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STANDARD ENGLISH VARIANTS AND DIALECTS



Standard English — the official language of Great Britain taught at schools and universities, used by the press, the radio and the television and spoken by educated people may be defined as that form of English which is current and literary, substantially uniform and recognised as acceptable wherever English is spoken or understood. Its vocabulary is contrasted to dialect words or dialecticisms. Local dialeсts are varieties of the English language peculiar to some districts and having no normalised literary form. Regional varieties possessing a literary form are called variants. In Great Britain there are two variants, Scottish English and Irish English, and five main groups of dialects: Northern, Midland, Eastern, Western and Southern. Every group contains several (up to ten) dialects.

One of the best known Southern dialects is Cockney, the regional dialect of London. According to E. Partridge and H.C. Wylde, this dialect exists on two levels. As spoken by the educated lower middle classes it is a regional dialect marked by some deviations in pronunciation but few in vocabulary and syntax. As spoken by the uneducated, Cockney differs from Standard English not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary, morphology and syntax. G.B. Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” clearly renders this level of Cockney as spoken at the time when the play was written and reveals the handicap Cockney obviously presents in competition with speakers of standard English. Professor Henry Higgins, the main character of the play, speaking about Eliza Doolittie, the flower girl, says: You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass this girl off as a duchess ... even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant which requires better English.

“The Encyclopaedia Britannica” treats Cockney as an accent, not acknowledging it the status of dialect.

Cockney has attracted much literary attention, and so we can judge of its past and present on the evidence of literature. As recorded by Ch. Dickens over a century ago, Cockney was phonetically characterised by the interchange of the labial and labio-dental consonants [w] and [v]: wery for very and vell for well. This trait was lost by the end of the 19th century. The voiceless and voiced dental spirants [θ ] and [∂ ] are still replaced — though not very consistently — by [f] and [v] respectively: fing for thing and farver for father (inserting the letter r indicates vowel

 

 


length). This variation is not exclusively characteristic of Cockney and may be found in several dialects. Another trait not limited to Cockney is the interchange of the aspirated and non-aspirated initial vowels: hart for art and ‘eart for heart. The most marked feature in vowel sounds is the substitution of the diphthong [ai] for standard [ei] in such words as day, face, rain, way pronounced: [dai], [fais], [rain], [wai].

There are some specifically Cockney words and set expressions such as up the pole ‘drunk’, you’ll get yourself disliked (a remonstrance to a person behaving very badly).

Cockney is lively and witty and its vocabulary imaginative and colourful. Its specific feature not occurring anywhere else is the so-called rhyming slang, in which some words are substituted by other words rhyming with them. Boots, for instance, are called daisy roots, hat is tit for tat, head is sarcastically called loaf of bread, and wife trouble and strife. It has set expressions of its own. Here is an example of a rather crude euphemistic phrase for being dead: “She may have pulled me through me operation, ” said Mrs Fisher, “but streuth I’m not sure I wouldn’t be better off pushing up the daisies, after all.” (M. Dickens)

The study of dialects has been made on the basis of information obtained with the help of special techniques: interviews, questionnaires, recording by phonograph and tape-recorder, etc. Data collected in this way show the territorial distribution of certain key words and pronunciations which vary from region to region.

Dialects are now chiefly preserved in rural communities, in the speech of elderly people. Their boundaries have become less stable than they used to be; the distinctive features are tending to disappear with the shifting of population due to the migration of working-class families in search of employment and the growing influence of urban life over the countryside. Dialects are said to undergo rapid changes under the pressure of Standard English taught at schools and the speech habits cultivated by radio, television and cinema.

For the most part dialect in literature has been limited to speech characterisation of personages in books otherwise composed in Standard English. There are Yorkshire passages in “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, and Lancashire passages in “Mary Barton” by E. Gaskell. A Southern dialect (that of Dorset) is sometimes introduced by Th. Hardy, A. Tennyson used Lancashire dialect in two of his poems reproducing peasant speech (" Northern Farmer: Old Style” and “Northern Farmer: New Style" ).

