Dialect and Idiolect: I say [tuh-MEY-toh]; you say [tuh-MAH-toh]

Jan 29, 2021 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


The word “dialect” is one most people have likely heard of and possibly even used. Another related word that is less commonly used and understood is “idiolect.” Both of these words have to do with language. “Dialect” arrived first; its first recorded use hails back to the 16th century (“Dialect”). “Idiolect,” which was inspired by the word “dialect,” arrived on the scene appreciably later: sometime in the mid-twentieth century (Wright). Much thanks goes to Maria Gerber, author of Fables, Myths, and Fairy Tales, who contributed this blog post, which shares more information about this intriguing word pair.

A dialect is a variety of language used by a group. The world seems to be getting smaller all the time, but we take on the speech patterns of the people with whom we surround ourselves.

Dialects don’t constitute separate languages, and the recognition of a dialect is subjective. Clearly, dialect does not equate with a social distinction. This flies in the face of the instances when individuals and groups have been and are discriminated against due to a bully’s perception that non-standard (whatever that means) language equals low status. That’s known as dialectic prejudice. Speech patterns differ in particular areas of a country. They’re regional.

Most of us Americans who’ve moved around from South to North or from East to West have heard the phenomenon of dialects. As children in Nar’lens, the first thing we asked a relative was, “How’s your mamanem (mother and other people in her house)?” Growing up in a Chicago suburb, we caught lightning bugs (not fireflies). When I studied in Rhode Island, a waitress once tilted her head because I ordered a milkshake, I mean frappe. “You guys” became, I confess, “y’all” fairly quickly after my family and I arrived in Oklahoma. Dialectical connection between members of a speaking community can be occupational. Strong occupational dialects come, for example, in academic, medical, and legal varieties’ jargons. Evidently, I’m not the only person who struggles to comprehend legalese. Usually, however, hearing people’s dialects is delightful—like gazing at all the ice creams in the freezer at the grocery store.

Accent is a part of a dialect. Think of the distinctive, taut words spoken by some kids from Noo Yawk, and consider the wideness of a Minnesotan’s accent. How girlfriends and a younger I in Southern California used to like, totally giggle when we talked like Valley Girls (San Fernando Valley)! And have you noticed newscasters trying to hold our attention by varying the pitch of their voices? So musical:) Accents are all about pronunciation and sound.

Now, idiolect refers to each individual’s unique usage of words and expressions. Like dialect, idiolect is a variety of language. Your idiolect is your fingerprint. A person’s idiolect includes her choice of words (vocabulary), her intonation (high voice? low voice?), her pronunciations, grammatical patterns, or other peculiarities. My better half, who grew up in Colorado, warshed the clothes. Subtle, but it made me smile every time he said it.

Some of our relatives or friends tend to frequently repeat expressions. They can be endearing or iffy, right? My mother’s endearing phrase was “It takes all kinds to make a world.” Listening to idiolect can be revealing and amusing. In a duet (Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates!) in Shall We Dance (1937), their idiolects famously disagreed: “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.” These are fun to think of:

  • Do you call her your ont or your ant?
  • What do you pour over your pancakes? sir-up? seer-up?
  • He baked a pie – pih-kahn or pee-kan.
  • Aw-fuhn one hears awf-tuhn nowadays.
  • Do you snip coo-pons or cyoo-pons?
  • Lots of folks sure do love to eat crawdads … crawfish! no, crayfish.

Rather like a GPS, the way we talk marks our identity—who we are and where we come from. It’s true.


                                                                                      Works Cited

“‘Dialect.’” Edited by Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline,


Wright, David. “Idiolect.” Oxford Bibliographies, Oxford University Press, 29 Nov. 2018,


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