There are subtle differences between languages, dialects, and vernaculars, but what is a lect?


I recently learned that linguists call lect (or variety) any type of language or language cluster, including dialects, registers and styles.

For example, the standard French lect is supposed to be the one defined by the Académie Française (French Academy), and the standard Arabic lect the one used in the Quran.  

In particular, lects also include:

– ethnolects: as its name clearly indicates, an ethnolect is a lect spoken by a specific ethnic group. For example, Ebonics (the vernacular spoken by a large proportion of African Americans), is considered a typical ethnolect. Immigrant groups in the US each have developed their own ethnolect. Creoles and patois usually also belong to this group.

– idiolects: no, an idiolect is not a lect spoken by idiots, but the language spoken by each individual. For example, as I’m multilingual and can speak in different registers and styles, my idiolect is comprised of several languages, each with multiple registers and styles. I have my idiosyncrasies that are different from any other speaker, so my idiolect is absolutely unique, as is yours.

– other types of lects, such as sociolects (spoken by a particular class) or regiolects for dialects spoken in a particular area.

Finally, what is the difference between a dialect and a language?

Well, there is no linguistic difference between a dialect and a language, but usually the term dialect refers to a lect that is both:

– different enough from the underlying language to be more than just an accent

– similar enough to the underlying language that it can mostly be understood by its speakers (and vice versa) 

In many cases, politics plays a big role in defining which lect is the language and which one the dialect.


Ukrainian for example has been branded a dialect of Russian, but is now considered a language.

Also, although the Mainland Chinese government doesn’t always agree, Cantonese is not a Chinese dialect, as Mandarin speakers can’t understand Cantonese unless they have learnt it.