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Varieties by type

Patterns of settlement
Dialects and standards
Shared innovations or common developments
Dialect patterning
Language shift
Reanalysis of variation
The ‘founder principle’

Dividing varieties by type is justified given that the various English-speaking regions around the world were settled in different ways. While each location has its own unique history, one can nonetheless recognise some basic types of varieties which arose depending on the nature of English input.

Settler varieties Varieties which derive from native-speakers who were the first English people to settle at a given location (typical of the white population in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand).
Non-settler varieties Varieties which do not stem from original native-speakers settlers, but from learning English as a second or foreign language (typical of the situation in Asia). It may be that non-settler varieties can bootstrap themselves into native-speaker varieties by speaking and teaching English to successive generations of children. This would appear to be the case in Singapore.
Shift varieties Varieties which have led to communities of native speakers arising through the shift from a native language to English. They are typical of African slaves in the Caribbean and the later southern United States, Native Americans, the black and the Indian population in South Africa (as with Xhosa English), Zimbambwe, other locations in sub-Saharan Africa along with the Aboriginal population in Australia and the Maori population in New Zealand. Shift varieties are also found in Ireland and Scotland to the the switch from Irish and Gaelic by large sections of the populations in these countries over several centuries.
Pidgins and creoles In certain situations where there was intermittant contact between speakers of English and those of native languages during the colonial period, special forms of language arose, which are known as ‘pidgins’. These are varieties used for trade or by those working on the plantations which the English speakers established in the Caribbean and later on in the southern United States. The contact in such situations was not sufficient to lead to language shift (as in Scotland or Ireland). Where pidgins became the major language input for later generations, creoles arose. Typically of these is that they involve restructuring and reorganisation of the pidgin input. Whether creoles are languages with unique features is a disputed question.
Immigrant varieties Of much more recent date are so-called immigrant varieties which result from migrants moving to a new country, usually in search of work, and picking up the language of the host country, usually in untutored adult second language acqusition. This has been the case with Mexican and Central American labour immigrants to the south-east United States and lately with people from eastern Europe or West Africa moving to Britain and Ireland in search of works, e.g. Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Nigerians in Ireland. The speech of these immigrants may become focussed and be identified as their own variety of the host country language, as has been the case with Spanish migrants to the United States who speak what is know as Chicano English.

Patterns of settlement

It is known from immigration patterns in other parts of the anglophone world, such as the eastern United States or Newfoundland (Mannion 1974), both in the 18th centuries and later in the United States in the 19th century, that immigrants from specific backgrounds clustered in certain areas. The most obvious reason for this is that those who went first, passed the message about where they had settled back to those in the area they came from. Others then followed on, going to the same area at the overseas location. In the case of the recruitment of emigrants the same would have applied: the recruiters in the homeland would have had contacts to specific points in the overseas locations. If one assumes that this was the case for countries like New Zealand in the 19th century as well, then one can assume local proportions for the major regions of Britain, depending on initial settlement patterns. An obvious case of this is the Otago and Southland regions of the South Island, where many Scottish settled , or the Hawkes Bay region where there was a high concentration of Irish. Certain tensions between regional groups from the British Isles would have furthered this clustering, for instance the Protestant Scottish and the Catholic Irish congregated in different parts of New Zealand. Segregation along confessional lines is largely true of Newfoundland as well, certainly of the outlying areas away from the Avalon Peninsula and its centre St John’s.

English at the new locations

The development of English at overseas locations depended on the one hand on the speakers emigrating and the kinds of English they transported. On the other hand the nature of the conditions at the new locations played an essential role. The former colonies differ greatly in their size, climate, topography, economy and demography and these are factors which determined the characteristics of new forms of English there.

Early settlement overseas was naturally on the coast of the area in question. In general these coastal regions show the most conservative type of English. This is as true of the south-east and east of Ireland as it is of the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada. The further history of English at new locations is determined by migration routes taken. In the United States there was initially a general movement down along the Atlantic coast and somewhat inland with a fan-like spread into the interior beyond the Appalachians (Carver 1987: 176) with a later movement across from the east coast to the region of the Great Lakes (Carver 1987: 55).

In Canada, given the geography of the country, the position was different. The early settlement of Newfoundland by Irish and West Country immigrants and that of Nova Scotia did not lead to a comparable diffusion into the interior, rather later immigration occurred through the ports in the St. Lawrence estuary and from there into south-central Canada.

The topography of South Africa on the other hand allowed for a much more evenly distributed pattern of early settlement by British immigrants in the Western and Eastern Cape. These settlers carried more vernacular varieties of English (Lanham 1996: 20-2) whereas the later settlement of KwaZulu-Natal in the Durban area after 1848 was characterised by an increasing standardness of the imported varieties (de Klerk 1996: 10, Lass 1987: 302).

