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Dialect levelling

Dialect levelling or dialect leveling refers to the assimilation, mixture and/or eradication of certain dialects, often due to language standardisation. Dialect levelling has been observed in most languages with large numbers of speakers after the industrialisation and modernisation of the area or areas in which they are spoken.

Definition of dialect levelling

Dialect levelling has been defined as the process by which structural variation in dialects is reduced,[1] “the process of eliminating prominent stereotypical features of differences between dialects”,[2] “a social process [that] consists in negotiation between speakers of different dialects aimed at setting the properties of, for example, a lexical entry,” [3] “the reduction of variation between dialects of the same language in situations where speakers of these dialects are brought together,” [4] “the eradication of socially or locally marked variants (both within and between linguistic systems) in conditions of social or geographical mobility and resultant dialect contact”,[5] and the “reduction...of structural similarities between languages in contact”, of which “interference and convergence are really two manifestations”.[6]

Leonard Bloomfield implicitly distinguished between the short-term process of accommodation between speakers and the long-term process of levelling between varieties, and between the social and the geographical dimensions.[7] On the geographical dimension, levelling may disrupt the regularity that is the result of the application of sound laws. It operates in waves, but may leave behind relic forms. Dialect levelling and “Mischung,” or dialect mixing, have been suggested as the key mechanisms that destroy regularity and the alleged exceptionlessness of sound laws.[8]

Dialect levelling is triggered by contact between dialects, often due to migration, and has been observed in most languages with large amounts of speakers after the industrialisation and modernisation of the area or areas in which they are spoken. It results in unique features of dialects being eliminated and “may occur over several generations until a stable compromise dialect develops.” [9][10] It is separate from levelling of variation between dialectal or vernacular versions of a language and standard versions.[11]


Contact leading to dialect levelling can stem from geographical and social mobility, which bring speakers from different regions and social levels together. Adolescents can drive levelling, as they adapt their speech under the influence of their peers, rather than their parents.[12]

In 20th-century British English, dialect levelling was caused by social upheaval leading to larger social networks. Agricultural advancements caused movement from rural to urban areas, and the construction of suburbs caused city-dwellers to return to what were formerly rural areas. World Wars I and II brought women into the workforce, and men into contact with more diverse backgrounds.[13]

Role of dialect leveling in creole formation

It has been suggested that dialect levelling plays a role in the formation of creoles. Dialect levelling is responsible for standardizing the multiple language variants produced by the relexification of substrate languages with words from the lexifier language. Features that are not common to all of the substrata, and are therefore dissimilar across the different varieties of the emerging creole, tend to be eliminated. This process begins “when the speakers of the creole community stop targeting the lexifier language and start targeting the relexified lexicons, that is, the early creole”.[14] Dialect levelling in such a situation may not be complete, however. Variation that remains after dialect levelling may result in the “reallocation” of surviving variants to “new functions, such as stylistic or social markers.”[15] Or differences between substrata, including between dialects of a single substratum, may not be leveled at all, instead persisting as differences between dialects of the creole.[16]

Case studies

Levelling in New Zealand English

Main article: New Zealand English

New Zealand English is likely the newest native-speaker variety of English in existence. English was brought to the islands in 1800, but only truly became influential in the 1840s due to a large-scale migration from Britain. The most distinctive part of the language is the formation of the accent that has developed through complex series of processes involving dialect contact between different varieties of British Isles English, followed by dialect mixture, new-dialect formation which preceded linguistic change. Although New Zealand English sounds very similar to Australian English, it is not a direct transplant, as Australians were only 7% of the immigrants before 1881 and the majority of the linguistic change in New Zealand English happened between 1840-1880. The speed with which New Zealand English became a unique, independent form of English can be attributed to the diversity of speakers coming into contact through colonization. Features from all over the British Isles and the Maori tribes that had inhabited the island for 800 years prior to colonization can be identified in the form New Zealand English has taken.

Rudimentary levelling in New Zealand English occurred around 1860, and was the result of contact between adult speakers of different regional and social varieties and the accommodation that was required from the speakers in face-to-face interaction. Settlements attracted people from all walks of life and created highly diverse linguistic variation, but there were still families that lived in almost total isolation. Thus the children did not gain the dialect of their peers as was normally expected, but instead they maintained the dialect of their parents. Speakers who grow up in this type of situation are more likely to demonstrate intra-individual variability than speakers whose main source of influence is their peers. When the emerging dialect stabilizes, it is the result of a focusing process which allowed for a very small amount of regional variation.[17]

New Zealand English is largely based around the typology and forms of southeast England, due to the leveling out of demographic minority dialect forms. Trudgill (1986) suggests that situations that involve transplantation and contact between mutually intelligible dialects leads to the development of new dialects by focusing on specific qualities from the variants of the different dialects and reducing them until only one feature remains from each variable, a process that may take an extended length of time. Reduction then takes place as the result of group accommodation between speakers in face-to-face interaction. Accommodation may also lead to the development of interdialect forms — forms that are not present in contributing dialects but may be the result of hyperadaption.


