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Divisions by location

The northern hemisphere
     The Caribbean
The southern hemisphere
     Lesser known varieties
     Pacific pidgins
     Other Pacific locations

Varieties of English world-wide can be divided by their location. The division into two large blocks, as shown in the following maps, is determined by the time at which the two main areas were first settled by English speakers. Very roughly, one can say that the northern hemisphere was settled from 1600 onwards and the southern hemisphere from 1800 onwards. There are several linguistic traits which support this chronological division: English in the northern hemiphere is largly rhotic (most forms of Canadian and United States English), while English in the southern hemisphere is non-rhotic (except perhaps Scottish-derived varieties in the southern tip of New Zealand). Furthermore, the southern hemisphere shows a raising of short front vowels and frequently a lowering of /ei/ and a retraction of /ai/ (Australia and New Zealand) which points to 19th century input from the south-east of England.

The Northern Hemisphere

The northern hemisphere of the English-speaking world, essentially North America and the Caribbean, was settled from around 1600 onwards. The very first settlers landed on Newfoundland in 1497 in a ship under the command of John Cabot – an Italian Giovanni Cabote (c 1450-1499) who had moved to Bristol previously. However, it was not until one hundred years later that this island was claimed for the British by Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539-1583). Despite this early involvement, Newfoundland remained isolated until well into the 20th century (it only joined the Canadian federation in 1949 after a close referendum) and hence is not important for the later development of English in North America.

The (later) United States

The eastern coast of North America had been explored during the 16th century by navigators such as Giovanni da Verrazano (c 1480-c 1527) and Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), both sailing for the French crown. Cartier’s expeditions took him up the St. Lawrence River in later Canada which he laid claim to for France and which was named Nouvelle France. It was not until the early 17th century that the east coast of what was later to become the United States was explored and settled by the British. Despite the failed settlement at Roanoke Island in the 1580s, the English persevered and the town of Jamestown in Virginia was established in 1607 (and reinforced in 1610). In 1620 a group of English religious dissenters, on their way to Virginia, landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and found a colony, thus initiating the settlement of New England (the north-east of the later United States). Later settlements followed such as that of Maryland in 1632 for Roman Catholics. Settlements further south followed during the mid 17th century, e.g. the area of later North and South Carolina in 1663. In 1664 the English took over New Amsterdam from the Dutch and this then became New York. In 1681 William Penn was given a charter for the area which was named Pennsylvania.

The demographic movement during the following century, which was to have a considerable effect on the rise of American English, was that of the Scots-Irish who came, either from Scotland or from the Scots-settled areas of Ulster in northern Ireland. About a quarter of a million are estimated to have emigrated during the 18th century. The area which was consolidated by English settlements by the late 18th century is known as the 13 colonies (see maps above). These lay between the Appalachians and the eastern coast. The region to the west of the Appalachians contained a huge area nominally under the control of the French. This was not settled by them and in 1803 it was bought by the United States in what is called the Louisiana Purchase.

The Caribbean

The five major European maritime powers – Portugal, Spain, France, The Netherlands and England – were all involved in colonial activities in the Caribbean. The larger of islands in this region – Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola – were taken by the Spanish in the course of the 16th century. In 1697 the western part of Hispaniola was ceded to the French and was later to become Haiti, the eastern section later became the Dominican Republic (after several political rearrangements in the intervening centuries). In 1655 Jamaica was captured from the Spanish in 1655 and since then English has continued on the island, albeit in a creolised form, spoken primarily by the population of African descent.

The Lesser Antilles, small islands in an arc from the centre of the east down to the south-east corner of the Caribbean, were settled by the Europeans during the colonial period. Among these islands, Barbados in the extreme south-east, occupies a special position as it was taken by the British in 1627 and settled by numerous groups, many of which spread out from there to other parts of the Caribbean when the small island became overcrowded.

The homestead phase The earliest English settlement of the Caribbean, above all Barbados, consisted on people from Britain and Ireland, some in the service of the British crown, some deported and some working as indentured labourers. For the first few decades of anglophone settlement, the Caribbean saw speakers of dialects from various regions of the British Isles. This early dialect input was probably important for the later development of forms of English in the area.

The slavery phase The so-called sugar revolution of the 1650s changed the pattern of settlement in Barbados dramatically. Some 40,000 English and Irish settlers were now mixed with slaves taken from the west coast of Africa and brought to the island via the infamous middle passage, the arduous journey from West Africa to the Caribbean under extreme conditions. Cane sugar was a profitable crop which was exported back to Europe. The African slaves were put to work in the harsh climate on the large plantations which arose on Barbados. The small white landholders, who were hitherto on the island, left and settled elsewhere in the Caribbean, e.g. the Irish went to Montserrat, north of Barbados.

