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The main variants of the English language

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The main variants of the English language

Чернівці 2011


General Characteristics of the English Language in Different Parts of the English-Speaking World

Lexical Differences of Territorial Variants

Some Points of History of the Territorial Variants and Lexical interchange between them

Local Variants in the British Isles and in the USA

The Relationship between the English National language and British Local Dialects

Local Dialects in the USA




General Characteristics of the English Language in Different Parts of the English-Speaking World

It is natural that the English language is not used with uniformity in the British Isles and in Australia, in the USA and -in New Zealand, in Canada and in India, etc. The English language also has some peculiarities in Wales, Scotland, in other parts of the British Isles and America. Is the nature of these varieties the same?

Modern linguistics distinguishes territorial variants of a national language and local dialects. Variants of a language are regional varieties of a standard literary language characterized by some minor peculiarities in the sound system, vocabulary and by their own literary norms. Dialects are varieties of a language used as a means of oral communication in small localities, they are set off (more or less sharply) from other varieties by some distinctive features of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

Close inspection of the varieties mentioned above reveals that they are essentially different in character. It is not difficult to establish that the varieties spoken in small areas are local dialects. The status of the other varieties is more difficult to establish.

It is over half a century already that the nature of the two main variants of the English language, British and American (Br and AE) has been discussed. Some American linguists, H. L. Mencken for one, spoke of two separate languages with a steady flood of linguistic influence first (up to about 1914) from Britain to America, and since then from America to the British Isles. They even proclaim that the American influence on British English is so powerful that there will come a time when the American standard will be established in Britain. Other linguists regard the language of the USA as a dialect of English.

Still more questionable is the position of Australian English (AuE) and Canadian English (CnE).

The differences between the English language as spoken in Britain, the USA, Australia and Canada are immediately noticeable in the field of phonetics. However these distinctions are confined to the articulatory-acoustics characteristics of some phonemes, to some differences in the use of others and to the differences in the rhythm and intonation of speech. The few phonemes characteristic of American pronunciation and alien to British literary norms can as a rule be observed in British dialects.

The variations in vocabulary, to be considered below, are not very numerous. Most of them are divergences in the semantic structure of words and in their usage.

The dissimilarities in grammar like AE gotten, proven for BE got, proved are scarce. For the most part these dissimilarities consist in the preference of this or that grammatical category or form to some others. For example, the preference of Past Indefinite to Present Perfect, the formation of the Future Tense with will as the only auxiliary verb for all persons, and some others. Recent investigations have also shown that the Present Continuous form in the meaning of Future is used twice as frequently in BE as in the American, Canadian and Australian variants; infinitive constructions are used more rarely in AE than in BE and AuE and passive constructions are, on the contrary, more frequent in America than in Britain and in Australia.

Since BE, AE and AuE have essentially the same grammar system, phonetic system and vocabulary, they cannot be regarded as different languages. Nor can they be referred to local dialects; because they serve all spheres of verbal communication in society, within their territorial area they have dialectal differences of their own; besides they differ far less than local dialects (e.g. far less than the dialects of Dewsbury and Howden, two English" towns in Yorkshire some forty miles apart). Another consideration is that AE has its own literary norm and AuE is developing one. Thus we must speak of three variants of the English national language having different accepted literary standards, one spoken in the British Isles, another spoken in the USA, the third in Australia. As to CnE, its peculiarities began to attract linguistic attention only some 20 years ago. The fragmentary nature of the observation available makes it impossible to determine its status.

Lexical Differences of Territorial Variants

Speaking about the lexical distinctions between the territorial variants, of the English language it is necessary to point out that from the point of view of their modern currency in different parts of the English-speaking world all lexical units may be divided into general English, those common to all the variants and 1ocally-marked, those specific to present-day usage in one of the variants and not found in the others (i.e. Briticisms, Americanisms, Australianisms, Canadianisms, -etc.).

When speaking about the territorial differences of the English language philologists and lexicographers usually note the fact that different variants of English use different words for the same objects. Thus in describing the lexical differences between the British and American variants they provide long lists of word pairs like




















teaching staff

From such lists one may infer that the words in the left column are the equivalents of those given in the right column and used on the other side of the Atlantic. But the matter is not as simple as that.

These pairs present quite different cases.

It is only in some rare cases like tin-opener—can-opener or fishmonger—fish-dealer that the members of such pairs are semantically equivalent.

In pairs like government—administration, leader—editorial only one lexical semantic variant of one of the members is locally-marked. Thus in the first pair the lexical semantic variant of administration—'the executive officials of a government' is an Americanism, in the second pair the word leader in the meaning of 'leading article in a newspaper' is a Briticism.

In some cases a notion may have two synonymous designations used on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, but one of them is more frequent in Britain, the other—in the USA. Thus in the pairs post—mail, timetable—schedule, notice—bulletin the first word is more frequent in Britain, the second—in America. So the difference here lies only in word-frequency.

Most locally-marked lexical units belong to partial Briticisms, Americanisms, etc., that is they are typical of this or that variant only in one or some of their meanings. Within the semantic structure of such words one may often find meanings belonging to general English, Americanisms and Briticisms, e.g., in the word pavement, the meaning 'street or road covered with stone, asphalt, concrete, etc is an Americanism, the meaning 'paved path for pedestrians at the side of the road' is a Briticism (the corresponding American expression is sidewalk), the other two meanings 'the covering of the floor made of flat blocks of wood, stone, etc.' and 'soil' (geol.) are general English. Very often the meanings that belong to general English are common and neutral, central, direct, while the Americanisms are colloquial, marginal and figurative, e.g. shoulder—general English—'the joint connecting the arm or forelimb with the body', Americanism—'either edge of a road or highway'.

