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Concourse 2

Varieties of English


All languages vary.  The number of speakers there are, the range of contexts in which the language is used and the geographical spread of the language will determine just how much variation occurs.
(The term 'variety' is preferred to such terms as accent, dialect, sociolect, idiolect and so on because they are difficult, notoriously, to define.)

Before we go on, take a little test and then click to reveal the answers.

  1. Approximately how many users of English as a first language are there worldwide?
  2. In how many countries is English spoken as an official language?
  3. How many different standard forms are recognised?


How does language use vary?

There are a number of factors at work.  Pause for a minute and think of two different factors which affect the sort of language we use.  Click when you have an answer.


Some examples


This is not the place to enter into the argument about whether a dialect is a language or not.  If you want to know whether a dialect qualifies as a language, check the Ethnologue site.
Clearly there are many differences.  What the United States calls a hood, the British call a bonnet, what Canadians call an automobile or car, Indians might refer to as a motor, what the British call a dunce might be called a bubu in Jamaica, what in parts of the USA are referred to as britches would be pants or trousers elsewhere and so on and on and on.
There are grammatical variations, too.  In the USA the question might be Did you just get here? but in Britain, that would probably be Have you just got here?  In Southern England, you was is common, in the north, I were is similarly frequently heard.  For more on the grammatical differences between British and American English, see the answer to a question here.
Spelling varies.  The differences between BrE spelling and AmE spelling are mostly traceable to the reforming zeal of the American lexicographer, Webster.  In general, AmE spelling is simpler and more consistent.  That's not the same as saying that it's any more regular, of course.
Pronunciation varies regionally, too, of course.  Everywhere.


This refers to the way that language varies by social class.
This is also not the place to enter the argument about how class is (or even whether it should be) defined.  Suffice it to say that it is unlikely that you will hear the British royal family say Gis the salt, mate or find Austria pronounced as Orstria or One wonders where one's drill has got to on a building site.  Grammar varies here, too, with a noted preference in some classes to use we was instead of we were and ain't instead of isn't and so on.
Pronunciation can vary markedly with social class.  For example, pronouncing the 'r' in father is considered high status in some varieties (such as Southern USA) but low status in others (such as Britain and the American East Coast).


This is the most obvious form of language variation and doesn't need exemplifying here.


There is separate guide on this site to style and register but we should note here that the social setting in which the user of a language happens to be will often determine how much subject-specific language, dialect, accent and slang are appropriate.


English as an International Language

It is a truth not widely enough recognised that most learners of English are not learning the language to speak to you or even to people like you.  Most learners want English as a means of international communication (this is often called ELF: English as a lingua franca).
There are around half a billion websites out here.  What percentage are in English?  Click when you have guessed.



Think for a moment about what the implications are for English Language Teaching and then click for a short list.

The British Council, http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-faq-the-english-language.htm [accessed December 2013]
Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_used_on_the_Internet) [accessed December 2013]