“The Northern Farmer: Old Style” is the monologue of a dying old man. He knows that his death is near and is resigned to it: “If I must die I must die.” He wants his nurse to bring him ale, although doctor has forbidden it. The last stanza runs as follows: “What atta stannin’ theer for, an’ doesn bring ma the yaä le? Doctor’s a tattier, lass, an a’s hallus V the owd taä le; I weä nt break rules for Doctor, a knows now moor nora floy, Git ma my yaä le I tell tha, an gin I тип doy I тип doy.” (Tennyson)

The dialect vocabulary is remarkable for its conservatism: many words that have become obsolete in standard English are still kept in dialects, e. g. to and ‘envy’ < OE andian; barge ‘pig’ < OE berg; bysen ‘blind’ < OE bisene and others.


According to O. Jespersen, however, dialect study suffered from too much attention being concentrated on the “archaic” traits. “Every survival of an old form, every trace of old sounds that have been dropped in standard speech, was greeted with enthusiasm, and the significance of these old characteristics greatly exaggerated, the general impression being that popular dialects were always much more conservative than the speech of educated people. It was reserved for a much later time to prove that this view is completely erroneous, and that popular dialects in spite of many archaic details are on the whole further developed than the various standard languages with their stronger tradition and literary reminiscences." 1

The standard work of reference in dialect study is Joseph Wright's “English Dialect Dictionary”.

After this brief review of dialects we shall now proceed to the discussion of variants.

The Scottish Tongue and the Irish English have a special linguistic status as compared with dialects because of the literature composed in them. The name of Robert Burns, the great national poet of Scotland, is known all over the world. There is a whole group of modern poets including Hugh MacDiarmid writing in this variant of the English language.

A few lines from R. Burns’s poem dedicated to his friend James Smith will illustrate the general character of Scottish:

To James Smith

Dear Smith, the slee’st, pawkie thief

That e’er attempted stealth or rief!

Ye surely hae some warlock-brief

Owre human hearts;

For ne'er a bosom yet was prief

Against your arts.

For me, I swear by sun and moon,

And every star that blinks aboon,

Ye’ve cost me twenty pair o’shoon

Just gaun to see you;

And ev’ry ither pair that’s done

Mair taen I’m wi’ you...

 

Here slee’st meant 'slyest’, pawkie ‘cunning’, ‘sly’, rief ‘robbery’, warlock-brief ‘wizard’s contract’ (with the devil), prief ‘proof’, aboon

 

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1 Jespersen O. Language, Its Nature, Development and Origin. London, 1949. P. 68.

 

 


‘above’, shoon ‘shoes’. The other dialect words differing only in pronunciation from their English counterparts (owre : : over; mair : : more) are readily understood.

The poetic features of Anglo-Irish may be seen in the plays by J.M. Synge and Sean О’Casey. The latter’s name is worth an explanation in this connection. O’ is Gaelic and means ‘of the clan of’. Cf. Mac — the Gaelic for ‘son’ found in both Scottish and Irish names.1 Sean, also spelled Shawn and pronounced [So: n], is the Irish for John.

Some traits of Anglo-Irish may be observed in the following lines from “The Playboy of the Western World” by J.M. Synge: I’ve told my story no place till this night, Pegeen Mike, and it’s foolish I was here, maybe, to be talking free, but youre decent people, I'm thinking, and yourself a kindly woman, the way I was not fearing you at all.

Pegeen exemplifies the diminutive suffix found in Standard English only in loan-words. The emphatic personal pronoun yourself appears in a non-appositional construction. Cf. also It was yourself started it (O’Casey). The main peculiarities concern syntax, and they are reflected in some form words. The concrete connective word the way substitutes the abstract conjunction so that. Cf. also the time that, the while for when, and all times for always. E.g.: Id hear himself snoring out a loud, lonesome snore hed be making all times, the while he was sleeping’, and he a mand be raging all times the while he was waking (Synge). The Anglo-Irish of J.M. Synge, however, should not be taken as a faithful reproduction of real speech, as it is imbued with many romantic poetic archaisms.

