National varieties of English

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Author: Goncharov Anton, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

In this article we would like to briefly examine some national varieties of English, including American English, in terms of their phonetic and grammar peculiarities. The article is based on the assumption that British English (BrE) is the most common variant of English for readers; therefore all comparisons are based on this basis.

First of all, let’s describe British and American national varieties.

British English is the basis for the varieties spoken in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa. American (or North American) includes chiefly the English of Canada and the United States.

Despite the groupings just suggested, certain characteristics of Canadian English are closer to British English, while certain characteristics of Irish English are closer to North American English. And there are many differences between, say, standard British English and standard Indian English. But we can still make a number of generalizations about British-based varieties and American-based varieties, provided we recognize that neither group is completely homogeneous.

There are well-known spelling differences between British and American English. Some are systematic, others limited to a particular- word. American red, white, and blue colors are colours in Britain, and many other words ending in -or in American English end in -our in British English. Among idiosyncratic spellings are British tyres and kerb versus American tires and curb. Interestingly, Canadians often use British rather than American spelling practices, a reflection of their close historical association with Britain. For the most part, these spelling differences don’t reflect spoken differences. Below are Listed some common American ~ British spelling correspondences.

Pronunciation Differences in vowel and consonant pronunciation, as well as in word stress and intonation, combine to create American and British accents. Speakers of both varieties pronounce the vowel of words in the cat, fat, mat class with /æ/. For similar words ending in a fricative such as fast, path, and half, American English has /æ/, while some British varieties have /a:/, the stressed vowel of father. Americans pronounce the vowel in the new, turn and duty class with /и/, as though they were spelled ‘noo,’ ‘toon,’ and ‘dooty.’ Varieties of British English often pronounce them with /ju/, as though spelled ‘nyew,’ ‘tyuneand ‘dyuty’ a pronunciation also heard among some older Americans.

As to consonants', perhaps the most noticeable difference lias to do with intervocalic Itl. When /t/ occurs between a stressed and an unstressed vowel, Americans and Canadians usually pronounce it as a flap [г]. As a result, the word sitter is pronounced [sirar], and latter and ladder are pronounced the same. By contrast, speakers of some British varieties pronounce intervocalic t as [t]. As another example, most American varieties have a retroflex /г/ in word-final position in words such as car and near and also preceding a consonant as in cart and beard, whereas some British varieties, including standard British English, do not. With respect to this post-vocalic /г/, speakers of Irish and Scottish English follow the American pattern, while speakers of dialects in New York City, Boston, and parts of the coastal. South follow the British pattern.

Among differences of word stress, British English tends to stress the first syllable of garage, fillet, and ballet, while American English places stress on the second syllable. The same is true for patois, massage, debris, beret, and other borrowings from French. In certain polysyllabic words such as laboratory, secretary, and lavatory, the stress patterns differ, with American English preserving a secondary stress on the next-to-last syllable.

Canadian English was developing under the influence of both British and American variants and as a result of that has marks of both types of pronunciation, but the most common type is the one that is called General American.

In Canadian English there are no significant differences from British English in grammar, but there are a lot of specific words that exit only in Canadian English. In general these words are connected with the peculiarities of life in Canada, its nature etc. There are also many loanwords that were borrowed from Indian languages. For example the word ‘caribou’ which is on of sub-species of deer, or the verb ‘to toboggan’ which means ‘to sail on boat’. Another Canadian phrases are: ‘fog-eater’ – ‘rainbow in fog’, ‘salt fishing’ – fishing with its salting right on the boat, ‘steel man’ – ‘railroad worker’, ‘cat driver’ – ‘tractor driver’ etc.

The one significant difference of Canadian English is almost total absence of Past Perfect Continuous and Past Perfect Simple taking over its place.

