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The main variants of the english language
General Characteristics of the English Language in Different Parts of
the English-Speaking World
It is natural that the English language is not used with uniformity in
the British Isles and in Australia, in the USA and -in New Zealand, in
Canada and in India, etc. The English language also as some
peculiarities in Wales, Scotland, in other parts of the British Isles
and America. Is the nature of these varieties the same?
Modern linguistics distinguishes territorial variants of a national
language and local dialects. Variants of a language are regional
varieties of a standard literary language characterized by some minor
peculiarities in the sound system, vocabulary and by their own literary
norms. Dialects are varieties 01 a language used as a means of oral
communication in small localities, they are set off (more or less
sharply) from other varieties by some dlsitncttve teatufes of
pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
Close inspection of the varieties mentioned above reveals that they are
essentially different in character. It is not difficult to establish
that the varieties spoken in small areas are local dialects. The status
of the other varieties is more difficult to establish.
It is over half a century already that the nature of the two main
variants of the English language, British and American (Br and AE) has
been discussed. Some American linguists, H. L. Mencken for one, speak of
two separate languages with a steady flood of linguistic influence first
(up to about 1914) from Britain to America, and since then from America
to the British Isles. They even proclaim that the American influence on
British English is so powerful that there will come a time when the
American standard will be established in Britain.1 Other linguists
regard the language of the USA as a dialect of English.
Still more questionable is the position of Australian English (AuE) and
Canadian English (CnE).
The differences between the English language as spoken in Britain, the
USA, Australia and Canada are immediately noticeable уд the field of
phonetics. However these distinctions are confined to the
articulatory-acoustics characteristics of some phonemes, to some
differences in the use of others and to the differences in the rhythm
and intonation of speech. The few phonemes characteristic of American
pronunciation and alien to British literary norms can as a rule be
observed in British dialects.
The variations in vocabulary, to be considered below, are not very
numerous. Most of them are divergences in the semantic structure of
words and in their usage.
The dissimilarities in grammar like AE gotten, proven for BE got, proved
are scarce. For the most part these dissimilarities consist in the
preference of this or that grammatical category or form to some others.
For example, the preference of Past Indefinite to Present Perfect, the
formation of the Future Tense with will as the only auxiliary verb for
all persons, and some others. Recent investigations have also shown that
the Present Continuous form in the meaning of Future is used twice as
frequently in BE as in the American, Canadian and Australian variants;
infinitive constructions are used more rarely in AE than in BE and AuE
and passive constructions are, on the contrary, more frequent in America
than in Britain and in Australia.
Since BE, AE and AuE have essentially the same grammar system, phonetic
system and vocabulary, they cannot be regarded as different languages.
Nor can they be referred to local dialects; because they serve all
spheres of verbal communication in society, within their territorial
area they have dialectal differences of their own; besides they differ
far less than local dialects (e.g. far less than the dialects of
Dewsbury and Howden, two English” towns in Yorkshire some forty miles
apart). Another consideration is that AE has its own literary norm and
AuE is developing one. Thus we must speak of three variants of the
English national language having different accepted literary standards,
one spoken in the British Isles, another spoken in the USA, the third in
Australia. As to CnE, its peculiarities began to attract linguistic
attention only some 20 years ago. The fragmentary nature of the
observation available makes it impossible to determine its status.
Lexical Differences of Territorial Variants
Speaking about the lexical distinctions between the territorial
variants, of the English’ language it is necessary to point out that
from the point of view of their modern currency in different parts of
the English-speaking world all lexical units may be divided into general
English, those common to all the variants and 1ocally-marked, those
specific to present-day usage in one of the variants and not found in
the others (i.e. Briticisms, Americanisms, Australianisms, Canadianisms,
When speaking about the territorial differences of the English language
philologists and lexicographers usually note the fact that different
variants of English use different words for the same objects. Thus in
describing the lexical differences between the British and American
variants they provide long lists of word pairs like
From such lists one may infer that the words in the left column are the
equivalents of those given in the right column and used on the other
side of the Atlantic. But the matter is not as simple as that.
These pairs present quite different cases.
