Everyone has different styles when speaking. So the way you speak to teachers at school might be different to how you speak to your boss at work and probably very different to how you speak to your friends in the pub.

This switching between styles is something we do all the time, sometimes without even realising it. We tend to slide up and down a scale from informal to formal, adjusting our speech according to the situation we find ourselves in.

With some speakers, however, the difference in styles is not so much a slide, as a giant leap, as the example below shows:

Shona: I na ken far the quines is.
Jennifer: Sorry?
Shona: I said I don’t know where the girls are. 

In these utterances, Shona first uses her local dialect, but when Jennifer doesn’t quite catch what she’s said, she moves to a more formal, standard style. What is striking about this exchange is that the local utterance and the more standard one are radically different. When a speaker makes this giant leap, they may be described as being bidialectal.

But what exactly does this fancy word mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines bidialectal as:

‘having command of two regional or social dialects of a language, one of which is commonly the standard language; in which two varieties of a language are used for different functions’ (s.v. bidialectal).

The second part of the definition seems pretty straightforward – we know that we switch styles for different functions. But what about the first part? Can speakers really have command of two dialects, just as, for example, a bilingual speaker has over two languages? Can speakers switch from local dialect to more standard forms, changing every word, sound and grammatical form in the process? As one sociolinguist, Kirk Hazen (2001) puts it ‘no-one has seriously investigated whether humans are capable of maintaining two dialects in the same ways they can maintain two languages’, despite the fact that bidialectalism is said to be becoming widespread throughout the world (Cornips and Hulk 2006).

To answer these questions, we will carry out a project with speakers from Buckie, a small community in north east Scotland. We will record speakers from 10 to 90 year olds, once with someone from the local community (an ‘insider’) and once with someone from southern England (an ‘outsider’). This will allow us to find out if, how, when and where speakers make the ‘leap’ from local to standard when in these very different situations.

We hope that the results will provide a snapshot of bidialectalism in the 21st century and how this might affect the future linguistic landscape of Scotland.

A final wee note: some folk are bidialectal because they have moved from one area to another. A very good example of this is John Barrowman who moved from Glasgow to the States when he was a child. Take a listen to him switch from one dialect to another here:

It looks like in these cases, if a speaker moves to another area before a certain age, then they can pick up a new dialect (or language) no problem at all. This is a really interesting area of research but in this project we’re looking at speakers who have stayed in one area all of their lives and the alternation is between the local dialect and a more standard one.