In Australian English there is more to discuss. It differs from other Englishes primarily in its accent and vocabulary. The major features of the accent were established by the 1830s. In the period between colonial settlement (1788) and the 1830s, when the foundation accent was being forged, new lexical items to describe the new environment, especially its flora and fauna, were developed either from Aboriginal languages (coolibah, wombat, wallaby, waratah, and so on) or from the ‘transported’ English word stock (native bear, wild cherry, and so on). Many more vocabulary items were later added in response to the nineteenth-century process of settlement and pastoral expansion. All of this seems at once predictable and inevitable - this is the way a colonial society imposes its linguistic footprint on a subjected land.

And then, at the end of the nineteenth century, something curious and largely unpredictable happened to Australian English. In response to a newly-developed concept of Received Pronunciation in Britain, which was closely tied to notions of social prestige, some Australian speakers modified their vowels and diphthongs in order to move them towards the British exemplars. From the 1890s, and well into the 1950s, elocution was in the air, and elocution teachers found a ready market for the teaching of British vowels and diphthongs to the socially - aspirational classes. This modified form of Australian speech came to be called Cultivated Australian.

As if in response against this new British-based Cultivated Australian, a diametrically opposed form of Australian English developed in the first part of the twentieth century. This form moved the Australian vowels and diphthongs even further away from what was now the British standard of pronunciation, and emphasized nasality, flatness of intonation, and the elision of syllables. This second modified form of Australian speech came to be called Broad Australian. While it is true that when non-Australians hear any Australian say ‘mate’ or ‘race’ they are likely to mistake the words for ‘mite’ and ‘rice’, the mishearing is most likely to occur with speakers of Broad Australian.

The majority of Australians continued to speak with the accent that had been established in the first fifty years of settlement, and this form of speech came to be known as General Australian. General Australian was now book-ended by Cultivated Australian and Broad Australian, and these forms of Australian English came to carry with them very different sets of values. Cultivated Australian, for example, came to express a longing for British values and a nostalgia for a country that was still regarded by many as ‘home’. Broad Australian was strongly nationalistic, and carried with it notions of egalitarianism that were antagonistic to a perceived class-obsessed and hierarchical Britain.

All three forms of Australian English included most of the vocabulary items that had developed in the second half of the nineteenth century: billy ‘a cooking utensil’; swag (transferred from the underworld sense of ‘booty’) as the collection of belongings of a bush traveler, and swagman as their bearer; fossick - perhaps a variant of the midland and southern English fussock (to bustle about)-meaning ‘to search for gold’, and then ‘to rummage around for anything’; the outback and the never-never to describe country far from urban areas; brumby ‘a wild horse’; larrikin ‘an urban hooligan’; and so on.

In lexis, a number of the most culturally important Australian terms developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, at precisely the time that Australian English was generating its Cultivated and Broad forms. Battler (especially in its present manifestation of little Aussie battler) is one of the most positive words in Australian English, and it usually refers to a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances. Initially, the battler was a person who scrounged a living on the edges of society: an itinerant and irregularly employed rural worker struggling to survive (1898); a person who frequented racecourses in search of a living (1895); a prostitute (1898). Battler eventually divested itself of the associations of the mug punter and the prostitute, but even in its earliest uses there is evidence of strong sympathy and admiration for working-class people who eke out their existence with resilience and courage.

The opposite of the battler is the bludger - one of the most derogatory of Australian words. The bludger is a person who lives off the efforts of others, a cadger and an idler, a person who expects others to do all the work. The history of this word helps to explain something of the moral condemnation that bludger and its verb to bludge typically carry. Australian bludger is a form of Standard English bludgeoner ‘a person who is armed with and doesn’t hesitate to use a bludgeon, a short stout club’. In Australia the bludger became a pimp who was prepared to protect his financial stake in a prostitute by resorting to the violence of the bludgeon. The salient feature in this, and all later senses, is that the person who is called a bludger is living off the work of another and, from this sense, it is a short step to the use of bludger as a generalized term of abuse.

