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  Dialectology, in linguistics, has brought about the consideration of dialects as language systems in their own right. It is in fact notoriously difficult to distinguish between language and dialect in an entirely objective way. In practice, most dialectologists employ definitions which tend to comprise a bundle of features typically associated with dialects. Thus, dialects normally have fundamental phonological, lexical and syntactic similarities with at least one other language. In addition, the region in which a dialect is spoken typically does not subsume another language (the reverse cannot be said for many languages). Many definitions also acknowledge the widespread absence in dialects of those features which contribute to the standardization of a language (established writing conventions, dictionaries, written grammars and so on).

Dialects can be studied in isolation, but it has long been recognized that many fruitful insights on the nature of language can be revealed via a systematic comparison of the way dialects vary from region to region. Indeed, large-scale surveys based on regional variation constitute the central focus of research in dialectology. Studies of regional dialectal varieties demonstrate that linguistic variation is not simply a superficial, geographically determined aspect of language. Instead, variation is revealed to be a fundamental feature of human language. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that the existence of regional dialectal variants plays a crucial role in the historical process of language change.

Traditional dialectal surveys aimed to determine the core features of a given dialect, which is the indigenous language of a community, acquired in childhood and used regularly by adults. In this situation, so-called NORMS (non-mobile older rural males) are often selected as informants, since they tend to provide the most reliable source of conservative speech forms. It is a relatively straightforward task to examine the dialect of a community if there is a stable population and relatively little contact with the outside world. But the 20th century has witnessed unprecedented levels of population movements, with a concomitant increase in contact between disparate languages and cultures, along with a dramatic increase in the power of communication systems. As a result, many of the dialects associated with isolated rural communities in the 19th century are now dying out. Nowadays, therefore, dialectal surveys often take on the nature of a taxonomic exercise, designed to record language varieties which are in imminent danger of extinction.

An alternative, sociolinguistic, approach to dialectology does not expect to encounter this kind of linguistic purity. This difference of emphasis is motivated by the realization that linguistic variation is often strongly associated with certain social factors, rather than simply a geographical region. Thus, it has been found that social status, gender, the social setting of conversation and the type of conversation are all important factors. The stability and predictability of the language used in given contexts has led to the concept of distinct styles or registers, each of which is characterized by its own special vocabulary and structural conventions. Thus, the register used by lawyers in court is quite different from that used by football players in the changing room. Each person typically has command of a whole range of particular registers, providing individuals with the ability to speak appropriately in a given setting. Hence, variation is not merely confined to inter-dialectal comparisons from one region to another. It is an inherent feature within the speech of each individual. MS

Further reading L. Davis, English Dialectology: An Introduction; , J.K. Chambers and , P. Trudgill, Dialectology.



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