Traditional and Modern Dialectology

Traditional and modern dialectology are two related studies of dialects. Their scientific focus differs, however:

Traditional DialectologyModern Dialectology
Since 19th centurySince 1960s
Geographical Sociolinguistics Sociological Sociolinguistics
Focus on rural areasFocus on urban areas
Focus on regional variation/varieties: accent and lexiconFocus on social variation/varieties: accent, lexicon and grammar
Focus on NORMS (Non-mobile Old Rural Male Speakers)Less restricted focus: study of diverse social groups (age, class, male/female…)
Elicitation of information via questionnaires and interviews (tape-recorded)Plus corpora, modern statistical methods for analysis of linguistic data
Result: creation of linguistic maps (dialect maps) with isoglosses indicating dialectal borders 
Also: regional dialectology or dialect geographyAlso: social dialectology or urban dialectology (see Sociolinguistic Patterns)

Isoglosses (sg. isogloss): isoglosses are boundaries on a dialect map, i.e. (imaginary) lines illustrating the geographical distribution of a given set of studied linguistic features (e.g. lexical or phonological). Thus, we can locate dialect regions on a linguistic map and then indicate dialect boundaries.

A dialect boundary can be drawn by dialectologists where isoglosses bundle together, e.g. where the location of an isogloss for a particular pronunciation feature overlaps with that of another isogloss drawn for a lexical feature.

Characteristically, the boundaries between dialects are not clear-cut but rather transitional. Due to a growing mobility of people and an increasing presence of media, which largely uses Received Pronunciation in broadcasts, dialects become less distinctive.

A collection of linguistic maps showing the distribution of diverse linguistic features is called a ‘linguistic atlas’. An example for the USA is this book by Labov, Ash and Boberg:

(Source: Kortmann 2005, 313)

  • Labov, W., Ash, S. and Boberg, C. (2006). The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change; A Multimedia Reference Tool. Berlin et al.: Mouton de Gruyter.

Click here for a map of major dialect regions in England and the USA