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English variants and dialects




Standard English

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.

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.

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. “The Encyclopaedia Britannica” treats Cockney as an accent, not acknowledging it the status of dialect. 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 wifetrouble and strife. It has set expressions of its own. Here is an example of a rather crude euphemistic phrase for being dead: to push up the daisies, after all.

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. 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 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’. The American variant of the English language differs from British English1 in pronunciation, some minor features of grammar, but chiefly in vocabulary.

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 likecafeteria, 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 In-dian 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 Brit-ain is caused by some specific features of pronunciation, stress or spelling stan-dards, such as [æ] for [a:] in ask, dance, path, etc., or [e] for [ei] in made, dayand 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.



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

In the course of time with the development of the modern means of commu-nication 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 fall, 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.

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. E.g.: B.F. ‘boy-frieng’, G.F. ‘girl-friend’





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