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Present-Day World English


There are two typical histories for varieties of World English. One (that of, among other nations, the United States) characterizes Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There, large indigenous populations were conquered, economically oppressed, and subject to European diseases that decimated them. (In some places, like Tasmania, the native populations were completely eliminated). As a result, the people who speak English in these countries are largely descended from English immigrants, and other immigrants who assimilated to the local variety of English. The relatively small surviving native populations speak their own variety of English but have added relatively little to Australian or American standards in the way of substrate.

In Ireland, India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and other major English-speaking nations of the world, the dynamic is one of a few English colonists imposing their language on a large number of indigenous people. In most cases the colonists have themselves gone away, died out, been assimilated, or become marginalized as a minority, but they have left the English language as a dominant cultural legacy. In each of these situations, English encounters a powerful substrate of still-spoken languages: Irish; Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati and many other Indo-European Indian languages, Dravidian languages, Gikuyu, Ibo, Yoruba, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans. These languages have dramatically inflected the vocabulary and phonology of their corresponding dialects of World English.

Today we will take a "tour" of varieties of English spoken everywhere in the world today except in the United States. (We'll save the US, chauvinistically, for another day. But for a foretaste of some, and a survey of world types, check out Amy Walker's 21 Accents.)

Where is English spoken, in the years 2009-10? Well, naturally, in England. England is a country with a highly-developed infrastructure, of 50 million people at present, in an area a bit smaller than North Carolina. While standard English in both spoken and written usage is therefore relatively homogenous in 21st-century England, the key word is "relatively." Everything is relative, and English people can quickly place another English person in one of the dialect zones linked in the map above. (English dialects, as we'll see, roughly correspond to much older dialect regions established during the Middle English period, and even back into Old English.)

The dialect of English that nominally unites not just England but its politically-allied sisters in the United Kingdom (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) is the Received Pronunciation, also known as "BBC English" from the long tradition of British Broadcasting Corporation announcers being chosen for, or drilled in, the features of "RP English." As its name suggests, "Received Pronunciation" is less a home dialect for anyone than an accent, with certain usage markers and BBC "house style," that is used for prestige purposes in the UK. The best way to hear the RP is perhaps not, anymore, to listen to the BBC, which has steadily moved in the direction of less upper-crust speakers. But luckily we can always listen to the Queen's English, in the person of Queen Elizabeth II herself, who embodies the Received Pronunciation. Some of its major features include:

Received Pronunciation sounds "posh" or "plummy," and a lot of younger English people across social classes simply don't want to sound posh. (Perhaps they are wary of being named "Upper-Class Twit of the Year".) Almost nationally in England, then, the preferred general accent in conversation and increasingly in formal situations is Estuary, which draws its name from the great tidal estuaries of the rivers Thames and Medway in the southeast of England. Estuary has some features in common with Cockney, the working-class East London accent that is the antithesis of posh. It is non-rhotic and uses a low back vowel in "ask," but it has some features that RP does not have:

To help us hear the Estuary accent, here's Moo the Evil Boffin.

Here's a vivid example of the changes in public speaking in England in the past half-century. In 1955, Harold Macmillan, then Foreign Secretary, attempts to get chummy with the British people. He speaks in simple English, but his very accent and mannerisms seem to betray that he just isn't one of them. Contrast the Prime Minister of the 1990s and 2000s, Tony Blair: not just younger and more hiply dressed, but every-so-slightly tweaked in the direction of, simply less "posh": a little more glottal stop, slightly less-plummy vowels.

We have to move very quickly here, but we can characterize other English dialects along two basic axes. Northern accents, because of the long-ago influence of Norse in the North of England, are strongly distinctive. Here's Newcastle-on-Tyne poet Gary Hogg telling a story in the distinctive Geordie dialect of the city of Newcastle and its environs. Geordie will stand here as just one small example of a number of Northern English dialects that have strong traditions (often reflected in song and storytelling, the oral art forms, rather than in literature). The major Northern dialects include Cumbrian, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Scouse (the Liverpool dialect), though that's hardly an exhaustive list. Examples can be heard on the IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive).