It is only in some rare cases like tin-opener—can-opener or
fishmonger—fish-dealer that the members of such pairs are semantically
In pairs like government—administration, leader—editorial only one
lexical semantic variant of one of the members is locally-marked. Thus
in the first pair the lexical semantic variant of administration—’the
executive officials of a government’ is an Americanism, in the second
pair the word leader in the meaning of ‘leading article in a newspaper’
is a Briticism.
In some cases a notion may have two synonymous designations used on both
sides of the Atlantic ocean, but one of them is more frequent in
Britain, the other—in the USA. Thus in the pairs post—mail,
timetable—shedule, notice—bulletin the first word is more frequent in
Britain, the second—in America. So the difference here lies only in
Most locally-marked lexical units belong to partial Briticisms,
Americanisms, etc., that is they are typical of this or that variant
only in one or some of their meanings. Within the semantic structure of
such words one may often find meanings belonging to general English,
Americanisms and Briticisms, e.g., in the word pavement, the meaning
‘street or road covered with stone, asphalt, concrete, etc is an
Americanism, the meaning ‘paved path for pedestrians at the side of the
road’ is a Briticism (the corresponding American expression is
sidewalk), the other two meanings ‘the covering of the floor made of
flat blocks of wood, stone, etc.’ and ‘soil’ (geol.) are general
English. Very often the meanings that belong to general English are
common and neutral, central, direct, while the Americanisms are
colloquial, marginal and figurative, e.g. shoulder—general English—’the
joint connecting the arm or forelimb with the body’, Americanism—’either
edge of a road or highway’.
There are also some full Briticisms, Americanisms, etc.-, i.e. lexical
units specific to the: BritishTAmerican, etcrvariant-in all Шеігліеаш
ings. For example, the words fortnight, pillar-box are full Briticisms,
campus, mailboy are full Americanisms, outback, backblocks are full
These may be subdivided into lexical units denoting some realia that
have no counterparts elsewhere (such as the Americanism junior high
school) and those denoting phenomena observable in other
English-speaking countries but expressed there in a different way (e.g.
campus is defined in British dictionaries as ‘grounds of a school or
college’). The number of lexical units denoting some realia having no
counterparts in the other English-speaking countries is considerable in
each variant. To these we may refer, for example, lexical units
pertaining to such spheres of life as flora and fauna (e.g. AuE
kangaroo, kaola, dingo, gum-tree), names of schools of learning (e.g.
junior high school and senior high school in AE or composite high school
in CnE), namesof things of everyday life, often connected with peculiar
national conditions, traditipns and customs (e.g. AuE boomerang, AE
drug-store, CnE float-house). But it is not the lexical units of this
kind that can be considered distinguishing features of this or that
variant. As the lexical units are the only means of expressing the
notions in question in the English language some of them have become
common property of the entire English-speaking community (as, e.g.,
drug-store, lightning rod, super-market, baby-sitter that extended from
AE, or the hockey terms that originated in Canada (body-check, red-line,
puck-carrier, etc.); others have even become international (as the
former Americanisms motel, lynch, abolitionist, radio, cybernetics,
telephone, anesthesia, or the former Australianisms dingo, kangaroo and
The numerous locally-marked slangisms, professionalisms and dialectisms
cannot be considered distinguishing features either, since they do not
belong to the literary language.
Less obvious, yet not less important, are the regional differences of
another kind, the so-called derivational variants of words, having the
same root and identical in lexical meaning though differing in
derivational affixes (e.g. BE acclimate—AE acclimatize, BE aluminium—AE
Sometimes the derivational variation embraces several words of the same
word-cluster. Compare, for example, the derivatives of race (division of
mankind) in British and American English:
BE racial/racialist a, racialist n, racialism n
AE racist a, racist n, racialism/racism n
When speaking about the territorial lexical divergences it is not
sufficient to bring into comparison separate words, it is necessary to
compare lexico-semantic groups of words or synonymic sets, to study the
relations within these groups and sets, because on the one hand a
different number of members in a lexico-semantic group is connected with
a different semantic structure of its members, on the other hand even
insignificant modifications in the semantic structure of a word bring
about tangible reshufflement in the structure of the lexico-semantic
group to which the word belpngs.
For example, the British and Australian variants have different sets of
words denoting inland areas: only inland is common to both, besides BE
has interior, remote, etc., AuE has bush, outback, backblocks, back of
beyond, back of Bourke and many others.
