The English Language: Dialects

The English Language: Dialects

The English Language: Dialects

The English Language: Dialects

The English language has been evolving and changing since before the Middle Ages, and today there are many different English dialects. English is a pluricentric language, which means that there isn’t a single dialect that is considered correct. Different dialects have evolved naturally as the language has spread to different parts of the world, including North America and Oceania. Today, British English and American English are the two most common dialects, but people in Canada, Australia, Scotland, Wales and Ireland also speak English with their own regional variations.

The English Language: Dialects

A map of the world with English-speaking countries highlighted in green

American and British English

The English language was first spoken in Britain, and dialects of English evolved after the British colonised other parts of the world. American English began to diverge from British English as early as the seventeenth century, and was influenced by the English spoken by Irish emigrants, and to a lesser extent by indigenous American languages. Today, American English is similar to British English in most respects, but many words are spelt or pronounced differently.

There are some minor grammatical differences between British and American English. In American English, collective nouns are often given singular verb forms, while in British English plural verb forms are more normal. A person from the United States might say “The committee was in agreement,” while a person from England would say “The committee were in agreement.”

In American English, the irregular past tense of many verbs has been done away with. In England, it is normal for a word to be ‘spelt,’ while in the United States the word would be ‘spelled.’ In England, old milk would be referred to as ‘spoilt,’ while in the United States it would be ‘spoiled.’ On the other hand, American English has invented some irregular verb forms, such as ‘dove,’ for the past tense of ‘dive,’ and ‘snuck,’ for the past tense of ‘sneak.’ In England, ‘dived,’ and ‘sneaked,’ would be considered correct.

American English has also incorporated many words from indigenous American languages. These are often words for animals, such as ‘caribou,’ ‘opossum,’ and ‘moose,’ or for foods, such as ‘persimmon,’ and ‘papaya.’ Some of these words, including ‘tomato,’ and ‘potato,’ spread to the British Isles and are used by English speakers everywhere.

The most obvious way that American English differs from British English is in the accent. Many people from the United States, especially in the South, speak with a distinctive drawl, in which vowel sounds are drawn out. American English is also known as a rhotic dialect, in which the letter ‘r’ is always pronounced. Standard British English is non-rhotic, which means that people drop the letter ‘r’ in words such as ‘butter.’

There are also many differences in spelling. Speakers of American English have dropped the ‘u’ in many words with ‘ou,’ combinations, for example in ‘colour,’ and ‘neighbour.’ They also substitute a ‘z’ for the ‘s’ in words such as ‘recognise,’ and ‘analyse.’

Other English Dialects

Dialects of English differ in their accents.

Dialects of English differ in their accents

The third most common English dialect is Canadian English, spoken as a native language by most people in Canada. Canadian English is often perceived as being a link between American and British English. In Canada, British spellings are preferred, but people use American English word construction and American English slang. The Canadian accent is generally neutral, and is easy to understand for people from the United States or Britain.

The fourth most common English dialect is Australian English. Australian English is similar to British English, but has absorbed indigenous Australian words such as ‘billibong,’ and ‘matilda.’ Australian English is generally very colourful, full of elaborate expressions and shortened word such as ‘chockie,’ which means chocolate bar. Australian English also has a number of unique interjections, including the famous ‘crikey.’

The English spoken in the countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales is a variation of British English, but it has been heavily influenced by the native Celtic languages of these countries, and is often more distinct than American English. People in Wales speak in a lilting fashion and roll the letter ‘r,’ while people in Scotland speak with a harsh accent that can difficult for speakers of other dialects to understand. The Scottish pronounce the ‘ch’ and ‘gh’ sounds that are silent in other English dialects, and have also added thousands of their own words, including ‘kirk,’ for church and ‘ingle,’ for fire. The Irish speak a dialect of English that borrows sentence structure from the Irish language, and say things such as ‘I was after,’ instead of ‘I had just.’

English as a Global Language

Despite the different dialects of English that have evolved, global media has been a unifying force, and has kept the language fairly standard throughout the world. English speakers from different parts of the world are often familiar with literature and film from other regions, and can easily understand different English accents. The similarities between the different English dialects are far more numerous than the differences, and students that learn British English will be easily understood by people who speak American English, and vice versa.