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   Research trends

Sociolinguistics, language change and varieties
Development of the standard
Development of English overseas
Post-colonial varieties and World Englishes
Variational pragmatics
Overviews of the history of English

Before discussing research trends, it is necessary to specify what is understood here by ‘varieties of English’. The label is taken to refer to forms of English which were taken to overseas locations during the colonial period – roughly from the early 17th to the late 19th centuries – and which developed in specific ways, depending on such factors as regional English input, demographic composition of early settlers, social status of the settlers relative to each other, conditions at the overseas locations, particularly whether the latter developed to become independent nations with their own standards of English. In this sense the study of varieties of English is closely linked to what is known as new dialect formation (Trudgill 1986, 2004; Hickey 2003), the rise of new dialects from a mixture of inputs at some locations outside the British Isles. Here examining possible historical connections between older and newer varieties plays a major role.

Studying varieties of English is closely connected with the study of language change. The reason is that the very different conditions in different part of the English-speaking world have led to diverging outcomes. The range of scenarios provides ample opportunity to consider how language change occurs under specific external and internal conditions.

The study of varieties of English involves an historical dimension: the nature of British, Scottish and Irish English in the early modern and late modern periods, 16th / 17th and 18th / 19th centuries respectively, is crucial to rise of overseas varieties. Furthermore, the varieties involved are nearly always non-standard, indeed in earlier centuries it is difficult to say just what constituted standard English in Britain and whether it was used by those who left to settle overseas.

Research into varieties of English is closely associated with the research agenda known as language variation and change, which investigates the manner in which variation in language use leads to constant change, driven largely by social factors, but tempered by considerations of language structure, i.e. by internal factors. This approach is in its turn embedded in the larger field of sociolinguistics (Tagliamonte 2006, 2011). Those linguists concerned with phonology within this paradigm often present data based on sociophonetic analyses (see Thomas 2011 for a good introduction to this approach).

One distinction, which it is necessary to make, is that between studying varieties of English and studying forms of international standard English. The latter is a branch in its own right (McArthur 1998) and there are dedicated journals dealing with matters which fall within its scope, such as World Englishes and English Today. There are also corpora dedicated to the collection of data on standard English from different countries, notably those contained in the International Corpus of English project and in others such as the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English or the Australian Corpus of English.

    Sociolinguistics, language change and varieties

The development of sociolinguistics in the 20th century is due primarily to the pioneering work of William Labov who in the 1960s carried out seminal studies (above all, that published as Labov 1966) which provided the methodological framework for virtually every sociolinguistic investigation since. Labov has increasingly been concerned with the application of insights from sociolinguistics to the history of English (see Labov 1981), as well as to the development of varieties of the language, and many linguists have followed this same path, much to the benefit of scholarship in the field.

    Development of the standard

The data for nearly all the investigations listed above derive in the main from the English language as attested in England. There has been criticism of this fact by several linguists who see in the concentration on England, a covert prescriptivism as if the history of English was the domain of English English. Discussion of such attitudes are to be found in James and Lesley Milroy (1991) and, by the provision of contrasting scenarios, in Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds) (2001). The issue of standards – deliberately set in the plural – is a central theme in Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (eds) (1999). The historical background to the rise of standard English in England and the attendant increase in prescriptivism is treated in such books as Jenny Cheshire and Dieter Stein (eds) (1997), Tony Crowley (1989, 1991) and Mugglestone (2003, 2nd edition); Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) looks at similar subject matter within the American context. A critique of different views in some branches English linguistics is to be found in Mufwene (2001).

    Development of English overseas

The development of overseas varieties of English and their relationship to regional dialects of British, Irish and Scottish English has been examined in depth recently, see the volumes on English overseas (Burchfield, ed. 1994) and on English in North America (Algeo, ed., 2001). in the Cambridge History of the English Language and Raymond Hickey (2004). Issues concerning English in a global context has been served well by many book-length publications and there are quality journals dedicated to this subject, such as English World Wide, 1980- (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), with an accompanying book series.

    Post-colonial varieties and World Englishes

In recent years there has been increasing scholarly activity dedicated to (i) the post-colonial nature of many overseas forms of English and (ii) the nature and structure of World Englishes. The former area has been investigated in particular by Edgar Schneider, see Schneider (2007) as an overview of his views on the matter. World Englishes has been a central concern of certain scholars over a long period of time, e.g. Braj Kachru and Tom McArthur. Since the turn of the millenium a number of works have appeared in which these forms of English are centre stage, e.g. McArthur (2002), Kachru, Kachru and Nelson (eds) (2006). A general overview and introduction is provided by Mesthrie and Bhatt (2008). In this context one can mention the specific treatments of English in Asia which have also appeared, e.g. Bolton (ed.) (2002), Bolton (2003), Bolton and Kachru (eds) (2007). For more information on these areas, please consult the module English in a global context.