An important issue in Caribbean English studies is to what extent the dialect input of the homestead phase played a role in the rise of later forms of English, especially in the population of African descent. Dialect features of the British Isles, noticeably aspectual distinctions such as the habitual, may well have been established in Barbadian English in the homestead phase and then transmitted to the African slaves, in fragmentary form, after these arrived on the island in the latter half of the 17th century.

Sranan and Saramaccan

Sranan or Sranan Tongo or Taki-Taki (the last a derogatory label) is the name given to a creole which is spoken by about 100,000 people, largely in the coastal region of Suriname (former Dutch Guyana). These people are the descendants of former slaves taken from West Africa during the colonial period. Sranan also has a function as a lingua franca in Suriname, i.e. as a general means of communication among people from diverse ethnic groups.

Saramaccan is a further creole spoken by about 25,000 people further inland in present-day Suriname. Many of these are so-called ‘bush negroes’ and fall into two groups, the Saramaccans and the Matuari. These are the descendants of runaway slaves who were taken to Suriname to work on the plantations (so-called Maroons), probably already in the late 17th century. The question of what language functioned as lexifier is difficult to determine here, as it is with Sranan. English played a significant role as did Portuguese, transmitted by Brazilians who were in contact with the Maroons. The role of English during the formative period of Saramaccan is considered to have been slighter than in the case of Sranan.

Sranan and Saramaccan are somewhat similar – both are analytic languages with few grammatical inflections – but they are by no means the same. Saramaccan has a complex phonology with the compound plosives /kp/ and /gb/, reflecting the background languages of the African slaves. It is unique among pidgins and creoles in having phonemic tone.

Creole continuum in Jamaica

Basilect A term used in creole studies to denote the variety on a continuum which is furthest away from more standard varieties of a language spoken in a region or country. For instance, in Jamaica the basilect is represented by Jamaican Creole which is least like standard forms of English spoken there.
Mesolect The variety in a creole continuum which is in the middle between the most creole-like form (basilect) and the more standard-like form (acrolect).
Acrolect The variety in a creole-speaking community which is closest to the standard form of the language which served as original input (lexifier language), e.g. English, Dutch, Portuguese in former colonies. The acrolect usually enjoys greatest prestige in the community where it is found, e.g. standard Jamaican English.

Non-creole locations

Most linguists assume that for a creole to have arisen during the slavery period, there must have been relative isolation of the slaves and a mixture of languages present which were not necessarily mutually comprehensible. This scenario applied primarily to plantations where there would have been little contact with native-speakers of English and where the colonial masters deliberately mixed the slaves from different enthnic and community backgrounds to reduce the rise of plotting among them.

This view of the prototypical creole scenario is supported by the fact that those islands of the Caribbean where a planatation economy was not established do not show creolised forms of English today. In this context one can mention the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands as typical locations without creoles or the preceding phase of an established plantation pidgin.


The Southern Hemisphere

The southern hemisphere was not settled until the end of the 18th century. There are various reasons for this. Ships were not able to carry out the long journey to the South Atlantic with the ease with which this was later possible with advances in shipbuilding. The British government was engaged in North America, in what was later Canada and the United States (in the latter area up until the War of Independence, 1775-1783). In addition to this, the British were engaged in India which claimed a certain amount of their resources.

An event of significance for the British government was the landing of James Cook at Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia in 1770. He claimed the land for the British and named it New South Wales. In 1788 Arthur Phillip established a penal colony at Sydney Cove for convicts transported from England, thus initiating English settlement in Australia.

Another significant event occurred in 1795, when the British, in an effort to preempt a move by the French under Napoleon, occupied the Cape region, repeating this move in 1806. In 1814 the English purchased the Cape Colony from the Dutch settlers, who had been there for some considerable time (the first arrived in the 17th century). In the 1820s large numbers of English arrived, settling in the Eastern Cape region, thus cementing the British presence in South Africa.

In the late 1830s ordered immigration to New Zealand proceeded under the control of the New Zealand Company, founded by Edward Wakefield. In 1840 the British goverment negotiated the Treaty of Waitangi with the native Maori population and, as a consequence the way was opened up for large-scale English, Scottish and Irish immigration to New Zealand in the latter half of the 19th century.

Lesser known varieties in the Southern Hemisphere

The development of new ocean-going vessels in the 19th century made the long journey down the Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean to Australia and New Zealand, and of course the return journey across the southern Pacific and up the Atlantic again, both feasible and an economically viable proposition. This gave impetus to the settlement of Australia and New Zealand, but it also led to tiny English settlements in the south atlantic, specifically on the Falkland Islands (Spanish: Islas Malvinas) and on Tristan da Cunha.

