Do you speak in a dialect? Or with an accent? Is your usage colloquial or vernacular, or do you prefer slang, argot, or jargon?
A number of words relating to non-standard usage of language are similar in meaning and are often used interchangeably. But each of them means something slightly different. The words include dialect, accent, colloquialism, vulgarism, vernacular, patois, slang, argot, cant, jargon, lingo, and pidgin. Explaining the differences gets complicated, so I recommend that you pay close attention and avoid texting (and for that matter, sexting) while reading this.
First there’s a dialect, a regional variety of a language, distinguished from other regional varieties by vocabulary, grammar, idiom, and pronunciation—but together with other dialects constituting a single language. Sometimes dialect can also refer to the way language is spoken by a specific social class, occupation, or ethnic group. In English there are hundreds of dialects—ranging from Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Midlands, Geordie, and BBC, to Australian, Canadian, and numerous American dialects. The word is from Middle French dialecte, derived from Latin dialectus (“local language or way of speaking”), from Greek dialektos (“talk, conversation”), and ultimately from Greek dia (“across, between”) + legein (“speak”).
Included within a dialect are accents, colloquialisms, and vulgarisms.
An accent is a distinctive way of speaking that is related largely to pronunciation, voice quality (i.e. drawl, brogue, burr, lilt, twang, etc.), and syllabic stress. Its origin is Middle French accenter (“intonation”) and ultimately from Latin cantus (“song”).
Colloquialisms are conversational or informal usages of language, a word stemming from the Latin colloquium (“speaking together”).
Vulgarisms in one sense are words or phrases chiefly used by illiterate persons. At one time words like zoo, auto, phone, and photo were considered vulgarisms when used in place of the proper zoological garden, automobile, telephone, and photograph. A vulgarism can also mean an obscenity. The word stems from the Latin vulgus (“common people, multitudes”).
Related to this word is vulgate, which refers to speech of the common people and is mostly used now in reference to early Latin translations of the Bible, especially that of St. Jerome in 405, so-called because they made the Scriptures accessible to the ordinary people of Rome.
Closely related to the vulgate is the vernacular, the normal spoken language of a region or country, as opposed to literary, cultured, or foreign languages. It derives from the Latin vernaculus, meaning “native or indigenous” and originally came from an Etruscan word (verna) that referred to a home-born slave.
Patois is a dialect, other than the standard or literary dialect, used in provincial areas or by uneducated persons. Sometimes patois can also mean the slang or jargon of a particular group. The French word patois dates back to the thirteenth century and is of uncertain origin, probably from Old French patoier ("handle clumsily”) from pate ("paw").
Slang is a specialized form of dialect peculiar to a particular group. It is typically composed of unique coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and facetious or extravagant figures of speech. In 1756 the word was used to refer to the special vocabulary of tramps and thieves and by 1801 applied to the specialized language used in certain professions. The word’s origin is uncertain, probably from the Norwegian slengenamm (“nickname”) and slengja kjeften (literally to “sling the jaw” or “abuse with words”).
Slang is often used as a synonym for both argot and jargon. Argot, from the Middle French word for “a group of beggars,” means an often more or less secret vocabulary and idiom peculiar to a particular occupation or social group. It generally implies that it is unintelligible to persons outside the group.
Jargon means just about the same thing and was a fourteenth-century word for “unintelligible talk, gibberish,” which stemmed from the Middle English verb jargounen (“chatter”) and the French word jargon (“chattering of birds,” probably of echoic origin). It is now specifically applied to the specialized language of an occupation or professional group, especially law, medicine, and science.
The same is true of cant, derived from Latin cantus (“song”) and originally used to refer to the chanting of monks, then the sing-song of beggars, and finally to the language of the underworld. It is used specifically to confuse and exclude outsiders.
Lingo is defined as strange or incomprehensible language or foreign language. Its English usage dates from 1650 and it probably is a corruption of lingua franca, a Latin phrase meaning “language of the Franks” and used to describe a form of communication used in the Middle East consisting of simplified Italian with additions of Spanish, French, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish words. Sometimes also known as bastard Spanish, it got its name from the Arabic custom of calling all Europeans “Franks.”
Finally, pidgin is a specialized lingua franca, a form of simplified speech, derived from the phrase pigeon English, first used in 1859 in China as a means of communication between Chinese and Europeans. The word pigeon derives from the perceived Chinese pronunciation of “business.” Today pidgin can refer to any simplified language.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has his own non-standard usage, known only to himself and a small group of fans, largely illiterate.
When touring through the south of France
You must acquire the lingo,
Or you might lose your shirt—and pants—
With some casino’s bingo.
On English roads you must be keen
To speak the native argot,
It’s petrol and not gasoline
That makes your hired car go.
In exotic and remote bazaars,
If you don't know the jargon,
You could wind up with nasty scars
Instead of some great bargain.
When traveling in the Middle East,
Be sure to learn the patois,
Or you might find yourself deceased
From flouting someone’s fatwa.