For Australia the area of initial settlement was the south-east of the country (present-day New South Wales) with the west around Perth and the north following later.

Dialects and standards

With the change in status from colony to independent state new standards arose which in turn stand in a certain relationship to that in Britain. In fact the anglophone area can be divided according to its stance vis-à-vis standard varieties in Britain. The United States has it own conception of standard English which developed from supraregional forms of English outside the distinct dialect areas of the north-east and south. With the increasing economic power of the United States, particularly after the Second World War, the influence of the supraregional variety of American English has increased considerably in areas contiguous with the United States, such as the Caribbean or Canada which has re-oriented itself towards a North American koiné rather than towards British norms of pronunciation (Clarke, Elms and Youssef 1995: 224). The case of Canada is interesting in that it has retained an aspect of dialect as its chief delimiting feature vis-à-vis supraregional United States English, a differential realisation of the rising diphthongs /ai, au/ of the PRICE and MOUTH lexical sets before voiceless and voiced segments, labelled ‘Canadian Raising’ by Chambers (1973).

Other former colonies still ascribe a certain status to Received Pronunciation (RP). In the sense of Trudgill and Chambers (1998) their varieties are to a significant degree heteronomous to the British standard. This applies above all to the colonies anglicised fairly recently such as those in the Southern Hemisphere.

The position in Ireland is quite unique in the anglophone context, and the only comparison it allows is with Scotland. There is no codified norm of Irish English, either north or south and the types of English spoken in the two main areas of the island differ significantly from each other. Equally, there is no emulation of RP, if one neglects a small section of the northern Protestant community. The ceiling in terms of standardness is determined by supraregional forms of English which are devoid of salient Irish features. For instance in the south, the supraregional variety does not tolerate the morphologically transparent second person plural pronoun youse (< you + {S}) but it does allow the inherited historical form ye with the same meaning. Moving downwards on a socio-stylistic scale, one notices an increasing use of specifically dialectal features which are part of a style-shifting manoeuvre and which adds local flavouring to one’s speech, a vernacularisation strategy, so to speak. Examples of this would be using /e:/ for /i:/ in certain keywords whose stressed vowels derive from ME /ɛ:/ such as leave, tea. Of course, the position of such features has nothing to do with their possible origin in dialect input to Ireland but with their status as markers of localness in the speech of the Irish. However, their existence can serve as a means of discovering what features of a dialect were formerly characteristic before supraregionalisation, the spread of more standard features, set in.

Diffusion among dialects

Changes among dialects at new locations do not just concern the relationship to a possible standard. Many innovations are internal to nonstandard varieties and may involve interchange between sets of such varieties. This applies both to changes from within, i.e. motivated by some aspect of the linguistic system, and those from outside with their roots in community attitudes.

The spatial spread of innovations can take a number of distinct forms. It is necessary to distinguish at least three types (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998: 142-8). Contagious diffusion is the simplest of the three and refers to the spread of dialect forms which follows a straightforward time and distance relation. Cascade diffusion is one which is increasingly common, given the concentration of populations in urban centres, and consists of change proceeding strictly from larger cities to smaller ones. Contrahierarchical diffusion is seen occasionally where linguistic markers of a region diffuse over a wider area with these forms taking root and spreading, effectively reversing the usual direction of linguistic diffusion. All three types may be present in one area as in Oklahoma which has cascade diffusion of the [ɔ] to [a] merger, contrahierarchial diffusion in the spread of fixin’ to and contagious diffusion for the merger of [ɪ] and [ɛ].

Shared innovations or common developments

The discussion of Southern Hemisphere English touches on an issue which has been the subject of considerable debate among linguists in recent years, namely whether certain features in extraterritorial varieties represent shared innovations on all their parts or developments of a common historical input. A clear case to illuminate this discussion is presented by short front vowels in South African, Australian and New Zealand English. In all three major varieties of Southern Hemisphere English these vowels are raised when compared to varieties in North America (excluding the recent Northern Cities Shift, Labov 1994) and in Britain, e.g. bad [ɛ], bed [be˕d], bid [bi˗d] or [bəd] (South African and New Zealand English).

For South African English Branford (1994: 474-80) deals in detail with the raised realisations of front short vowels. He also points out (Branford 1994: 477) that the raising of the TRAP vowel is probably an inherited feature of early 19th century English and quotes Wyld (1956) who comments on this in RP. He also sees the raised vowel in the DRESS lexical set and the centralised realisation in the BIT set as having antecedents in British English at the time of the first wave of settlers to the Western and Eastern Cape regions of South Africa (after 1795 and in the 1820s respectively). He also sees the raised and somewhat rounded realisation of the BATH vowel as a parallel with colloquial forms of London speech (Branford 1994: 480). The common ground between scholars like Branford and Lass on the one hand and Gordon and Trudgill on the other is that the latter assume that the raising of short vowels was a propensity in the historical input, but not yet realised, this having taken place in New Zealand. This is tantamount to saying that the chain shift upwards of short vowels had already begun but not advanced very far. In Britain in the 20th century a reversal of the raising of the TRAP vowel had set in by the middle of the century Bauer (1985, 1994: 120f.), halting any incipient general shift upwards. Because of the split between southeastern British English and Southern Hemisphere English in the early 19th century the latter was free to continue a vowel shift on a trajectory which British English did not pursue.