Words from dialects and variants may penetrate into Standard English. The Irish English gave, for instance, blarney n ‘flattery’, bog n ‘a spongy, usually peaty ground of marsh’. This word in its turn gave rise to many derivatives and compounds, among them bog-trotter, the ironical nickname for Irishman. Shamrock (a trifoliate plant, the national emblem of Ireland) is a word used quite often, and so is the noun whiskey.

The contribution of the Scottish dialect is very considerable. Some of the most frequently used Scotticisms are: bairn ‘child’, billy ‘chum’, bonny ‘handsome’, brogue ‘a stout shoe’, glamour ‘charm’, laddie, lassie, kilt, raid, slogan, tartan, wee, etc.

A great deal in this process is due to Robert Burns who wrote his poems in Scottish English, and to Walter Scott who introduced many Scottish words into his novels.

AMERICAN ENGLISH

The variety of English spoken in the USA has received the name of American English. The term variant or variety appears most appropriate for several reasons. American English cannot be called a dialect although it is a regional variety, because it has a literary

 

 

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1 Cf. fitz (ultimately from Latin filius), which is used in the same way in the Anglo-Norman names: Fitzgerald ‘son of Gerald’.


normalised form called Standard American (or American National Standard), whereas by definition given above a dialect has no literary form. Neither is it a separate language, as some American authors, like H.L. Mencken, claimed, because it has neither grammar nor vocabulary of its own. From the lexical point of view we shall have to deal only with a heterogeneous set of Americanisms.

An Americanism may be defined as a word or a set expression peculiar to the English language as spoken in the USA. E. g. cookie ‘a biscuit’; frame-up ‘a staged or preconcerted law case’; guess ‘think’; mail ‘post’; store ‘shop’.

A general and comprehensive description of the American variant is given in Professor A.D. Schweitzer’s monograph. An important aspect of his treatment is the distinction made between Americanisms belonging to the literary norm and those existing in low colloquial and slang. The difference between the American and British literary norm is not systematic.

The American variant of the English language differs from British English1 in pronunciation, some minor features of grammar, but chiefly in vocabulary, and this paragraph will deal with the latter. Our treatment will be mainly diachronic.

Speaking about the historic causes of these deviations it is necessary to mention that American English is based on the language imported to the new continent at the time of the first settlements, that is on the English of the 17th century. The first colonies were founded in 1607, so that the first colonisers were contemporaries of W. Shakespeare, E. Spenser and J. Milton. Words which have died out in Britain, or changed their meaning may survive in the USA. Thus, I guess, was used by G. Chaucer for I think. For more than three centuries the American vocabulary developed more or less independently of the British stock and was influenced by the new surroundings. The early Americans had to coin words for the unfamiliar fauna and flora. Hence bullfrog ‘a large frog’, moose (the American elk), opossum, raccoon (an American animal related to the bears) for animals; and corn, hickory, etc. for plants.

The opposition of any two lexical systems among the variants described is of great linguistic and heuristic2 value, because it furnishes ample data for observing the influence of extra-linguistic factors upon vocabulary. American political vocabulary shows this point very definitely: absentee voting ‘voting by mail’, dark horse ‘a candidate nominated unexpectedly and not known to his voters’, gerrymander ‘to arrange and falsify the electoral process to produce a favourable result in the interests of a particular party or candidate’, all-outer ‘an adept of decisive measures’.

Both in the USA and Great Britain the meaning of leftist is ‘an adherent of the left wing of a party’. In the USA it also means a left-handed person and lefty in the USA is only ‘a left-handed person’ while in Great Britain it is a colloquial variant of leftist and has a specific sense of a communist or socialist.

 

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1 It must be noted that an Englishman does not accept the term “British English”.