Accordingly, the semantic structure of the word bush and its position in
the two variants are altogether different: in BE it has one central
meaning (‘shrub’) and several derived ones, some of which are now
obsolete, in AuE it has two semantic centres (‘wood’ and ‘inland areas’)
that embrace five main and four derived meanings.
Lexical peculiarities in different parts of the English-speaking world
эге not only those in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical
list, they also concern the very fashion of using words. For instance,
he grammatical valency of the verb to push is much narrower in AuE, han
in BE and AE (e.g. in this variant it is not used in the patterns VVen,
NVen, NVing, NprpVing. Some patterns of the verb are typical only of one
variant (e.g. NVen and NprpVing—of BE, NV and NVing — AE). There are
also some features of dissimilarity in the word’s lexical valency, e.g.
a specifically British peculiarity observed in newspaper style is the
ability of the’ verb to be used in combination with nouns denoting price
or quality (to push up prices, rents, etc.).
As to word-formation in different variants, the word-building means
employed are the same and most of them are equally productive. The
difference lies only in the varying degree of productivity of some of
them in this or that variant. As compared with the British variant, for
example, in the American variant the affixes -ette, -ее, super-, as in
kitchenette, draftee, super-market, are used more extensively; the same
is true of conversion and blending (as in walk-out—’workers’ strike’
from (to) walk out; (to) major—’specialize in a subject or field of
study’ from the adjective major; motel from motor + hotel, etc.). In the
Australian variant the suffixes-ie/-y and-ее, as well as abbreviations
are more productive than in BE.
Thus, the lexical distinctions between different variants of English are
intricate and varied, but they do not make a system. For the most part
they are partial divergences in the semantic structure and usage of some
Some Points of History of the Territorial Variants and Lexical
interchahge Between Them
The lexical divergences between different variants of English have
been brought about b several historical processes.
As ls weN known the English language was brought to the American
continent at the beginning of the 17th century and to Australia at the
end of the 18th century as a result of the expansion of British
colonialism. It is inevitable that on each territory in the new
conditions the subsequent development of the language should diverge
somewhat from that of British English.
In the first place names for new animals, birds, fishes, plants, trees,
etc. were formed of familiar English elements according to familiar
English patterns. Such are mockingbird, bullfrog, catfish, peanut, sweet
potatoe, popcorn that were coined in AE or dogger—’professional hunter
of dingoes’, Bushman—’Australian soldier in Boer War—formed in AuE.
New words were also borrowed to express new concepts from the languages
with which English came into contact on the new territories. Thus in the
American variant there appeared Indian hickory, moose, racoon, Spanish
canyon, mustang, ranch, sombrero, etc.
At the same time quite a number of words lost in BE have survived on the
other continents and conversely, certain features of earlier BE that
have been retained in England were lost in the new varieties of the
language, changed their meaning or acquired a new additional one.
For example, Chaucer used to guess in the meaning of to think, so do the
present day Americans; the English however abandoned it centuries ago
and when they happen to hear it today they are conscious that it is an
Americanism. The same is true of the words to loan for to lend, fall for
autumn, homely for ugly, crude, etc.
The word barn designated in Britain a building for storing grain (the
word was a compound in Old English consisting of bere—’barley’ and
aern—’house’); in AE it came also to mean a place for housing stock,
particularly cattle. Similarly, corn was applied in America to an
altogether different cereal (maize) and lost its former general meaning
‘grain’. The word station acquired the meaning of ‘a sheep or cattle
ranch’, the word bush—the meaning of ‘wood1 and shrub (AuE scrub)— .’any
vegetation but wood’ in AuE. I Modern times are characterized by
considerable levelling of the lexical distinctions between the variants
due to the growth of cultural and economic ties between nations and
development of modern means of communication.
For example, a large number of Americanisms have gained currency in BE,
some becoming so thoroughly naturalized that the dictionaries in England
no longer mark them as aliens (e.g. reliable, lengthy, talented,
belittle). Others have a limited sphere of application (e.g. fan—
colloq. ‘a person enthusiastic about a specific sport, pastime, or
performer’, to iron out—’smooth out, eliminate’). The influx of American
films, comics and periodicals resulted in the infiltration of American
slang, e.g. gimmick—’deceptive or secret device’, to root—’support or
encourage a contestant or team, as by applauding or cheering’, etc.