  • Variables that have been maintained through the process of leveling, such as the vowels of foot and strut indicate a system of five rather than six short, checked vowels, a feature common in working-class accents in most of England north of the Bristol Channel, an area that encompasses about half of England’s geography and population. However, only one consultant had this feature, indicating that this feature was likely a minority feature in adults that was then exposed to children.
  • /a:/ has leveled from realizations all over an utterance to being exclusively found in front realizations.
  • Closed variants [i, e, ɛ] (typical of 19th century southern England) are more common in the recordings, rather than the open variants of Northern England, Scotland and Ireland [ɛ, æ]. The fact that the close variants survived suggests an influence from southeast England, Australia and anglicized Scotland
  • Diphthong shift is equivalent to diphthongs from south England to the West Midlands. The majority of diphthong shift happens along /au/, starting at a point that is close to [æ] or /ai/ starting father back than /a:/
  • New Zealand rounding patterns is highly characterized by the rounding tendencies in south England (for example the unrounded vowel found in lot is [ɑ] as opposed to [ɒ] and the fact that the rounded version disappeared is credited to the fact that those who utilized the rounded variant were a small majority.


  • /h/-dropping did not survive in New Zealand English, nor did the merger of /w/ and /ʍ/ historically, the merger is beginning to emerge now,[when?] but it seems to be recent
  • Irish dental /t/ and /d/ have been leveled out in New Zealand English in favor of /θ/ and /ð/
  • /a:/ has leveled from realizations all over an utterance to being exclusively found in front realizations

Dialect levelling in Limburg

In this case study, Hinskens (1998) researches dialect levelling in the Dutch province of Limburg.[18] Based on his findings, he argues that dialect levelling does not necessarily lead to convergence towards the standard language. The research for this case study takes place in Rimburg, a small village on the southeast of Limburg, where Ripuarian dialects are spoken. The southeast area of Limburg experienced rapid industrialization at the turn of the 20th century with the large-scale development of coal mining. This created several job opportunities, which led to considerable immigration to the area (Hinskens pp: 38). This in turn led to language contact and a diversification of language varieties. This is the area where most of the dialect levelling occurred.

Geographically the dialects of Limburg are divided into three zones. The western-most zone (C-zone) is where East-Limburg dialects are spoken. The eastern-most zone (A-zone) is where Ripuarian dialects are spoken and the central zone (B-zone) is a transition zone between the two varieties. As one travels from west to east, the dialects features deviate more and more from the Dutch standard language. Additionally, the dialect features accumulate from west to east and features found in East-Limburg dialects are also found in Ripuarian dialects, but not the other way around (Hinskens 1998: 37).

In the study twenty-one dialect features from all three zones were analyzed.

A few of the dialect features include:

  • /t/ deletion, which is typical to all three zones
  • derivational suffix -lɪɣ, which marks the A/B-zone dialects (whereas C-zone dialects and the standard language have -lɪk)
  • postlexical ɣ-weakening, which is typical of the dialects in the A-zone

The study found that “the ratio of dialect features showing overall loss to dialect features investigated decreases with increasing geographical distribution” (Hinskens pp: 43).

In other words, the wider the distribution of the dialectal feature the less likely it is that it will level with the standard language. For example dialectal features found in all three zones, such as /t/ deletion, were maintained while features such as the postlexical ɣ-weakening that are only distributed in the Ripuarian dialects (A-zone) were lost.

Of the 21 features that are analyzed, 14 resulted in a loss of a dialect feature. Some of the features that were levelled did not lead to convergence toward the Dutch standard language and in some cases there is even divergence (Hinksens pp: 45). For example:

One feature that is a marker for only the Rimburg dialect, which is spoken in the A-zone, is the non-palatalization of the epenthetic /s/ in the diminutive suffix:

Rimburg dialect B-zone Standard Dutch gloss
dijisko dijijko dingetje 'thing'-DIM
kʌkskə kʌkʃkə koekje 'cookie'
kʀeːəçskə kʀeːəçʃkə kraagje 'collar'-DIM

“Rimburg dialect is in the process of adopting the morpho-phonemics of the surrounding B-zone dialects,” rather than standard Dutch (Hinskens pp: 27). Dialect levelling in this case cannot be explained in terms of convergence with the standard language.

