“You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto. Let’s call the whole thing off.” — “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin

Many years ago, when I was in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, a fellow recruit asked me where I was from. When I told him that I was from Maine, he wanted to know why I didn’t sound like it.

Repressing the urge to begin my answer with “ayuh,” I told him that I’d grown up watching the news with Walter Cronkite just like the rest of the country, so why should I speak any differently?

I now realize that my off-the-cuff explanation of why my dialect is how it is was a great oversimplification of the facts. I talk the way I do because that’s the way we talked at home, and that had become my “vernacular,” or the common speech of a language as you live with it.

So just where does dialect fit into the overall scheme of what’s considered “standard English” anyway? Well, first there’s the accent, which is the way that people native to an area pronounce words when speaking.

Accents are just one part of the more comprehensive concept of dialect, which is an overall way of speaking, not just pronunciation, and can include the use of distinct vocabulary choices, grammar and sentence structure.


Usually when we think about dialects, we think about what are called “regional dialects,” which are distinct forms of a language that’s spoken in particular geographical areas. Dialectologists also refer to these dialects as “topolects” or “regiolects.”

For instance, in Philadelphia a term for a male person is “bul” or “boul” (even they can’t agree on the spelling), and “youse” means “you” or “you all.” In Mississippi, the respective terms used would probably be “bubba” and “y’all” (which a college classmate once explained is “second person plural plural.”)

In addition to regional dialects there are “social dialects,” which are spoken by a particular group based on cultural and social characteristics other than geography. Interestingly even former President Barack Obama realized that his earlier social dialect had remained with him long after he’d achieved political success. “And there’s no doubt,” he said, “that when I’m with a Black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect.”

President Obama’s use of a slightly different dialect is an example of what The Washington Post calls “code-switching,” or the pattern of “speaking one way to one’s immediate peers and another way . . .  to a larger group.” Of course many of us, not just politicians, code-switch when we talk to the boss, large groups and other factions that aren’t friends and family.

Accents and dialects are parts of the English language, which is a collection of dialects, be they written, spoken or expressed through gestures, that are understandable to each other. But this leads to the question that, if they’re all parts of standard English, just what is “standard English” anyway?

Many experts argue that what now passes for standard English is pretty much what we’d hear if we listen to the way that Northern or Midwestern newscasters talk, which is also known as “network English,” and is considered to be “dialect free.”  On the other hand, other experts contend that standard English is also a dialect, and that it’s no more “correct” than any other dialect.

So what does all this mean? Well, if you’re a writer, it means that it’s best to follow the advice about dialects that’s found in “The Elements of Style,” which warns: “Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce.” A little later the book advises that the best dialect writers “use the minimum, not the maximum, of deviation from the norm, thus sparing the reader as well as convincing him.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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