Certain uses of familiar words, which some 50 years ago were peculiar to
the US, are now either completely naturalized in Britain or evidently on
the way to naturalization. Numerous examples will be found by noting the
words and meanings indicated as American in dictionaries at the
beginning of the century and in present days.
At the same time a number of Briticisms have passed into the language of
the USA, e.g. smog which is a blend of smoke and fog, to brief— ‘to give
instructions’. This fact the advocates of the American language theory
deliberately ignore. Sometimes the Briticisms adopted in America compete
with the corresponding American expressions, the result being the
differentiation in meaning or spheres of application, for example,
unlike the American store, the word shop, taken over from across the
ocean at the beginning of the 20th century is applied only to small
specialized establishments (e.g. gift shop, hat shop, candy shop), or
specialized departmentsг of a department spore (e.g. the missec” shop).
British luggage used alongside American baggage in America differs from
its rival in collocability (luggage compartment, luggage rack, but
baggage car, baggage check, baggage room). In the pair autumn—fall the
difference in AE is of another nature: the former is bookish, while the
LOCAL VARIETIES IN THE BRITISH ISLES AND IN THE USA
Local Dialects in the British lsles
In the British Isles there exist many sneech varieties confined to
particular areas. These local dialects traceable to Old English dialects
may be classified into six distinct divisions: 1) Lowland (Scottish pF
Scotch, North of the river Tweed), 2) Northern (between tne rivers Tweed
and Humber), 3) Western, 4) Midland and 5) Eastern (between the river
Humber and the Thames), 6) Southern (South of tne Thames). Their sphere
of application is confined to the oral speech of the rural population in
a locality and only the Scottish dialect can be said to have a
literature of its own with Robert Burns as its greatest representative.
Offspring’s of the English national literary language, the British local
dialects are marked off from the former and from each other by some
phonetic, grammatical and lexical peculiarities. In this book we are
naturally concerned only with the latter.
Careful consideration of the national and the dialect vocabularies
discloses that the most marked difference between them lies in the
limited character of the dialect vocabularies. The literary language
contains many words not to be found in dialects, among them technical
and scientific terms.
1 . Local lexical peculiarities, as yet the least studied, are most
noticeable in specifically dialectal words pertaining to local customs,
social і life and natural conditions: laird—’landed proprietor in
Scotland’, burgh—’Scottish chartered town’, kirk—’church1,
loch—’Scottish lake or landlocked arm of the sea’, etc. There are many
names of objects and processes connected with farming, such as the names
of agricultural processes, tools, domestic animals and the like, e.g.
galloway—’horse of small strong breed from Galloway, Scotland’,
kyloe—’one of small breed of long-horned Scotch cattle’,
shelty—’Shetland pony’. There is also a considerable number of
emotionally coloured dialectal words, e.g. §cot. bonny—’beautiful,
healthy-looking’, braw—’fine, excellent’, daffy—’crazy, silly’,
cuddy—’fool, ass’, loon—’clumsy, stupid person’.
In addition, words may have different meanings in the national language
and in the local dialects, e.g. in the Scottish dialect the word to call
is used in the meaning of ‘to drive’, to set—’to suit’, short—’rude’,
Dialectal lexical differences also embrace word-building patterns. For
instance, some Irish words contain the dimmutіve suffixes -an -een,
-can, as in bohaun—’cabin’ (from Irish both—’cabin’); bohereen— ‘narrow
road’ (from Irish bothar—’road’); mearacaun—’thimble’ (from Irish
mear—’finger’); etc. Some of these suffixes may even be added to English
bases, as in girleen, dogeen, squireen (squirrel), etc. Some
specifically dialectal derivatives are formed from standard English
stems with the help of standard English affixes, e.g. Scot,
flesher—’butcher’, Sudden ty—’suddenness1.
A great number of words specifically dialectal appeared as a result of
intense borrowing from other languages, others are words that have
disappeared from the national literary language or become archaic,
poetical, such as gang—’go’, OE sangan; bairn—.’child’, OE beam, etc.
Thus, the lexical differences between the English national language and
its dialects are due to the difference in the spheres of application,
different tempoes of development, different contacts with other peoples,
and deliberate elaboration of literary norms.