The findings of the study conclude that dialect levelling resulted from accommodation. “Accommodation and dialect levelling should be understood in the light of the continuous struggle between …the tendencies towards unification on the one hand and those towards particularism and cultural fragmentation on the other” (Hinskens pp: 42). Those who spoke the same dialect were part of the ‘in-group’ and those who spoke a different variety were part of the ‘out-group.’ Based on conversation data Hinskens found that “the more typical/unique a dialect feature is for a speaker's dialect, the larger the relative number of linguistic conditions in which the use of this dialect feature is suppressed in out-group contact situations.” (Hinskens pp: 41). Accommodation, or suppression of dialect features, then facilitates mutual comprehension and results in the convergence of dialect features.

Standard German: Urbanization and standard language

[19] The emergence of a standard German has been a rather complicated process due to the fact that no single indigenous German dialect has ever had extreme prestige. Only recently have dialectic forms attained a level of prestige to ultimately attain conformity.

The move toward standardization truly started after 13th century Franciscans began a push toward the creation of a literate public although 70% of the materials printed were in Latin as opposed to German. 14th century city-dwellers were far more parochial than their poetic forbearers, although there were some linguistic links within the realm of commerce, as newer cities would look to established cities for law codes and the Hanseatic League, in the north of modern Germany, developed a form of German specifically for business. However, there was a disruption of any chance of linguistic unity as discoveries from the Atlantic shifted focus to Hamburg and Bremen, weakening the Hanseatic League.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the language underwent a massive phonological shift and the changes established are still viable linguistic features at present. East Middle German found itself geographically in the center of the changes and became a linguistically uniform area, which set it apart from other parts of the German-speaking world that remained linguistically distinct. The Viennese imperial chancellery introduced spelling reforms that were similarly influential, although most regions had their own systems they wished to adhere to which resulted in five forms of ‘Printer’s Language’, or languages that the printers used in their publications.

The largest influence in the 16th century was Luther. Although he did not create a language or a dialect, the majority of his work was done in language of the Upper Saxon Chancellery, which he was able to use because it was very close to his native dialect. Because of the prestige of said language, his work was more widely accepted. He was also able to influence the lexicon, both in choice of vocabulary and semantic selections. Because so many people read his work, the orthography began to stabilize and with that a canonical Standard German corpus of sorts developed, though this was fairly limited to the Protestant North. Even despite the religious differences between the North and South, it was the existence of East Middle German that truly prevented the initial spread of Luther’s linguistic forms. This divide was overridden in the Protestant parts of Middle Germany as the prestige of Luther’s dialect assured the acceptance of features from East Middle German. The differences were further reduced as the need for coherent written communication became paramount and East Middle German, now highly identified with Luther, became the linguistic medium of the North. The displaced Low German, once the first language of the region and a subject for instruction, became used only in comedic theatre, where it was used only by important figures.

This shift allowed the ‘Language Societies’ to further modify the language in the 17th century by translating any Latinate compounds through Germanic morphemes, at such a level to be understood by any German-speaking child. Grammarians developed a body of usage within the canonical corpus, which was evaluated and used to monitor the use of the language. It was at this time that the ge-prefix for non-auxiliary past participles was regularized.

The middle of the 18th century produced a slew of Northern writers who would ultimately shape the interaction between Catholic Germany that had resisted Luther’s linguistic influence and the rest of the German-speaking world, which directed the path that language development would take. The South did not have any literary geniuses to combat this sudden emergence in the North, and thus the most influential literary minds of two generations all happened to speak Lutheran influenced dialects. In 1871, after centuries of highly variable spelling and punctuation, a conference was called to finally create a semblance of uniformity within German spelling, enforced through the publication of a Bavarian dictionary in 1879 and a Prussian in 1880.

Jakob Grimm and Rudolf von Raumer created controversy in the 19th century, as they proposed opposing criteria for which spelling should be based. Grimm claimed that history and etymology should determine spelling, while van Raumer claimed that spelling should be based on pronunciation. Grimm’s historical case has found its way into the orthography, as there are two spellings of final /p, t, t-x/ depending on the surrounding environments. Van Raumer’s case for a phonetic based orthography is recognized in the principle that: “If you can pronounce it, you can spell it; if you can read it, you can pronounce it.” Any sort of standard pronunciation, therefore, was heavily reliant on standard writing.