    Variational pragmatics

Among recent approaches to varieties of language which have opened up promising avenues of research is the paradigm labelled Variational Pragmatics. This looks at languages which are pluricentric, such as English, but also Romance languages like Spanish and French and considers to what extent geographical and cultural separation has led to differences in language use arising over time. This would involve such issues as requests, offers, responses, small talk and politeness strategies in general. Schneider and Barron (eds) 2008 is a newly published volume which provides an overview of this field.

    Overviews of the history of English

In the 1980s and 1990s a number of studies of the history of English appeared which strove to apply the insights of modern linguistics to this subject. The main work here is the many-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (ed. Richard Hogg). Single volume studies often with innovative approaches are Richard Bailey (1991), Norman Blake (1996), Barbara Fennell (1998), Roger Lass (1987), Roger Lass (1994), Jeremy Smith (1996) (see references below for full details).

The turn of the millennium has seen several new studies of which one could mention the single-volume treatments of the history of English by Laurel Brinton and Leslie Arnovick (2005), Lynda Mugglestone (ed.) (2006) and Richard Hogg and David Denison (eds) 2006.

Many studies on late modern English appeared in the 1990s reflecting a concern with the centuries immediately preceding modern English. Of these studies one could mention the new edition of Charles Barber (1976) in 1997 and the more recent Richard Bailey (1996) as well as Manfred Görlach (1991), Manfred Görlach (1999), Terttu Nevalainen (2004) and Joan Beal (2004).

The 1990s also saw two large one volume guides to the English language with McArthur (1992) and Crystal (1995), the former with a broad brief and the latter with a specific emphasis on the history of the language. It also saw the introduction of a journal specifically dealing with the analysis of the English language, generally from a diachronic perspective: English Language and Linguistics, 1997- (Cambridge: University Press).

At present (2011) the history of English is being reassessed by many scholars on the basis of insights gained over the past decade or two. This is obvious in the volume by Nevalainen and Traugott (eds, 2011) and will also be a central theme in Kytö and Pahta (in preparation).

More information on the history of English can be found on the website Studying the History of English


Algeo, John (ed.) 2001. English in North America. Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 6. Cambridge: University Press.

Bailey, Richard W. 1991. Images of English. A cultural history of the language. Cambridge: University Press.

Bailey, Richard W. 1996. Nineteenth century English. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Barber, Charles 1997 [1976]. Early Modern English. 2nd edition. London: André Deutsch.

Beal, Joan 2004. English in Modern Times 1700-1945. London: Arnold.

Bex, Tony and Richard J. Watts (eds) 1999. Standard English. The widening debate. London: Routledge.

Blake, Norman 1996. A History of English Language. London: Macmillan.

Bolton, Kingsley and Braj Kachru (eds) 2007. Asian Englishes. London: Routledge.

Bolton, Kingsley 2003. Chinese Englishes. A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge: University Press.

Bolton, Kingsley (ed.) 2002. Hong Kong English: Autonomy and Creativity. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Brinton, Laurel and Leslie Arnovick 2005. The English Language. A linguistic History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Burchfield, Robert (ed.) 1994. English in Britain and Overseas. Origins and Development. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 5. Cambridge: University Press.

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Hickey, Raymond (ed.) 2003. Motives for Language Change. Cambridge: University Press.

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Hickey, Raymond (ed.) 2010. The Handbook of Language Contact.Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hogg, Richard and David Denison (eds) 2006. A History of the English Language. Cambridge: University Press.

Jones, Charles 2002. An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: University Press.

Kachru, Braj B., Yamuna Kachru and Cecil L. Nelson (eds) 2006. The Handbook of World Englishes. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kytö, Merja, Mats Rydén and Erik Smitterberg (eds) 2006. Nineteenth-Century English. Stability and change. Cambridge: University Press.

Kytö, Merja and Päivi Pahta (eds) in preparation. The Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: University Press.

Labov, William 1966. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

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Labov, William 2010. Principles of Linguistic Change. Vol. 3 - Cognitive and Cultural Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lass, Roger 1987. The Shape of English. Structure and history. London: Dent.

Lass, Roger 1994. Old English. A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: University Press.

Lippi-Green, Rosina 1997. English with an Accent. Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.

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McArthur, Tom 2002. The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: University Press.

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Nevalainen, Terttu and Elizabeth Traugott (eds) 2012. Rethinking the History of English. Oxford: University Press.

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Schneider, Edgar 2007. Postcolonial English. Varieties around the World. Cambridge: University Press.

Schneider, Klaus P. and Anne Barron (eds) 2008. Variational Pragmatics. A focus on regional varieties in pluricentric languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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