Tristan da Cunha

Named after a Portuguese explorer who sighted the island for the first time in 1506, Tristan da Cunha consists of an English-speaking community of about 300 people. The island consists of a single volcano which rises at the centre. On north rim there is the Edinburgh ledge, a narrow strip of land where most of the inhabitants live. Tristan da Cunha is one of five islands which are administered by Britain. The first people went ashore in 1643 but the island was not settled until the early 19th century when British soldiers were stationed there while Napoleon was held captive on St Helena (part of the island group). The present-day islands are descendants of this original group and of some sailors from whaling ships as well as of non-English speakers from a few other sources. The volcano on the island erupted in 1961 and the inhabitants were evacuated to England. The vast majority returned to the island in 1963 after the volcano had become dormant again.

Falklands Islands

The Falklands Islands are home to approximately 2,000 people, largely involved in sheep rearing and fishing. A British possession since 1833, when the Argentinas were ousted, the islands have been the object of general attention because of the invasion by Argentina in 1982 which was repelled by the British in what is known as the Falklands War. A consequence of this is that an increased military presence is found on the island and additional linguistic contacts occur, something which was not the case previously.

Forms of English on both the Falkland Islands and on Tristan da Cunha do not represent focussed varieties. Partly because the English settlement on these islands are too small and partly because they are relatively recent. Nonetheless, features can be seen which could attain identificational value for the inhabitants of the islands and hence be part of a large distinctive variety. An example would be the use of stops for fricatives in the THIN and THIS lexical sets on Tristan da Cunha.

Pacific pidgins

The south-west Pacific is a region which has seen colonial involvement on the part of the English and French and for a brief period, from the 1880s until the First World War, by the Germans. These powers, about all the English, left behind them a linguistic legacy which is recognisable in the different forms of English found in the island states of Oceania today. Seen historically, one can treat the input of English to this region in a relatively unified way. Melanesian Pidgin English is regarded as a form of pidginised English which arose in the south-west Pacific in the 19th century. It later differntiated into separate forms which are not mutually intelligible today. These forms are associated with three specific locations as shown in the following table.

Tok Pisin Papua New Guinea It exists as a creole, is available in a written form and has official status. It is important as a lingua franca as Papua New Guinea is linguistically extremely diverse (it has the highest density of languages in the world).
Pijin Solomon Islands Spoken on these islands (immediately east of Papua New Guinea) by about half the population.
Bislama Vanuatu Vanuatu lies somewhat further away to the south-east of Papua New Guinea. Bislama has official status there, alongside English and French.


Other anglophone locations in the Pacific

Fiji (to the east of Vanuatu) consists of approximately 300 islands. It experienced ethnic mixing as a result of the colonial presence in previous centuries. The British introduced English to the Fiji islands, but also transported South Asians (speakers of Hindi from India) to Fiji as labourers on the plantations. This led to continuing tension between South Asians and the native Fijians who are of original Melanesian stock. A pidgin developed on the plantations in the 19th century (partially through input of Melanesian Pidgin English speakers from other Pacific islands) but it failed to stabilise and has not been continued.


The archipelago of Hawai'i with its main island of Honolulu has been the 50th state of the United States since 1959. The islands were first known as the Sandwich Islands after their discovery by James Cook in 1778. The dominant language is English and the influence of Hawaiian is restricted to a few lexical items. Before its annexation by Americans in 1898 the island was largely Hawaiian in population but today the number of speakers is merely a few percent.

The ethnic composition of the islands is now somewhat more complex due to immigration from the Philippines, Japan and from China. The workers from the latter country were responsible for the formation of Hawai'i Pidgin English on the plantations in the late 19th century in a similar fashion to the plantation pidgins and later creoles in other parts of the world, such as the southern United States and on various Anglophone Caribbean islands.

One or two smaller locations can be mentioned here. The former Gilbert Islands, called Kiribati since independence in 1979, are located just south of the equator towards the centre of the Pacific. The population is about 100,000. Kiribati (formerly called Gilbertese) and English are the official languages of the archipelago.

The smallest anglophone location with a claim to a separate identity must be Pitcairn Island with a population of not more than 50. The inhabitants of the island are all descendants of the mutineers of the English ship, the Bounty, and their Tahitian companions, who sought refuge on the island in 1790. In 1838 the island became a British colony and has remained so since. At the beginning of the 20th century the population was over 200 but many inhabitants left, resettling mostly in New Zealand. Pitcairnese is the name given to the mixture of 18th century English dialects and varieties of Tahitian which arose on the island during the 19th century.