Dialect Levelling in Denmark and Sweden

Kristensen and Thelander[20] discuss two socio-dialectal investigations, one Danish and one Swedish. The paper suggests that the development of urban society together with an increasing degree of publicness were mentioned as important non-linguistic causes of the accelerating dialect levelling witnessed in this century. For example, heavy migration from the countryside to towns and cities, increased traffic and trade, longer schooling within a more centralized system of education, the spread of mass media and other kinds of technological development, may all be factors that explain why the process has been more rapid during the 20th century than it was in the 19th, or why levelling hits dialects of certain regions harder than dialects elsewhere.

Dialect levelling in African American English (AAE)

In this case study, Anderson (2002)[21] discusses dialect levelling of African American English (AAE) spoken in Detroit. In her research she analyzes a very particular linguistic variable, the monophthongization of /ai/ before voiceless obstruents. While monophthongization of the diphthong ai > aː is common in AAE, it generally occurs in the environment of voiced, not voiceless, obstruents. For example, a southern speaker of AAE would pronounce the word tide (voiced obstruent) as [taːd] and pronounce the word tight (voiceless obstruent) as [tait], whereas some southern white speakers would pronounce it as [taːt].

The monophthongization of /ai/ before voiceless obstruents, is a salient characteristic of southern white dialects such as Appalachian and Texas varieties of English, and in the southern states, it indexes group membership with southern whites. To the north however, in Detroit, this linguistic feature does not mark group membership with whites.

Anderson presents evidence that this linguistic marker has been adopted among speakers of AAE in Detroit due in part to contact with White Appalachian immigrants. In other words, the diphthongization of /ai/ before voiced obstruents, which is a common feature of AAE, has been levelled with that of southern white dialects and is now being pronounced as a monophthong in this environment.

In order to understand why this levelling has taken place it is important to understand the demographics and social dynamics of Detroit. In her article, Anderson reports that black and white segregation in Detroit is at a higher level than any other American city. She describes the demographics stating that the majority of whites have moved to the suburbs while an overwhelming number of African Americans reside in the inner city of Detroit (pp: 87-88). White Appalachians who have migrated to Detroit have found refuge in the inner city and have maintained close ties with African Americans. This is due in part to their cultural orientation to the south, but also because both groups have been marginalized and have been subject to discrimination.

The contact among these groups has led to the levelling of AAE with a southern white variety in which speakers of AAE have adopted the monophthongization of /ai/ before voiceless obstruents. In the south this linguistic marker indexes group membership between blacks and whites, but in the north this linguistic marker no longer serves this use since white Detroiters do not use this feature in their speech. Anderson concludes that “the overall effect is that Detroit AAE aligns with a Southern vowel system for the /ai/ vowel variable, including that of the Detroit Southern White community, while indexing an opposition with Northern Whites” (pp: 95).

Mandarin tonal levelling in Taiwan

A study of Mandarin leveling in Taiwan investigated the tonal leveling of Mandarin between Mandarin-Waishengren and Holo-Benshengren in Taiwan.[22] The results indicated that the tonal leveling of Mandarin between these two ethnic groups started one generation earlier than the general patterns suggested by Trudgill.[23] This leveling has nearly reached its completion in the following generation, taking approximately 30 years.

Four factors were proposed to interpret the rapidity of this dialectal leveling:

  1. The intensiveness of immigration to Taiwan,
  2. The exclusive Mandarin-only language policy,
  3. The pre-established social order and infrastructure during the Japanese colonial period,
  4. The frequent contacts between Waishengren and Benshengren.

Dialect levelling in Britain

Related terms

Dialect levelling and language convergence

Language convergence refers to what can happen linguistically when speakers adapt ‘to the speech of others to reduce differences”.[24] As such, it is a type of accommodation (modification), namely the opposite of divergence, which is the exploitation and making quantitatively more salient of differences.[25] One can imagine this to be a long-term effect of interspeaker accommodation.

Unlike convergence, dialect levelling in the sense used in this study[clarification needed] (a) is not only a performance phenomenon, but (b) also refers to what ultimately happens at the level of the ‘langue’, and (c) though in the long-term meaning it comes down to dissimilar varieties growing more similar, it does not necessarily come about by mutually or one-sidedly taking over of characteristics of the other variety.

Like interference, dialect levelling is a contact phenomenon. However, it cannot be considered to be a type of interference according to Weinreich (1953), since (a) it is not a concomitant of bilingualism, and (b) is not merely a performance phenomenon. Dialect leveling need not produce a new usage, but it may very well result in qualitative changes.