There are also some full Briticisms, Americanisms. For example, the words fortnight, pillar-box are full Briticisms, campus, mailboy are full Americanisms, outback, backblocks are full Australianisms.

These may be subdivided into lexical units denoting some realia that have no counterparts elsewhere (such as the Americanism junior high school) and those denoting phenomena observable in other English-speaking countries but expressed there in a different way (e.g. campus is defined in British dictionaries as 'grounds of a school or college'). The number of lexical units denoting some realia having no counterparts in the other English-speaking countries is considerable in each variant. To these we may refer, for example, lexical units pertaining to such spheres of life as flora and fauna (e.g. AuE kangaroo, kaola, dingo, gum-tree), names of schools of learning (e.g. junior high school and senior high school in AE or composite high school in CnE), names of things of everyday life, often connected with peculiar national conditions, traditions and customs (e.g. AuE boomerang, AE drug-store, CnE float-house). But it is not the lexical units of this kind that can be considered distinguishing features of this or that variant. As the lexical units are the only means of expressing the notions in question in the English language some of them have become common property of the entire English-speaking community (as, e.g., drug-store, lightning rod, super-market, baby-sitter that extended from AE, or the hockey terms that originated in Canada (body-check, red-line, puck-carrier, etc.); others have even become international (as the former Americanisms motel, lynch, abolitionist, radio, cybernetics, telephone, anesthesia, or the former Australianisms dingo, kangaroo and cockatoo).

The numerous locally-marked slangisms, professionalisms and dialectisms cannot be considered distinguishing features either, since they do not belong to the literary language.

Less obvious, yet not less important, are the regional differences of another kind, the so-called derivational variants of words, having the same root and identical in lexical meaning though differing in derivational affixes (e.g. BE acclimate—AE acclimatize, BE aluminium—AE aluminum).

Sometimes the derivational variation embraces several words of the same word-cluster. Compare, for example, the derivatives of race (division of mankind) in British and American English:

BE racial/racialist a, racialist n, racialism n

AE racist a, racist n, racialism/racism n

When speaking about the territorial lexical divergences it is not sufficient to bring into comparison separate words, it is necessary to compare lexico-semantic groups of words or synonymic sets, to study the relations within these groups and sets, because on the one hand a different number of members in a lexico-semantic group is connected with a different semantic structure of its members, on the other hand even insignificant modifications in the semantic structure of a word bring about tangible difference in the structure of the lexico-semantic group to which the word belongs.

For example, the British and Australian variants have different sets of words denoting inland areas: only inland is common to both, besides BE has interior, remote, etc., AuE has bush, outback, backblocks, back of beyond, back of Bourke and many others.

Accordingly, the semantic structure of the word bush and its position in the two variants are altogether different: in BE it has one central meaning ('shrub') and several derived ones, some of which are now obsolete, in AuE it has two semantic centres ('wood' and 'inland areas') that embrace five main and four derived meanings.

Lexical peculiarities in different parts of the English-speaking world are not only those in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical list, they also concern the very fashion of using words. For instance, the grammatical valency of the verb to push is much narrower in AuE, than in BE and AE (e.g. in this variant it is not used in the patterns VVen, NVen, NVing, NprpVing. Some patterns of the verb are typical only of one variant (e.g. NVen and NprpVing—of BE, NV and NVing — AE). There are also some features of dissimilarity in the word's lexical valency, e.g. a specifically British peculiarity observed in newspaper style is the ability of the verb to be used in combination with nouns denoting price or quality (to push up prices, rents, etc.).

As to word-formation in different variants, the word-building means employed are the same and most of them are equally productive. The difference lies only in the varying degree of productivity of some of them in this or that variant. As compared with the British variant, for example, in the American variant the affixes -ette, -ее, super-, as in kitchenette, draftee, super-market, are used more extensively; the same is true of conversion and blending (as in walk-out—'workers' strike' from (to) walk out; (to) major—'specialize in a subject or field of study' from the adjective major; motel from motor + hotel, etc.). In the Australian variant the suffixes-ie/-y and-ее, as well as abbreviations are more productive than in BE.

Thus, the lexical distinctions between different variants of English are intricate and varied, but they do not make a system. For the most part they are partial divergences in the semantic structure and usage of some words.

Some Points of History of the Territorial Variants and Lexical interchange between them

The lexical divergences between different variants of English have been brought about several historical processes.

As we have known the English language was brought to the American continent at the beginning of the 17th century and to Australia at the end of the 18th century as a result of the expansion of British colonialism. It is inevitable that on each territory in the new conditions the subsequent development of the language should diverge somewhat from that of British English.

In the first place names for new animals, birds, fishes, plants, trees, etc. were formed of familiar English elements according to familiar English patterns. Such are mockingbird, bullfrog, catfish, peanut, sweet potato, popcorn that were coined in AE or dogger - 'professional hunter of dingoes', Bushman—'Australian soldier in Boer War—formed in AuE.

New words were also borrowed to express new concepts from the languages with which English came into contact on the new territories. Thus in the American variant there appeared Indian hickory, moose, racoon,

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