What is a dialect?

by Clive Upton.

Clive Upton is Emeritus Professor of Modern English Language in the University of Leeds. He has been researching English Dialects for almost fifty years, and was adviser to the BBC’s Voices project.


Dialect is one of those words that almost everybody thinks they understand, but which is in fact a bit more problematic than at first seems to be the case. A simple, straightforward definition is that a dialect is any variety of English that is marked off from others by distinctive linguistic features. Such a variety could be associated with a particular place or region or, rather more surprisingly, it might also be associated with a certain social group—male or female, young or old, and so on.

But whether the focus is regional or social, there are two important matters that need to be considered when defining ‘dialect’:

  • What are the building blocks of dialect?
  • What are the most common mistakes that people make when referring to ‘dialect’?

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