Why do we speak the way that we do? Examples of our particular language varieties are scattered everywhere throughout our everyday lives—whether we say you guys or y’all, soda or pop, aluminum or aluminium, and so on. Yet, when it comes to discussing these varieties from a linguistics standpoint, it can seem like there are just as many vocabulary terms to keep track of as there are dialect differences.
In this post, we cover what dialects, ethnolects, and sociolects are, as well as why they matter for translation and localization.
What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? Even to linguists, the boundaries aren’t always clear, and the two are often used interchangeably in casual conversation.
In most definitions, however, a dialect specifically refers to a variety or form of a language that is regionally or socially distinguished—that is, a variety that displays unique characteristics of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, which are often influenced by social class and/or geographical region. Examples of dialects abound in both modern and ancient languages, from Aeolic Greek (a distinctive dialect group of Ancient Greek) to Southern U.S. English, as found widely throughout the southern United States.
An ethnolect is a variety of language that is associated with a particular ethnic group. In the United States, for example, both Chicano English (Mexican-American English) and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) have been described as ethnolects. There are also multiethnolects, or language varieties that have been influenced by multiple languages, especially in dense, working-class urban areas.
The term is not without controversy. Some researchers express concerns that the focus on ethnicity could overlook other factors of language development, or that it could lead to incorrect and harmful stereotypes. For instance, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of standard language ideology, which suggests that a majority group speaks a “standard” or purer language, while its minority ethnic groups speak a substandard “ethnolect.”
A sociolect is a language variety spoken by a certain social group or class. Sociolects can be influenced by a wide range of social factors, including factors like socioeconomic status, education, and profession, as well as age group, religion, gender, ethnicity (the ethnolects mentioned above can also be considered sociolects), and more.
For example, both working-class Cockney slang in the U.K. and the “Queen’s English” Received Pronunciation (RP) associated with the aristocracy might be called sociolects. In the classic New York accent, the dropped -r at the end of words like car was associated more with the working class, while more upper-class speakers (or those who wished to appear so) made a point of pronouncing the –r.
Why do dialects matter for translation and localization?
Of course, language isn’t always an exact or obvious science. Most people use more than one dialect when speaking—and many of us, even subconsciously, “code-switch” between different dialects depending on the situations and the other speakers involved.
Therefore, when working on translation and localization, it’s essential to keep these concepts in mind. Translating for certain locales and audiences will require a professional translator familiar with their specific dialects, ethnolects, and sociolects to ensure the best possible outcome.