The Relationship Between the English National Languaga and British
The local dialects in Britain are sharply declining in importance at the
present time; they are being obliterated by the literary language.
This process is two-fold. On the one hand, lexical units of the literary
language enter local dialects, ousting some of their words and
expressions. On the other hand, dialectal words penetrate into the
national literary language. Many frequent words of common use are
dialectal in origin, such as girl, one, raid, glamour, etc. Some words
from dialects are used as technical terms or professionalisms in the
literary language, e.g. the Scotch cuddy—’ass’ is used in the meaning of
jack-screw and lug—’ear’ in the meaning of handle.
Dialect peculiarities (phonetical, grammatical, but mainly lexical)
modify in varying degrees the language spoken in different parts of
Britain. These speech-forms are called regional variants of the national
language and they are gradually replacing the old local dialects. It
should be noted that the word dialect is used in two meanings nowadays:
to denote the old dialects which are now dying away, and to denote the
regional variants, i.e. a literary standard with some features from
The most marked difference between dialects and regional variants in the
field of phonetics lies in the fact that dialects possess phonemic
distinctions, while regional variants are characterized by phonetic
distinctions. In matters of vocabulary and grammar the difference is in
the greater number and greater diversity of local peculiarities in the
dialects as compared with the regional variants.
Local Dialects in the USA
The English language ІП the United States is characterized by
relative uniformity throughout the country. One can travel three
thousand miles without encountering any but the slightest dialect
differences. Nevertheless, regional variations in speech undoubtedly
exist and they have been observed and recorded by a number of
The following three major belts of dialects have so far been identified,
each with its own characteristic features: Northenr Midland and
Southern, Midland being in turn divided into North Midland and South
The differences in pronunciation between American dialects are most
apparent, but they seldom interfere with understanding. Distinctions in
grammar are scarce. The differences in vocabulary are rather numerous,
but they are easy to pick up. Cf., e.g., Eastern New England sour-milk
cheese. Inland Northern Dutch cheese, New York City pot cheese for
Standard American cottage cheese (творог).
The American linguist “O. F. Emerson maintains that American English had
not had time to break up into widely diverse dialects and he believes
that in the course of time the American dialects might finally become
nearly as distinct as the dialects in Britain. He is certainly greatly
mistaken. In modern times dialect divergence cannot increase. On the
contrary, in the United States, as elsewhere, the national language is
tending to wipe out the dialect distinctions and to become still more
Comparison of the dialect differences in the’ British Isles and in the
USA reveals that not only are they less numerous and far less marked in
the USA, but that the very nature of the local distinctions is
different. What is usually known as American dialects is closer in
nature to regional variants of the literary language. The problem of
discriminating between literary and dialect speech patterns in the USA
is much more complicated than in Britain. Many American linguists point
out that American English differs from British English in having no one
locality whose speech patterns have come to be recognized as the model
for the rest of the country.
Summary and Conclusions
1. English is the national language of England proper, the USA,
Australia and some provinces of Canada. It was also at different times
imposed on the inhabitants of the former and present British colonies
and protectorates as well as other Britain- and US-dominated
territories, where the population has always stuck to its own mother
2. British English, American English and Australian English are
variants of the same language, because they serve all spheres of verbal
communication. Their structural peculiarities, especially morphology,
syntax and word-formation, as well as their word-stock and phonetic
system are essentially the same. American and Australian standards are
slight modifications of the norms accepted in the British Isles. The
status of Canadian English has not yet been established.
3. The main lexical differences between the variants are caused by the
lack of equivalent lexical units in one of them, divergences in the
semantic structures of polysemantic words and peculiarities of usage of
some words on different territories.
4. The so-called local dialects in the British Isles and in the USA
.are used only by the rural population and only for the purposes of oral
communication. In both variants local distinctions are more marked in
pronunciation, less conspicuous in vocabulary and insignificant in
5. The British local dialects can be traced back to Old English
dialects. Numerous and distinct, they are characterized by phonemic and
structural peculiarities. The local dialects are being gradually
replaced by regional variants of the literary language, i. e. by a
literary standard with a proportion of local dialect features.
6. Local variations in the USA are relatively small. What is called by
tradition American dialects is closer in nature to regional variants of
the national literary language.
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