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  Varieties of English

   English is spoken today on all five continents as a result of colonial expansion in the last four centuries or so. The colonial era is now definitely over but its consequences are clearly to be seen in the presence of English as an official and often native language in many of the former colonies. In addition more strongly diverging varieties, which arose in particular socio-political conditions, are also to be found, so-called pidgins which in some cases later developed into creoles. Another legacy of colonialism is where English fulfils the function of a lingua franca. Many countries, like Nigeria, use English as a lingua franca (a general means of communication) since there are many different and mutually unintelligible languages. In such situations English fulfils the need for a supraregional means of communication.

English has also come to play a central role as an international language. There are a number of reasons for this, of which the economic status of the United States is certainly one of the most important nowadays. Internal reasons for the international success of English can also be recognised: a little bit of English goes a long way as the grammar is largely analytic in type. It is thus suitable when foreigners do not wish to expend great effort on learning a foreign language.

In terms of speaker numbers, English is only exceeded by Chinese (in its various forms). In terms of geographical distribution it stands at the top of the league as it is found throughout the world. The expansion of English started in Ireland in the late 12th century (indeed into Lowland Scotland in the late Old English period) and continued well into the 19th century, reaching its peak at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria and embodied in the saying ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’.

The varieties of English in the modern world are divided into four geographical groups as follows.

British Isles America
England United States (with African American English)
Wales Canada
Ireland The Caribbean

Africa Asia, Pacific
West Africa South- and South-East Asia
East Africa Australia and New Zealand
South Africa The Pacific islands

The two main groups are Britain and America. For each there are standard forms of English which are used as yardsticks for comparing other varieties of the respective areas.

In Britain the standard is called Received Pronunciation. The term stems from Daniel Jones at the beginning of the 20th century and refers to the pronunciation of English which is accepted – that is, ‘received’ – in English society. BBC English, Oxford English, Queen’s English are alternative terms which are not favoured by linguists as they are imprecise or simply incorrect.

In America there is a standard which is referred to in a number of ways, General American and Network English being two common means. There is a geographical area where this English is spoken and it is defined negatively as the rest of the United States outside of New England (the north east) and the South. General American is spoken by the majority of Americans, including many in the North-East and South and thus contrasts strongly with Received Pronunciation which is a prestige sociolect spoken by only a few percent of all the British. The southern United States occupy a unique position as they contain large numbers of African Americans whose speech is distinct from other varieties of American English. The African Americans are the descendents of the slaves originally imported into the Caribbean area, chiefly by the English from the 16th century onwards. Their English has more in common with that of the various anglophone Caribbean islands.

Those varieties of English which are spoken outside of Britain and America are variously referred to as ‘overseas’ or ‘extraterritorial’ varieties. A recent practice is to use the term ‘Englishes’ (a plural created by linguists) which covers a multitude of forms. The label English World-Wide (the name of an academic journal dedicated to this area) is used to refer to English in its global context. Overseas varieties are not just different because of their geographical distance from the original homeland but also because in many cases the overseas varieties appear unchanged compared with those in the British Isles. This phenomenon is known as colonial lag. However, it is a term which should not be overworked but a temperate use of the term is appropriate.