialect. This appears to occur when people try to muddle through the reading by "translating" each word individually as they read. This is difficult, for one thing, but the real problem with this method is that you will never "hear" the unique speech patterns of the characters or absorb the "local color" the authors were trying to represent. A much better way to read dialect is simply to read for sound, to try to "hear" it in your head.
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The Task

As much of a hinderance to communication as dialects may be in the United States, other countries' dialects differ so widely that people can't understand people from other regions of their own country. This project is designed to give you some background in the idea of regional dialects in this country and around the world in the hope that understanding American dialects may become a little easier.

Students will produce a paper as a result of doing what is primarily a research project. The paper should reflect the depth of your research. You should also include your own personal experience with dialect. Perhaps part of your introduction could take the form of anecdotes or short narratives of times when you didn't understand someone clearly (or when you could not make yourself understood) merely because of dialect differences.

NOTE: Please remember that the idea of dialect does not really apply when people are not speaking their native language. Native speakers naturally will have trouble understanding someone from a foreign country who has not completely learned the listener's language. This is not an effect of dialect differences, however.
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The Process

The first step, as usual, is to consult the Resources Section of the WebQuest. There you will find a collection of information sources of all kinds. Some of it comes from college linguistics departments and is quite formal in nature. Other resources are the work of hobbists and people with a special interest in dialect. You may have to make some judgments as to which resources are the most authoritative and valuable. This is a useful research skill!

Once you have read widely on the subject, begin writing your paper. Remember to include real-life instances of your own experience with dialect. Try to represent what you already knew on the topic, what you learned, and what you think about the topic as a result of doing the project.
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--American Dialect Society
-- The American Dialect Homepage

Useful Resources
-- What is Dialect?
--"Dialect" (Britannica.Com)
-- The American-British British-American Dictionary
--The Online Dictionary of Playground Slang
--WordOrigins. Org
--The Dialect Translator

Link Pages
-- English Dialect Links
-- American Dialect Links

Resources for American Dialects
-- The Organization of Dialect Diversity in North America
-- Dialect Map of American English
--Linguistic Atlas Projects
-- LINGUISTICS - DIALECT SPEAKERS: African American Black Vernacular / Spanglish / Changlish / Dialect / Creole / Patois / Pidgin
-- Dialects and the Ocracoke Brogue
--FAQ from American Accent Training

Some Other Languages
-- Proper Elizabethan Accents
--Chinese-Related FAQ
--Major Indian Languages

University Departments
--Linguistics at Duke
--Linguistics at UNC
--Linguistics at NCSU

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It is not necessary to refer to every resource I have provided, nor do you need to fill up many, many pages with all kinds of info. What I hope to see is a lively, interesting, and informative essay on the topic of dialects. Remember to cite the sources you quote directly. Also cite any you have found on your own.
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Maybe dialect will still be an "issue" for you after doing this project, but I hope you will understand the topic better than before and that the reading of dialect goes better with practice. You'll get plenty of that!
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Designed by Michael Byers
Orange High School
Hillsborough, NC
Last updated June, 2008.
Based on a template from The WebQuestPage

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