Dinkum emerges at about the same time. Dinkum is from British dialect, where it meant primarily ‘work; a fair share of work’. The notion of ‘fairness’ has always been associated with dinkum, and it is from this connotation of ‘fairness’ that the particularly Australian meaning ‘reliable, genuine, honest, true’ developed in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was also at this time that the collocation fair go appeared, an important expression of egalitarian principles. The continuing significance of this phrase in Australian society is evidenced by the fact that a recent Federal Government booklet Life in Australia (2007), aimed at new migrants, explains what is meant by a fair go in Australia: ‘Australians value equality of opportunity and what is often called a ‘fair go’. This means that what someone achieves in life should be a product of their talents, work and effort rather than their birth or favouritism. Australians have a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance and fair play. … The aim is to ensure there are no formal class distinctions in Australian society’. Although dinkum (and its variant fair dinkum) appeared in the 1890s, the evidence indicates that its really widespread use occurred during the First World War.

It was out of the First World War that Anzac (an acronym formed from the initial letters of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and digger (originally a soldier engaged in the digging of trenches, echoing its earlier use for a person digging for gold) emerged in the sense ‘an Australian soldier’. By the end of the war both terms were being used emblematically to reflect the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those who served in the Gallipoli campaign, especially as these virtues were seen as national characteristics. Such terms are part of a rich tradition of Australian colloquialisms that became established in the first half of the twentieth century: bonzer ‘excellent’; Buckley’s chance‘ no chance at all’; cobber ‘mate’; crook ‘dishonest, unpleasant, ill’; dag ‘a character, an entertaining eccentric’ (later ‘an unfashionable person, a nerd’); plonk ‘cheap wine’ (an example of a word of Australian derivation adopted in Britain, and elsewhere, with little awareness of its origin); pom ‘an English person’; rort ‘an act of fraud or sharp practice’; wog ‘a flu-like illness’; wowser ‘a puritanical person, a killjoy’ etc.

The development and evolution of English in Ireland is also an interesting topic to discuss. The Plantation of Ulster that began in 1609 was a planned process of settlement aimed at preventing further rebellion among the population in the north of Ireland. This part of the island was at that time virtually exclusively Gaelic-speaking and had shown the greatest resistance to English colonization. From the early seventeenth century onwards, Irish lands were confiscated and given to British settlers - or ‘planters’ - who arrived in increasing numbers, bringing the English Language with them. Large numbers of settlers came from southwest Scotland and thus spoke a Scots dialect, while the remaining settlers came predominantly from the north and Midlands of England. By 1830, for instance, Londonderry had a population that was 25% Scots, 25% English and 50% Irish.

For some considerable time the colonists remained surrounded by Gaelic-speaking communities in County Donegal to the west and the counties of Louth, Monaghan and Cavan to the south. Thus English in the northeast of the island developed in relative isolation from other English-speaking areas such as Dublin, while the political situation over the course of the twentieth century has meant that Northern Ireland has continued to develop a linguistic tradition that is distinct from the rest of Ireland. Scots, Irish Gaelic, seventeenth century English and Hiberno-English (the English spoken in the Republic of Ireland) have all influenced the development of Northern Irish English, and this mixture explains the very distinctive hybrid that has emerged.

Speech in the whole of Ireland is for instance rhotic - that is speakers pronounce an /r/ sound after a vowel in words like farm, first and better. The pronunciation of this /r/ sound is, however, much more like the sound we hear in an English West Country accent than the ‘tapped’ or ‘rolled’ /r/ sound we associate with Scottish speakers. On the other hand the vowel system of Northern Irish English more closely resembles that of Scottish English, rather than the English of England, Wales or the Republic of Ireland. Pairs such as pull and pool are often homophones, boot frequently rhymes with foot and phrases such as good food are pronounced with vowels of equal length in Belfast and Glasgow, for instance, but not in Dublin, London or Cardiff. Many speakers - particularly older speakers in rural communities - retain pronunciations that are a throwback to much older, conservative forms of English, such as inserting a /y/ sound after an initial /k/ or /g/ in words like car and garden, such that they sound a little like ‘kyarr’ or ‘gyarrden’. Northern Irish English also has a very distinctive intonation pattern and a broad Northern Irish accent is characterized by a very noticeable tendency to raise the pitch towards the end of an utterance, even if the speaker is not asking a question.

