Let’s test our knowledge first.
Is the funny secretary, “wanna-be interpreter”, in the video below imitating accents or dialects?
Actually the talented English comedian, Caterine Tate, is imitating none of the two in this comic video. She’s just making fun of the sound of some languages that are literally foreign to her; she speaks none of them. As such, she cannot be speaking in an accent or a dialect belonging to these languages.
Accents and dialects are often used interchangeably to describe the non-native sound of a spoken language. But accents and dialects mean two different things, in fact. I speak three languages fluently and in different dialects and accents; Arabic, English & Dutch. I also used to run a language services business for 5 years. So, the subject does intrigue me as such to delve into in more details.
What accents and dialects do have in common is that they are the natural results of “language competition” in people’s verbal communication system. They are mostly linked to those who speak, hear, know or are exposed to more than one language or to a form of language different than the official one because of geography, ethnicity or both.
Accents and dialects are both “spoken-form distinctions” from what is usually referred to as a Modern Standard Language form, spoken by a larger or a dominant group with a well-developed written form. While spoken Modern Standard Languages are commonplace in many (multi-cultural) countries like the US, the UK , The Netherlands, France and Germany, or even less multi-cultural ones like China and Japan, in Arabic countries as a region language is a different story.
The modern standard form of Arabic is only official, academic, literary, educational, legal, media-centred or written but no longer spoken by the common man in the street. So, all Arabic people in fact only communicate in Arabic dialects.
Some dialects are derived from other older languages and have evolved to become official forms of another language and are no longer dialects but official languages, like Mexican Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese & Cantonese Chinese (Hong Kong).
Some may put “Indian English” in a separate category too as a dialect and not only an accent, although not globally acknowledged, for having different uses in its official form and for being used by a very large population. But the large population of India (1.237 billion per 2012) already has its fair share of national dialects, as you can see below, making a sub-categorisation of “Indian English” both possible & impossible.
Accents relate to pronunciation differences of the same words pertaining to same meanings while using the standard grammatical & spelling form of a given official language. Dialects also relate to pronunciation but often have totally different words for the same meaning or same words for totally different meanings. Dialects also distinguish themselves for having distinctive (new or forgotten) words and language uses of their own.
Having an accent can be an individual label of a person or one related to a certain group of people, usually characterized by having a shared native tongue or a shared/similar cultural background. In Holland, the second biggest minority of Moroccans is believed to have a certain “Moroccan accent” (but not exactly a dialect) while native Dutchmen in the Eastern part of Holland do have a distinctive dialect with its own words, uses and phrases.
People of Levant Countries (Palestine, Syria, Jordan & Lebanon) have different dialects among them, but a shared one when compared to the more similar dialects of the Arabic Gulf Countries. (see Arabic Dialects Map, above)
Having a dialect is mostly a collective characteristic of certain people of a shared ethnic (but mostly geographical) background while sharing a standard form of language that is taught in main-stream schools. People in Rotterdam, my number one home city, have a distinct dialect than those of Amsterdam, but can speak Modern Standard Dutch (ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands), any time.
The most famous example is probably the difference between British, American, Canadian and Australian accents, which, while differing in word use and vocabulary sometimes, are more often called accents than dialects, probably because the official forms of these language forms are still very similar in vocabulary, use and grammar for the major part and because they are direct derivatives of British English.
This, while the Irish, Welsh and Scottish, for example still have their own original and official languages (Gaelic, Welsh & Celtic, respectively) that have had more influence in their variant of English than in the case of the US, Canada, New Zealand & Australia.