2 Heuristic means ‘serving to discover’.


Many of the foreign elements borrowed into American English from the Indian languages or from Spanish penetrated very soon not only into British English but also into several other languages, Russian not excluded, and so became international due to the popularity of J.F. Cooper and H. Longfellow. They are: canoe, moccasin, squaw, tomahawk, wigwam, etc. and translation loans: pipe of peace, pale-face and the like, taken from Indian languages. The Spanish borrowings like cafeteria, mustang, ranch, sombrero, etc. are very familiar to the speakers of many European languages. It is only by force of habit that linguists still include these words among the specific features of American English.

As to the toponyms, for instance Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Utah (all names of Indian tribes), or other names of towns, rivers and states named by Indian words, it must be borne in mind that in all countries of the world towns, rivers and the like show in their names traces of the earlier inhabitants of the land in question.

Another big group of peculiarities as compared with the English of Great Britain is caused by some specific features of pronunciation, stress or spelling standards, such as [æ ] for [a: ] in ask, dance, path, etc., or [e] for [ei] in made, day and some other.

The American spelling is in some respects simpler than its British counterpart, in other respects just different. The suffix -our is spelled -or, so that armor and humor are the American variants of armour and humour. Altho stands for although and thru for through. The table below illustrates some of the other differences but it is by no means exhaustive. For a more complete treatment the reader is referred to the monograph by A.D. Schweitzer.

British spelling American spelling
cosy cozy
offence offense
practice practise
jewellery jewelry
travelling traveling
thraldom thralldom
encase incase

 

In the course of time with the development of the modern means of communication the lexical differences between the two variants show a tendency to decrease. Americanisms penetrate into Standard English and Britishisms come to be widely used in American speech. Americanisms mentioned as specific in manuals issued a few decades ago are now used on both sides of the Atlantic or substituted by terms formerly considered as specifically British. It was, for instance, customary to contrast the English word autumn with the American fall. In reality both words are used in both countries, only autumn is somewhat more elevated, while in England the word fall is now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects and surviving in set

 

 


expressions: spring and fait, the fall of the year are still in fairly common use.

Cinema and TV are probably the most important channels for the passage of Americanisms into the language of Britain and other languages as well: the Germans adopted the word teenager and the French speak of l’automatisation. The influence of American advertising is also a vehicle of Americanisms. This is how the British term wireless is replaced by the Americanism radio.

The personal visits of British writers and scholars to the USA and all forms of other personal contacts bring back Americanisms.

The existing cases of difference between the two variants are conveniently classified into:

1) Cases where there are no equivalents in British English: drive-in ‘a cinema where you can see the film without getting out of your car’ or ‘a shop where motorists buy things staying in the car’; dude ranch ‘a sham ranch used as a summer residence for holiday-makers from the cities’.

2) Cases where different words are used for the same denotatum, such as can, candy, mailbox, movies, suspenders, truck in the USA and tin, sweets, pillar-box (or letter-box), pictures or flicks, braces and lorry in England.

3) Cases where the semantic structure of a partially equivalent word is different. The word pavement, for example, means in the first place ‘covering of the street or the floor and the like made of asphalt, stones or some other material’. In England the derived meaning is ‘the footway at the side of the road’. The Americans use the noun sidewalk for this, while pavement with them means ‘the roadway’.

4) Cases where otherwise equivalent words are different in distribution. The verb ride in Standard English is mostly combined with such nouns as a horse, a bicycle, more seldom they say ride on a bus. In American English combinations like a ride on the train, ride in a boat are quite usual.

 

5) It sometimes happens that the same word is used in American English with some difference in emotional and stylistic colouring. Nasty, for example, is a much milder expression of disapproval in England than in the States, where it was even considered obscene in the 19th century. Politician in England means ‘someone in polities’, and is derogatory in the USA. Professor A.D. Schweitzer pays special attention to phenomena differing in social norms of usage. For example balance in its lexico-semantic variant ‘the remainder of anything’ is substandard in British English and quite literary in America.

6) Last but not least, there may be a marked difference in frequency characteristics. Thus, time-table which occurs in American English very rarely, yielded its place to schedule.

This question of different frequency distribution is also of paramount importance if we wish to investigate the morphological peculiarities of the American variant.

