Language Variation in the English Language

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    Jul 02, 2013
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Language Variation in the English Language Photo by Aleksandra Kovrlija

Language experts usually define linguistics as ``the academic study or, more simply, as a science of language``. (Matthews, 2003: 1). Language is often defined in dictionaries as ``the system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country``.  (Steel, 2000: 283). Sociolinguistics is the study of language in human society. Some scholars indicate that dialectology is a part of sociolinguistics and that ``one cannot ignore its contribution to modern sociolinguistics``. (Marshall, 2004: 2). The speakers of a common, non-existing source that is now called Proto-Indo-European language traveled from India to Europe. As they spread throughout the region, they established their own countries and dialects arose. Over time, they became mutually incomprehensible. When dialects become mutually incomprehensible, they become different languages.  Every natural language changes constantly. In fact, many authors point out that ``change is part of the nature of human language``. (Akmajan, Demers, Farmer and Harnish, 2001: 350).

Four hundred years ago, at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, English was spoken almost exclusively by the English in England, and by some speakers in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and this had been so for hundreds of years since the language was first brought in Britain in the 5th century. English today is a worldwide international language. It is spoken as a mother tongue by about 400 million people in the British Isles, Canada, the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand. It is a second language for many others in, for example, India and Pakistan and in some African states, where it is used as an official language in government and education. Many different national and regional varieties of English have therefore developed, and will continue to do so. They have been called ``new Englishes``, with their own characteristics of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, in the different states of Africa, India and Pakistan, Singapore and the Philippines for example. (Freeborn, 1998: 1).

However, it is very hard to define what dialect is. There are three major kinds of dialects: regional dialect, social dialect and ethnic dialect. A regional dialect is a variety of a language spoken in a certain geographical area. A social dialect is also known as a sociolect. It is a variety of language associated with a specific socioeconomic class. Ethnic dialect is a variety of language spoken by members of particular ethnic group. But, there is no dialect which is entirely regional, or entirely social, or entirely ethnic. Regional, social and ethnic elements connect and integrate in different ways in the recognition and classification of dialects. Other varieties, which have been less extensively studied, are those associated with age, occupation and gender or sex. Researchers have found that in both British English and American English men tend to use informal speech more often than women do.  Educated English comes to be referred to as Standard English. Many scholars indicate that ``it is codified in dictionaries, grammars, and guides to usage, and it is taught in the school system at all levels. It is almost exclusively the language of printed matter``. (Quirk,1985: 18).  Despite the fact that Standard English tends to be given additional prestige, linguists think that it is as ``correct`` as any other variety of English.  Besides dialects, language variation includes a vast number of idiolects. An idiolect is a variety of language spoken by a single individual. A person`s idiolect is his/her own personal language, the words he/she chooses and any other features that characterize his/her language. An individual`s language is one of the most important characteristics of self-identity. Some experts also emphasize that ``variation can be so complex and at times so subtle``. (Hughes, Trudgill and Watt, 2013: 2).

Language is not just denotational, a term which refers to the process of conveying meaning, referring to ideas, events or entities that exist outside the language While using language primarily for this function, a speaker will inevitably give off signals concerning his or her social or personal background. Language is accordingly said to be indexical of one`s social class, status, region, of origin, gender, age group and so on. (Mestrihie, Swann, Deumert and Leap, 2009: 6)

However, variation occurs within the English of one individual and is associated with factors that may change as the social situation changes. These factors include the different roles an individual might play (for example, as a parent, as a teacher, as a child) and the relationship with the person or persons to whom the individual is speaking (e.g.., a close friend, a colleague or a stranger). The individual`s English will also vary with the topic of interaction (e.g.., a topic related to a job or a topic related to the individual`s personal life) and with the physical setting where the interaction occurs (e.g.., at home, in a classroom, in a restaurant).  Variation within the individual is also referred to as style-switching: the speaker moves between levels of English that are perceived to be more formal or more informal. For example, a speaker can use the phrase ``thank for your consideration`` in the formal situation. On the other hand, the same speaker may use the phrase ``thanks for your time`` in more informal situation. 

When we become aware of the fact that language variation is omnipresent, it becomes obvious that a single English does not exist. On the contrary, there are a lot of English languages (dialects and idiolects). For instance, we can consider variation in vocabulary words among speakers of British and American English. ``UK : chips –  US:  fries,  UK: crisps – US: potato chips,  UK: biscuit – US: cookie or craker,  UK: scone –US: biscuit,  UK: ground floor – US: first floor,  UK: vest – US: undershirt,  UK: waistcoat – US: vest,  UK: knickers – US: underpants,  UK: knickerbockers – US: knickers,  UK: lorry – US: van,  UK: van – US: pickup``. (Walmsley, 2003: 1). Despite all the communication going on between America and Britain nowadays, it is astonishing that new words being established in one country are represented by another word in the other country. Cross-cultural variation within the same language is also evident with words that have the same meaning as with soda, pop, soft drink, and soda pop – which in American English all mean the same thing, but may be replaced with entirely different set of terms throughout other English parts of the world. Linguists point out some examples of relatively new American words: ``beeper in US and bleeper in UK, a cell phone in US and in the UK a mobile phone``. (Davies, 2005: 4).  Industrial revolution, which started early in the 18th century, displayed a new vocabulary in America and in Britain.

Each country had its own engineers and designers, who gave new creations their particular names. Hundreds of new terms were needed. Of course these words were scarcely in print at that time, so there was no written standard to follow British usage. The difference increased as time went on, even though more people were travelling back and forth across the Atlantic by then. Many educated people were aware of the differences in terminology, but no great effort was made to unify these terms. The differences between British and American English gradually increased, until greater communication between the countries in the 1940s turned the tide. (Davies, 2005: 3).

After the Second World War, it became inevitable to establish two Standard English languages: British Standard English (BrSE) and Standard American English (SAE). By the end of the 20th century, Standard Englishes have started to assert themselves more influentially than before, in for instance, Australia (AusSE), Canada (CanSE), and the Philippines (PhilSE).  That`s why it is impossible to answer what constitutes the standard for a language whose users are counted in hundreds of millions worldwide. Standard English is not defined or fixed by any official authority. It emerges from a common acceptance that leaves plenty of room for disagreement and a variety of choices for changes.  Historical, economical and social factors have a great impact on formation of a language. Despite the fact that native speakers of English vary in their use of language, all these various languages are similar enough to allow mutual comprehensibility. Therefore, speaking English language does not rely on two speakers speaking identical languages, but just very similar languages.


1. Akmajian Adrian, Demeres Richard, Farmer Ann and Harnish Robert. (2001). Linguistics – An introduction to Language and Communication. USA: Mit Press.

2. Davies, Christopher. (2005). Divided by a Common Language. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

3. Freeborn, Dennis. (1998). From Old English to Standard English. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

4. Hughes Arthur, Trudgill Peter and Watt Dominic. (2013). English Accents & Dialects. New York: Routledge.

5. Marshall, Jonathan. (2004). Language Change and Sociolinguistics – Rethinking Social Networks. USA: Palgrave.

6. Matthews, P. H. (2003). Linguistics – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7. Mesthrie Rajend, Swann Joann, Deumert Ana and Leap L. William. (2009). Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

8.  Quirk, Randdlph. (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Pearson: Longman.

9. Steel, Miranda. (2000). Oxford Wordpower Dictionary for Learners of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10. Walmsley, Jane. (2003). A Transantlatic Survival Guide. New York: Penguin Group (USA).

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