Dialect patterning

The larger of the former colonies — United States, Canada, Australia and to a more limited extent South Africa — experienced internal migration after the transportation of English. Obviously, communication networks have been important for the spread of English at new locations. For later immigration to the United States and Canada the establishment of railway connections facilitated the push westwards of European immigrants in both countries.

The economic situation of former colonies is also significant for dialect patterning at new locations. For instance, the fishing industry has been, up until the 20th century, responsible for the maintenance of remote conservative communities, again in Canada (Newfoundland) and in the United States (in areas like the Outer Banks in North Carolina). Migration within countries for economic reasons has in many cases led to a new distribution of dialects as with the movement of African Americans into the industrial centres in the north of the United States in the last century or so (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998: 115).

Internal migration typically results in a shift from largely rural dialects to urban dialects as in the case just mentioned. It can also lead to anamolous distributions as with a dialect apex, a pocket area such as the Hoosier Apex of southern speech in lower Indiana and Illinois (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998: 110; Carver 1987: 174), in this case reflecting original settlement. Migration may well cause linguistic focussing if at a given location a dialect comes under pressure from outside and maintains its most noticeable features while the other less salient ones are lost. Indeed there may be a tendency to feature extension, the spreading of a formerly restricted feature to new parts of the variety in question. This may create the impression of a dialect becoming increasingly, rather than decreasingly, distinctive.

Embryonic and focussed varieties

The development of varieties in the Southern Hemisphere has provided linguists with situations in which the rise of new varieties can be studied more comprehensively than anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. In particular the contrast between embryonic and focussed varieties can be illuminated by case studies from this area. English on the Falkland Islands (Sudbury 2004) and English on Tristan da Cunha (Schreier 2004) show how nascent varieties are possibly moving towards clearer profiles by the preference, reallocation or dropping of input variants. In this situation the construction of local identity can be assumed to occur. An issue among linguists in variety studies is whether this largely unconscious process, which involves a whole range of social variables of which language is only one, is an epiphenomenon of the choices speakers make for purely linguistic reasons or whether the achievement of this local identity is a goal which is unconsciously pursued by speakers.

Not all cases of embryonic varieties lead to focussing, however. The external circumstances may militate against this. For instance, on the Bonin/Ogasawara Islands in the western Pacific, English, which was in contact with many languages, would seem to be on the decline after the reversion of the islands, which had been under United States control since the Second World War, to Japan. Most of the younger generation are monolingual Japanese or use mainstream varieties of English (Long 1999: 278).

Language shift

A situation which demands special attention in the context of transported dialects is that of language shift (Thomason 2001) where an entire community switches from an indigenous language or languages to English. The speed at which this takes place varies. What is linguistically significant is that the members of the community learn English in an environment of uncontrolled second language acquisition. This kind of context is the nearest to that of creolisation which one can see historically in the Caribbean among the West Africans taken to this region as slaves. The main difference is that in a situation of language shift there is still access to the indigenous language whereas with creolisation this is not the case, this in fact is a defining feature of the latter situation.

Varieties of English which have arisen from language shift situations have not been the object of very much investigation. Obviously native Americans or Australian aborgines who switch from their native languages to English are engaged in language shift, see Malcolm (2001) on Aboriginal English. The Lumbee Indians (Dannenberg and Wolfram 1998, 1999) are a special case as they are racially mixed and because it is unclear what language or languages were spoken originally (see Wolfram and Dannenberg 1999: 183f. for a summary of current views, see pp. 192-207 for grammatical features).

There are, however, more established cases of language shift which have been the object of much study. The first is Ireland, of course, which in the 800 years of English settlement has seen a switch from Irish to English (as has happened in the Scottish Highlands with Scottish Gaelic). The second is KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa where the Indian labourers, transported there in the second half of the 19th century, switched to English in the 20th century. As predicted by Thomason and Kaufman (1988) both Irish and South African Indian English show phonological and grammatical interference from the native languages of those involved in the shift. This particular situation has recently been labelled ‘imposition’ (Guy 1990), where in the establishment of a second language variety by speakers in a shift context, features of their first language are ‘imposed’ on the target language. At least the following two basic distinctions in shift scenarios can be made.