 

 


Practically speaking the same patterns and means of word-formation are used in coining neologisms in both variants. Only the frequency observed in both cases may be different. Some of the suffixes more frequently used in American English are: -ее (draftee n ‘a young man about to be enlisted’), -ette (tambour-majorette ‘one of the girl drummers in front of a procession’), -dom and -ster, as in roadster ‘motorcar for long journeys by road’ or gangsterdom.

American slang uses alongside the traditional ones also a few specific models, such as verb stem+-er+adverb stem+ -er, e. g. opener-upper ‘the first item on the programme’ and winder-upper ‘the last item’. It also possesses some specific affixes and semi-affixes not used in literary colloquial: -o, -eroo, -aroo, -sie, -sy, as in coppo ‘policeman’, fatso ‘a fat man’, bossaroo ‘boss’, chapsie ‘fellow’.

The trend to shorten words and to use initial abbreviations in American English is even more pronounced than in the British variant. New coinages are incessantly introduced in advertisements, in the press, in everyday conversation; soon they fade out and are replaced by the newest creations. Ring Lardner, very popular in the 30s, makes one of his characters, a hospital nurse, repeatedly use two enigmatic abbreviations: G.F. and B.F.; at last the patient asks her to clear the mystery.

What about Roy Stewart? ” asked the man in bed.

Oh, he’s the fella I was telling you about, ” said Miss Lyons. “He’s my G.F.’s B.F.”

Maybe I’m a D.F. not to know, but would you tell me what a B.F. and G.F. are? ”

Well, you are dumb, aren’t you! ” said Miss Lyons. “A G.F. that’s a girl friend, and a B.F. is a boy friend. I thought everybody knew that.”

The phrases boy friend and girl friend, now widely used everywhere, originated in the USA. So it is an Americanism in the wider meaning of the term, i.e. an Americanism “by right of birth", whereas in the above definition we have defined Americanisms synchronically as lexical units peculiar to the English language as spoken in the USA.

Particularly common in American English are verbs with the hanging postpositive. They say that in Hollywood you never meet a man: you meet up with him, you do not study a subject but study up on it. In British English similar constructions serve to add a new meaning.

With words possessing several structural variants it may happen that some are more frequent in one country and the others in another. Thus, amid and toward, for example, are more often used in the United States and amidst and towards in Great Britain.

The lexical peculiarities of American English are an easy target for ironical outbursts on the part of some writers. John Updike is mildly humorous. His short poem “Philological” runs as follows:

The British puss demurely mews;

His transatlantic kin meow,

The kine in Minnesota moo;

Not so the gentle Devon cows:

They low,

As every schoolchild ought to know.


A well-known humourist G. Mikes goes as far as to say: “It was decided almost two hundred years ago that English should be the language spoken in the United States. It is not known, however, why this decision has not been carried out.” In his book “How to Scrape Skies” he gives numerous examples to illustrate this proposition: “You must be extremely careful concerning the names of certain articles. If you ask for suspenders in a man’s shop, you receive a pair of braces, if you ask for a pair of pants, you receive a pair of trousers, and should you ask for a pair of braces, you receive a queer look.

I should like to mention that although a lift is called an elevator in the United States, when hitch-hiking, you do not ask for an elevator, you ask for a lift.

There is some confusion about the word flat. A flat in America is called an apartment; what they call a flat is a puncture in your tyre (or as they spell it, tire). Consequently the notice: FLATS FIXED does not indicate an estate agent where they are going to fix you up with a flat, but a garage where they are equipped to mend a puncture.”

Disputing the common statement that there is no such thing as the American nation, he says: “They do indeed exist. They have produced the American constitution, the American way of life, the comic strips in their newspapers: they have their national game, baseball — which is cricket played with a strong American accent — and they have a national language, entirely their own, unlike any other language.”

This is of course an exaggeration, but a very significant one. It confirms the fact that there is a difference between the two variants to be reckoned with. Although not sufficiently great to warrant American English the status of an independent language, it is considerable enough to make a mixture of variants sound unnatural and be called Mid-Atlantic. Students of English should be warned against this danger.


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