Features That Distinguish Different ‘Englishes’ and How Easy it is to Identify Varieties

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The English language has sprung many varieties in the form of accents, dialects, pidgins and Creoles. Each accent or dialect is distinct in its own right, yet when compared with other accents or dialects there are obvious similarities; the same is true of pidgins and Creoles. The grammar, syntax and prosody all show variation in different Englishes. There are also other factors to consider such as social, historical and topographical influences. This article by the author of explores the features of different ‘Englishes’ and how easy it is to identify the varieties.

The grammar and syntax used in English varies greatly from one form of English to another. This tends to show the greatest variation in spoken English; in written English through the advent of standardisation, the majority of local influence has been removed from literature and it follows standardised English grammar and vocabulary (Graddol et al, p.223). It is the variety in non-standard spoken English that interests the majority of linguists.

The grammar of the varieties of English itself varies dramatically between different Englishes. This variety can be traced from historical, geographical or social influences. Variation in verb forms such as the present tense can be traced across England. Areas such as the South West and East Anglia have varying use of verb forms compared to each other and Standard English. This can be related to the progression of non-standard English throughout the country, as it has not been codified as has Standard English. Consequently, in some cases the rules for non-standard English are more regular than that of Standard English (Graddol et al, p.227).

The use of the lexical and auxiliary verbs is also a defining factor in varieties of English as both can be used interchangeably. The use of ‘have and ‘do’ varies depending upon the version of English spoken. For instance, the form ‘have’ may be used throughout the present tense for the auxiliary verb, whereas ‘has’ is found for the lexical verb.

Modal auxiliary verbs are another variation. As Trudgill and Hannah show, in Indian English ‘could’ and ‘would’ are preferred to ‘can’ and ‘will’ as they are seen as being more polite. This demonstrates the impact of social preferences upon the choice of grammar used in one of the varieties of English (Graddol et al, p.228)

Verbs are not the only grammatical feature to vary from English to English. Determiners of nouns vary from English to English; in some cases such as Singaporean English, the lack of determiners can be related to the influence of other languages which preceded the introduction of English. Malay may influence Singaporean English and Chinese, which have no definite/indefinite system like that found in Standard English – hence the lack of them in Singaporean English. Scottish English is well known for its use of determiners for institutions, illness and periods of time. This well known distinction is geographical in nature as it is found only in Scotland and the north of England. Pronoun usage is also variable amongst Englishes. In the English spoken in Tyneside the pronoun system is quite distinct from that of Standard English, yet shares some similar characteristics with it, as it also does with other forms of English in England. It uses ‘us’ instead of ‘me’ as a first person ‘non-subject’ pronoun, this is not uncommon in other variations of English but goes against the convention of ‘Standard English’

The construction of sentences is an important point of change in variations of English. English generally favours a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure when constructing sentences. Because of this ‘it’ and ‘there’ are necessary because declarative sentences without a subject are not normally grammatical (Graddol et al, p.248). Examples however, can be seen from Englishes spoken in countries other than England where this is not the case such as ‘Here is not allowed to stop the car’ in Hong Kong English (Graddol et al, p.248). This again can be seen as the influence of background languages as many other languages do not require a “dummy” ‘it’ or ‘there’.

Grammar and sentence structure are not the only factors that create varieties in English. Pronunciation and prosody also show a great deal of variety. As there is Standard English on which English grammar is based so there is ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP) for spoken English. RP is also known as “The Queen’s English” because it is seen as the model of how English should be spoken and is historically associated with the Court of the English Monarchy.

The phonemes utilised by speakers of English are a way in which distinctions can be seen in English. A clear distinction is seen between rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Speakers of both types will pronounce the /r/ in words such as profound and ground where it occurs before a vowel. The difference occurs when the /r/ is not followed by a vowel in words such as par and far. This type of pronunciation is referred to as ‘non-prevocalic /r/’. This distinction is used outside of England, where migration patterns of Northern English (where the non-prevocalic /r/ is most commonly found) peoples to America and Canada where use of a non-prevocalic /r/ is prolific (Graddol et al, p.264). Aside from phonemes there are also phonetics. This is the actual realisation of the sounds that the phonemes make by the position of the tongue and movement of the lips when making vowel and consonant sounds.

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