Lexicology. Different dialects and accents of English
Every language allows different kinds of variations: geographical or
territorial, perhaps the most obvious, stylistic, the difference between
the written and the spoken form of the standard national language and
others. It is the national language of England proper, the USA, Australia,
New Zealand and some provinces of Canada. It is the official language of
Wales, Scotland, in Gibraltar and on the island of Malta. 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 grammar and by their own literary norms.
Standard English – the official language of Great Britain taught at
schools and universities, used by the press, the radio and the television
and spoken by educated people may be defined as that form of English which
is current and literary, substantially uniform and recognized as acceptable
wherever English is spoken or understood. Its vocabulary is contrasted to
dialect words or dialectisms belonging to various local dialects. Local
dialects are varieties of the English language peculiar to some districts
and having no normalized literary form. Regional varieties possessing a
literary form are called variants. Dialects are said to undergo rapid
changes under the pressure of Standard English taught at schools and the
speech habits cultivated by radio, television and cinema.
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-
acoustic 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 variety of English spoken in the USA has received the name of
American English. The term variant or variety appears most appropriate for
several reasons. American English cannot be called a dialect although it is
a regional variety, because it has a literary normalized form called
Standard American, whereas by definition given above a dialect has no
literary form. Neither is it a separate language, as some American
authors, like H. L. Mencken, claimed, because it has neither grammar nor
vocabulary of its own. From the lexical point of view one shall have to
deal only with a heterogeneous set of Americanisms.
An Americanism may be defined as a word or a set expression peculiar
to the English language as spoken in the USA. E.g. cookie 'a biscuit';
frame house 'a house consisting of a skeleton of timber, with boards or
shingles laid on'; frame-up 'a staged or preconcerted law case'; guess
'think'; store 'shop'.
A general and comprehensive description of the American variant is
given in Professor Shweitzer's monograph. An important aspect of his
treatment is the distinction made between americanisms belonging to the
literary norm and those existing in low colloquial and slang. The
difference between the American and British literary norm is not
The American variant of the English language differs from British
English in pronunciation, some minor features of grammar, but chiefly in
vocabulary, and this paragraph will deal with the latter.1 Our treatment
will be mainly diachronic.
Speaking about the historic causes of these deviations it is necessary
to mention that American English is based on the language imported to the
new continent at the time of the first settlements, that is on the English
of the 17th century. The first colonies were founded in 1607, so that the
first colonizers were contemporaries of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton.
Words which have died out in Britain, or changed their meaning may survive
in the USA. Thus, I guess was used by Chaucer for I think. For more than
three centuries the American vocabulary developed more or less
independently of the British stock and, was influenced by the new
surroundings. The early Americans had to coin words for the unfamiliar
fauna and flora. Hence bull-frog 'a large frog', moose (the American elk),
oppossum, raccoon (an American animal related to the bears), for animals;
and corn, hickory, etc. for plants. They also had to find names for the new
conditions of economic life: back-country 'districts not yet thickly
populated', back-settlement, backwoods 'the forest beyond the cleared
country', backwoodsman 'a dweller in the backwoods'.
The opposition of any two lexical systems among the variants described
is of great linguistic and heuristic value because it furnishes ample data
for observing the influence of extra-linguistic factors upon the
vocabulary. American political vocabulary shows this point very definitely:
absentee voting 'voting by mail', dark horse 'a candidate nominated
unexpectedly and not known to his voters', to gerrymander 'to arrange and
falsify the electoral process to produce a favorable result in the
interests of a particular party or candidate', all-outer 'an adept of
Many of the foreign elements borrowed into American English from the
Indian dialects or from Spanish penetrated very soon not only into British
English but also into several other languages, Russian not excluded, and so
became international. They are: canoe, moccasin, squaw, tomahawk, wigwam,
etc. and translation loans: pipe of peace, pale-face and the. like, taken
from Indian languages. The Spanish borrowings like cafeteria, mustang,
ranch, sombrero, etc. are very familiar to the speakers of many European
languages. It is only by force of habit that linguists still include these
words among the specific features of American English.
As to the toponyms, for instance, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri,
Utah (all names of Indian tribes), or other names of towns, rivers and
states named by Indian words, it must be borne in mind that in all
countries of the world towns, rivers and the like show in their names
traces of the earlier inhabitants of the land in question.
Another big group of peculiarities as compared with the English of Great
Britain is caused by some specific features of pronunciation, stress or
spelling standards, such as [ae] for in ask, dance, path, etc., or Ie] for
[ei] in made, day and some other.
The American spelling is in some respects simpler than its British
counterpart, in other respects just different. The suffix -our is spelled
-or, so that armor and humor are the American variants of armour and
humour. Altho stands for although and thru for through. The table below
illustrates some of the other differences but it is by no means exhaustive.