As in Scotland, some speakers claim to speak a dialect (or language, depending on one’s point of view) that traces its roots back to the earliest Scottish settlers - Ulster Scots. Ulster Scots has been recognized by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and, although there is no attempt to classify it as a language in The Good Friday agreement of 1998, Ulster Scots is cited as ‘part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland'.

The linguistic landscape of Scotland is considerably more complex than it is in most of England and Wales, with a broad range of dialects and older language forms contributing to a rich and varied national voice.

As in Wales, an ethnic Celtic language exists alongside English - in this case Scottish Gaelic. Like other heritage languages, it is experiencing something of a revival as a result of a renewed sense of national identity and recent positive legislation. However, the census of 2001 revealed that less than 2% of the total population of Scotland currently speak any Gaelic.

Unlike the status of Welsh in Wales, Gaelic is not a compulsory subject in the vast majority of schools in Scotland and there are very few Gaelic-medium schools at all. Moreover, Gaelic has for some time been restricted geographically to areas of the Highlands and the Western Isles; the language suffered catastrophically as a result of the Highland Clearances in the eighteenth century. Nonetheless it remains a community language in some parts of Scotland, notably in the Hebrides, and it has left its mark on the English spoken there and in other parts of the country.

The type of English spoken in Scotland is more difficult to define than elsewhere in the UK. From the time of the Union of Parliaments in 1707, the official written language of Scotland became aligned with that of England. As such, Standard English has been used as the language of religion, education and government and so it became the socially prestigious form adopted by the aspiring middle classes. Unlike in England, however, Standard English continued to be spoken with a variety of local accents.

RP - the regionally non-specific accent of the upper middle classes in England - has a negligible presence in Scotland (unlike Wales, for example, where it retains a certain degree of prestige in some areas). This means that even the most socially prestigious forms of English spoken in Scotland contain elements that are characteristically Scottish. The variety of speech we might recognize as educated Scottish English contains the occasional word – out with for ‘outside’ - or grammatical structure - I’ve not heard for ‘I haven’t heard’ - that is distinctively Scottish.

Above all, though, Scottish English is recognizable by its pronunciation: speakers do not make the same distinctions in vowel length made by speakers with other English accents and the vast majority of speakers in Scotland are rhotic - that is, they pronounce the <r> sound after a vowel in words like farm, first and better.

Alongside Standard Scottish English, the local vernacular language, Scots, a dialect descended from Old English and closely related to Northumbrian dialects has maintained a strong presence, especially in rural communities. There has been heated debate among linguists for many years as to whether Scots constitutes a dialect or a distinct language in its own right. It has recently been officially classified as a ‘traditional language’ by the Scottish Executive and recognized by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but even in Scotland experts remain divided over the issue. Whatever its status - language or dialect - large numbers of speakers would certainly claim to speak Scots, not English. Indeed Scots boasts a literary tradition dating back long before Robert Burns in the eighteenth century and still thriving today, as demonstrated by contemporary authors such as Irvine Welsh.

In practice, the distinction between those who speak Scots and those who speak Standard Scottish English is rather blurred. In some cases we might instantly be able to categories an individual according to which variety he or she speaks, but more often than not, perhaps particularly in urban areas, speakers tend to drift between the two alternatives depending on context. In other words, they might speak a version of Standard English with a local accent, but frequently use features that we associate with Scots, such as saying wee for ‘little’, or using grammatical constructions like does name for ‘doesn’t’ or simply sprinkling their speech with isolated archaic pronunciations such as rhyming house with goose or head with heed.


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

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