The other major axis of dialects in England is east vs. west. Some West-of-England dialects are rhotic, as the linked map shows. Most worldwide distribution of rhotic vs. non-rhotic English can be traced to patterns of settlement in which speakers from rhotic parts of England (or from rhotic Scotland) settled rhotic places like the mid-Atlantic, the Appalachians, and Canada – as opposed to non-rhotic settlement of New England, the American South, Australia, and other parts of the world.

North of England, still on the island of Great Britain, is the country of Scotland – politically allied with England since King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England too in 1603, and united under the same national parliament since 1701 (though recently many political powers have devolved back to Scotland, and there have always been differences between the two countries' legal systems). Here, some guy called Ray the Fox teaches us one of the most basic markers of Scottish English, the rolled /r/. But Scotland contains numerous dialects of English (such as Glaswegian), from Ray's Standard English with a Scottish accent and markers, to Scots, which is separate enough to be a language in and of itself (and to have, inevitably, a Wikipedia of its own). Listen here to the 23rd Psalm being read in Scots. Scots is a variety of English, and one with a strong literary tradition going back many centuries, but it is distinctly not an "accent" of standard English; it is a dialect that needs only borders and an army to become a language in itself. (Entirely separate is Scots Gaelic, a Celtic language only distantly related to Germanic languages.) Another country with distinctive accents in English is Wales, which also has a Celtic substrate (and a fiercely strong living Welsh language culture).

English in Ireland also has a Celtic substrate, as this YouTube video from JesJes1 makes clear. (This video is interesting, because the speaker talks mostly in English, but includes some phrases from the Irish language.) English in Ireland has numerous local variations, including an elaborate system of vowel variations. One consonant marker heard in many Irish dialects of English is that the stop consonant /t/ or /ʔ/ (English) or /d/ (US) in the middle of a word like /matter/ becomes a fricative, close to /ʃ/. Irish English, like Scottish English also has a substantial alternative vocabulary special to Ireland.

Moving westward, I don't want to ignore English in Canada or reduce it to a subset of the language of the United States. Canada has a distinctive phonology, strongly related to that of the northern U.S. Most distinctive is the vowel in "about," which in Canada is expressed as the monophthong /u/, yielding /abut/. Scottish emigrants held the prestige accents in Canada's early Anglo settlements, and the /u/ marker is originally a Scottish feature.

In the Caribbean, contrasts to England and the US in terms of phonology and vocabulary, and even of syntactic systems, become extreme, so much that Jamaican "patois" is sometimes identified as a separate "creole" or hybrid language. Appropriate to the Wintermester season is this Jamaican "Night before Christmas."

English in West Africa, exemplified by YouTuber NdiNaija demonstrating some Nigerian dialects, is not so much different in vocabulary at times as it is in prosody. There is a very non-English, non-American system of stressed and unstressed syllables and words in the first excerpt in this sample. English in South Africa, as in this ad for Joko tea, shows several vowel markers that differ from RP. But in South Africa as in many other Commonwealth countries that were not long since part of the British Empire, a cultured "broadcast" or "stage" accent tracks English RP fairly closely much of the way, in terms of consonant phonology and prosody.

Vocabulary contrasts between English in Australia and New Zealand and other world varieties of English are well known. But as comic Adam Hills points out in this monologue, distinctive sentence prosody (as well as some extreme contrasts in vowel quality) also contribute to what we hear as an Australian accent. To get a sense of some contrasts between Australian and New Zealand English, we need to consult Stu, or "Kiwilad," who appears to be a "chemist" doing what English people would call "skiving off work."

English in many former British colonies has diverged into distinctive dialect regions at the antipodes of its origins in England. In a fascinating video, a French commentator discusses different examples of Singapore English. These are fluent English speakers, but they are using an English forged in the crucible of daily contact in Singapore with the city-state's Chinese, Indian, and Malay communities. The result is "Singlish,", the distinctive dialect of Singapore.

Last, but eminently not least, in our very superficial survey, is India – or rather, the Indian subcontinent including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. A Wikipedia page on English in India lists many phonological features of English in India, some of which are specifically regional, and include merging of /w/ and /v/, a retroflex realization of /r/, and extensive use of pure vowels (monophthongs) where other varieties of English have strong diphthongs. Listen for a while to this Times Now story about the Mumbai terrorist incident in 2008 and hear what is perhaps the most common variety of English in the world today, at least to judge by the aggregate number of speakers.

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