Dialect levelling and geographical diffusion

Geographical diffusion is the process by which linguistic features spread out from a populous and economically and culturally dominant centre.[26] The spread is generally wave-like, but modified by the likelihood that nearby towns and cities will adopt the feature before the more rural parts in between. At the individual level in such a diffusion model, speakers are in face-to-face contact with others who have already adopted the new feature, and (for various reasons) they are motivated to adopt it themselves. The reduction or attrition of marked variants in this case brings about levelling.

Dialect leveling and mutual accommodation

Kerswill mentions that standardisation does not necessarily follow from dialect levelling - it is perfectly possible for dialects to converge without getting closer to the standard – and this happens in some situations.

The mechanism for standardisation lies in the kinds of social networks people have. People with more broadly based (more varied) networks will meet people with a higher social status. They will accommodate to them[27][28] – a phenomenon known as upward convergence. The opposite, downward convergence, where a higher status person accommodates to a lower status person, is much rarer. This accommodation is thought to happen mainly among adults, not children or adolescents, because in Western societies children and adolescents have much more self-centred, narrower peer groups. This means that standardisation is generally something that adults do (while children and adolescents perform other kinds of levelling).

Accommodation between individual speakers of different dialects take place with respect to features that are salient, displaying phonetic or surface phonemic contrasts between the dialects. This process is mostly limited to salient features, geographical (distance), and demographic (population size) factors.[29][30] Accommodation is not the same thing as levelling, but it can be its short-term preamble.

Dialect leveling and koinéization

Koinéisation, unlike dialect levelling, ‘involves the mixing of features of different dialects, and leads to a new, compromised dialect’. It results from ‘integration or unification of the speakers of the varieties in contact’.[31] Clearly, dialect levelling is not strictly synonymous with koinéisation. First, dialect levelling does not merely take place in the space between dialects; it may also occur between a dialect and a standard language. Second, its end product cannot be equated with that of koinéisation, a koiné being the structurally stabilized and sociologically more or less standard product of heavy intermixture.

According to Milroy (2002), the difference between dialect levelling and koinéization is that dialect levelling involves the eradication of linguistic variants due to language contact while koinéization involves the creation of a new linguistic variety based on language contact.

See also


  1. ^ Hinskens, 1996:3
  2. ^ Dillard 1972:300
  3. ^ Lefebvre 1998:393
  4. ^ Lefebvre 1998:46
  5. ^ Milroy 2002:7
  6. ^ Mougeon et al. 1985:480
  7. ^ Bloomfield
  8. ^ Bloomfield, Wrede (1919, 10:13), Frings
  9. ^ Siegel 1997:128 referenced in Lefebvre
  10. ^ Hinskens 1998:35
  11. ^ Hinskens 1998:35
  12. ^
  13. ^ Kerswill
  14. ^ Lefebvre 1998:46
  15. ^ Siegel, 127
  16. ^ Lefebvre 1998:47
  17. ^ Trudgill, Peter, Elizabeth Gordon, Gillian Lewis and Margaret MacLagan. 2000. Determinism in new-dialect formation and the genesis of New Zealand English. Journal of Linguistics 36 (2). 299-318. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  18. ^ Hinskens, Frans. 1998. Dialect Levelling: A Two-dimensional Process. Folia Linguistica 32 (1-2). 35-52.
  19. ^ Twaddell, William. F. 1959. Standard German: Urbanization and Standard Language: A Symposium Presented at the 1958 Meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Anthropological Linguistics 1(3). 1-7.
  20. ^ Kristensen, Kjeld and Mats Thelander. 1984. On dialect levelling in Denmark and Sweden. Folia Linguistica 28(1/2). 223-246.
  21. ^ Anderson, Bridget. 2002. Dialect leveling and /ai/ monophthongization among African American Detroiters. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6(1). 86-98.
  22. ^ Hsu, Hui-ju and John Kwock-ping Tse. The Tonal Leveling of Taiwan Mandarin: A Study in Taipei. Concentric: Studies in Linguistics 35, no. 2 (2009): 225-244.
  23. ^ Trudgill 1986, 2004
  24. ^ Siegel 1985: 367
  25. ^ Mougeon et al. 1985: 479
  26. ^ Trudgill 1982b: 52–87; Britain 2002
  27. ^ Giles & Powesland 1975
  28. ^ Giles & Smith 1979
  29. ^ Trudgill (1986:11, 37)
  30. ^ Chambers and Trudgill, 1980:84-86
  31. ^ Siegel 1985: 365, 369


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