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English in the world today
English in the world today

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Languages, varieties and dialects

So far I have been discussing what counts as the English language – but in doing so I have introduced a number of related concepts such as variety, dialect and accent, which have been used to distinguish between certain different aspects of the general phenomenon we are calling English. Before we go any further, it is worth clarifying the differences between these various concepts, and how exactly they are used in language studies. It is easiest to define them in relation to one another, as they are used to highlight different systematic patterns in the way language manifests itself in society. Of the three, variety is the more general term and is used to refer to any distinct form of a language. It is also more neutral than the others which – as I shall discuss later – can be used to suggest that one form of a language is more prestigious or legitimate than another.

Dialect then refers specifically to a language variety in which aspects of the vocabulary and grammar indicate a person’s regional or social background. For example, the Geordie dialect is the distinctive and systematic use of certain grammatical and vocabulary features that are associated with the population of Newcastle and the Tyneside region. Standard British English is itself considered a dialect by linguists, indicating a speaker’s social origin. This is contrasted with the concept of accent, which refers specifically to differences in pronunciation. So a New York accent refers to the distinctive and systematic pronunciation which is associated with the population of the city of New York. Both the Geordie dialect and the New York accent could be described as varieties of English, as could Australian English or Hong Kong English. These latter two examples would usually be referred to using the more general term variety rather than dialect because they are associated with large-scale or autonomous communities, whereas the communities of Newcastle or New York are part of the wider populations of the UK and the USA respectively.

The dividing lines between the concepts of a language, a variety and a dialect are not absolutely clear-cut however. As noted earlier, one of the issues at the heart of English language studies at the moment is how different varieties are perceived, and how they should be referred to. To refer to something as a language rather than a dialect is to afford it more status. That is to say, if something is viewed as a language in its own right, it is accorded a greater respect than a dialect is. For this reason, in cases where the communities using the variety have clear political and geographical boundaries and distinct institutions, and perhaps also have established literary or cultural histories, the variety is more likely to be accorded the status of a language in its own right. The example that is often given to illustrate this is the relationship between Swedish and Danish. These are linguistically very similar to each other in their spoken form (so much so that they are mutually comprehensible), but are nonetheless thought of as different languages because they are associated with different nation states. So a question which often arises when considering the nature of English around the world is whether certain varieties are distinct enough from both a linguistic and a political point of view to qualify as different languages. To put it another way, is English a language which, because of its global spread, has several different varieties around the world – or is there now a family of English languages (McArthur, 1998)?