Dialect is made up of the words, expressions or ways of saying things that are not universal to a language but found in one place only. For example, in Britain “smart” means you are well-dressed, but in America it means you have brains.
Avoid dialect in your writing. Like jargon and slang many will not understand it.
A good dictionary will tell you whether a word is dialect, but some are blind to their own dialect. An American dictionary, for example, may say that “aeroplane” is British, but fail to note that “airplane” is American. The Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries are generally good.
Dialect adds colour to writing, so why avoid it? The trouble is few of us know where general English leaves off and our dialect begins. Dialects are invisible to those who speak them. So if you know something is dialect leave it out. There will be more than enough dialect left in what you write that will be invisible to you.
You should aim at the kind of English you are used to seeing in books. That sort of English is taught and understood everywhere in the English-speaking world, no matter what is spoken in the streets.
The BBC and CNN are also good examples of English to follow. They are in dialects of English, true, but they are familiar enough to English-speaking people everywhere that you will be understood. In effect they are forms of international English. The same goes for the English in The Economist. I follow it for just that reason.
When you quote speech, of course you must use the words that were in fact spoken or, in fiction, would be spoken. But even there you must make clear what is meant.
In “A Clockwork Orange” Anthony Burgess invents a dialect of English from the future that is full of Russian words, but it still makes complete sense. Mark Twain in “Huckleberry Finn” also uses dialect to effect.
Not only do different regions have their own words, but the same word can mean different things in different places. A good example is the word “tea”.
Everywhere “tea” means the drink made from the tea leaves. But it has other meanings too:
- In Jamaica it can mean any drink made by putting something in boiling water, like orange peels.
- In Australia, New Zealand and among some in Britain it can mean the evening meal.
- In America “tea will be served” never means a meal but tea to drink served with something light to eat, such as cake – a meaning it can also have in Britain.
Some examples of dialect:
- America: mad (for angry), meet with, head up, gasoline, corn (maize), cot (camp bed), touchdown, airplane
- Australia: g’day, milko, postie, mate, googly, nick
- Britain: baby’s dummy, bilberry, braces, building society, corn (wheat), cot (baby’s bed), homely, courgette, liquidiser, paraffin, pants, removal van
- India: crore, lakh, today morning
- Jamaica: johncrow, double bible, obeah, slackness, fi, nyam
- Singapore: lah, lor, kiasu, sia, blur