  1. A population movement (immigration) takes place with a switch to the language of the host country within a generation or two (Indian immigrants to KwaZulu-Natal).
  2. The target language is brought to a country by settlers and there is a gradual shift by the indigenous population to this imported language over many centuries. The likelihood of interference is greatest here as imperfect bilingualism lasts longest (Irish speakers shifting to English in Ireland).

Reanalysis of variation

Irregular variation in a language, such as that found with the verb be or the inflection of present-tense verbs in English, can often be the subject of reanalysis in overseas varieties. Two examples can be cited here to illustrate what is meant. The first concerns the inflection of auxiliary verbs. These, like all others, show -s only on the third person singular (in those varieties which do not show a manifestation of the so-called Northern Subject Rule, Ihalainen 1994). This inflection is unusual in that it is irregular across the present-tense paradigm and does not apply to other tenses. In certain forms of English, such as south-east Irish English, and by extension, forms of English on Newfoundland deriving from this source, the variation between inflection and its absence has been reanalysed as a function of the status of the verb in question. Auxiliary verbs do not show inflection, e.g. He have used all the money up, but lexical verbs do, e.g. He has a new job at the factory.

The variation is characteristic of overseas varieties of English, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, for a discussion of Newfoundland English, see Clarke (1997). The distinction between lexical and auxiliary forms of the verb is not always crucial, however. In Appalachian English (Montgomery 1994, 1997b), and in the South in general, variation is found which goes back some considerable time (Ellis 1994) but here it is not determined by the status of the verb, but rather on the nature of the subject (noun or pronoun) and such factors are distance of the subject from the verb. This type of variation is known in the literature as ‘verbal concord’ and may well have it origin in the Northern Subject Rule, mentioned above.

The second instance of such reanalysis concerns the irregular forms of be in the past (on this variation, see Tagliamonte 1998). Regarding the remnant communities they examined, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes state: “In most U.S. varieties, past be is usually regularized to was, as in We was home or You wasn’t there (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998). However, in the remnant communities considered here, we find an alternate pattern in which past be is leveled to was in positive contexts (e.g. We was there) but to weren’t in negative (e.g. I weren’t home). This pattern represents a remorphologization of the two past be stems, such that was is now used as a marker of affirmative rather than singular meaning, and the were-stem is now used as a marker of negativity rather than plurality.” (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 2004, Schilling-Estes and Wolfram 1994 and Wolfram and Thomas 2002: 69-77).


At any one point in time a variety is likely to contain at least some elements which are afunctional (as a left-over from former historical stages, Lass 1990). A case which illustrates this is provided by English in the 17th and 18th centuries where the use of do as an emphatic in present-tense declarative sentences (as in I do like linguistics) was not yet definitely established, less in the west of England, which was a common source of settlers in Ireland, than in the east. Thus a syntactic structure was available in early modern Irish English which in itself was still in the process of becoming identified with a specific function. What would appear to have happened is that those Irish speakers who were in the process of transferring to English, through a process of untutored second language learning as adults, took the still afunctional do of declarative sentences and refunctionalised it as a means of expressing habitual aspect (Hickey 1997) as seen in sentences like They do be out fishing often or She does come over to our place after dark. The fact that the trade-off with such refunctionalisation was minimal, in terms of disruption of syntax, probably facilitated the process.

The ‘founder principle’ and early settlers

The term ‘founder principle’ was devised by Salikoko Mufwene in an article on creole genesis (see Mufwene 1996). The label is intended to highlight the fact that the early settlers at an overseas location set the scene for the later development of a variety. The number of early settlers is not the central issue, but the fact that they are the first to bring to the new language to a new location and it is their speech which is handed down to later generations. As a generalisation this is basically true, but there are a number of other factors to be taken into account when considering the formation of overseas varieties.

The early settlers may well have been mixed, so that it is the mixture which is important. The outcome of dialect mixing (Trudgill 2004, Hickey 2003) depends on the relative numbers of settlers, but also on the social standing of the different groups and such additional aspects such as whether they came as established families or young individuals who founded families at the new location. Furthermore, the geographical distribution at the new location is important: did settlers congregate, did they live in cities or in relatively isolated rural areas?

The ‘founder principle’ can only be taken to apply in those cases where there is unbroken continuity of native-speaker varieyties at a location. But this did not always hold: in some countries language shift took place, i.e. the indigenous population moved from their original native language to English, usually over a period of some centuries. In such instances, the shape of the variety may not have been fixed until quite late, i.e. until the majority of speakers had shifted to English. This is true for parts of the British Isles, above all north and north-west Scotland and Ireland. It also applied to the Indian population in South Africa and to the Aboriginal population in Australia and the Maori in New Zealand, to name just a few of the better known examples.


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