For a more complete treatment the reader is referred to the monograph by A.
British spelling American spelling
In the course of time with the development of the modern means of
communication the lexical differences between the two variants show a
tendency to decrease. Americanisms penetrate into Standard English and
Britishisms come to be widely used in American speech. Americanisms
mentioned as specific in manuals issued a few decades ago are now used on
both sides of the Atlantic or substituted by terms formerly considered as
specifically British. It was, for instance, customary to contrast the
English word autumn with the American fall. In reality both words are used
in both countries, only autumn is somewhat more elevated, while in England
the word fall is now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects
and surviving in set expressions: spring and fall, the fall of the year are
still in fairly common use.
Cinema and TV are probably the most important channels for the
passage of Americanisms into the language of Britain and other languages as
well: the Germans adopted the word teenager and the French speak of
Vautomatisation. The influence of American publicity is also a vehicle of
Americanisms. This is how the British term wireless is replaced by the
Americanism radio. The jargon of American film-advertising makes its way
into British usage; i.e. of all time (in "the greatest film of all time").
The phrase is now firmly established as standard vocabulary and applied to
subjects other than films.
The personal visits of writers and scholars to the USA and all forms
of other personal contacts bring back Americanisms.
The existing cases of difference between the two variants, are
conveniently classified into:
1) Cases where there are no equivalents in British English: drive-in a
cinema where you can see the film without getting out of your car' or 'a
shop where motorists buy things staying in the car'; dude ranch 'a sham
ranch used as a summer residence for holiday-makers from the cities'. The
noun dude was originally a contemptuous nickname given by the inhabitants
of the Western states to those of the Eastern states. Now there is no
contempt intended in the word dude. It simply means 'a person who pays his
way on a far ranch or camp'.
2) Cases where different words are used for the same denotatum, such as
can, candy, mailbox, movies, suspenders, truck in the USA and tin, sweets,
pillar-box (or letter-box), pictures or flicks, braces and lorry in
3) Cases where the semantic structure of a partially equivalent word is
different. The word pavement, for example, means in the first place
'covering of the street or the floor and the like made of asphalt, stones
or some other material'. The derived meaning is in England 'the footway at
the side of the road'. The Americans use the noun sidewalk for this, while
pavement with them means 'the roadway'.
4) Cases where otherwise equivalent words are different in distribution.
The verb ride in Standard English is mostly combined with such nouns as a
horse, a bicycle, more seldom they say to ride on a bus. In American
English combinations like a ride on the train to ride in a boat are .quite
5) It sometimes happens that the same word is used in American English
with some difference in emotional and stylistic colouring. Nasty, for
example, is a much milder expression of disapproval in England than in the
States, where it was even considered obscene in the 19th century.
Politician in England means 'someone in polities', and is derogatory in the
USA. Professor Shweitzer, pays special attention to phenomena differing in
social norms of usage. E.g. balance in its lexico-semantic variant 'the
remainder of anything' is substandard in British English and quite literary
6) Last but not least, there may be a marked difference in frequency
characteristics. Thus, time-table which occurs in American English very
rarely, yielded its place to schedule.
This question of different frequency distribution is also of paramount
importance if we wish to investigate the morphological peculiarities of the
American variant. Practically speaking the same patterns and means of word-
formation are used in coining neologisms in both variants. Only the
frequency observed in both cases may be different. Some of the suffixes
more frequently used in American English are: -ее (draftee n 'a young man
about to be enlisted'), -ette - tambourmajorette 'one of the girl drummers
in front of a procession'), -dom and -ster, as in roadster 'motor-car for
long journeys by road' or gangsterdom.
American slang uses alongside the traditional ones also a few specific
models, such as verb stem-1- -er+adverb stem +--er: e.g. opener-upper 'the
first item on the programme' and winder-upper 'the last item',
respectively. It also possesses some specific affixes and semi-affixes not
used in literary Colloquial: -o, -eroo, -aroo, -sie/sy, as in coppo
'policeman', fatso 'a fat man', bossaroo 'boss', chapsie 'fellow'.
The trend to shorten words and to use initial abbreviations is even
more pronounced than in the British variant. New coinages are incessantly
introduced in advertisements, in the press, in everyday conversation; soon
they fade out and are replaced by the newest creations. Ring Lardner, very
popular in the 30's, makes one of his characters, a hospital nurse,
repeatedly use two enigmatic abbreviations: G.F. and P. F.; at last the
patient asks her to clear the mystery.
"What about Roy Stewart?" asked the man in bed.
"Oh, he's the fella I was telling you about," said Miss Lyons.
"He's my G. F B. F"
"Maybe I'm a D.F. not to know, but would yoa tell me what a B.F.
and G.F. are?"
"Well, you are dumb, aren't you?" said Miss Lyons. "A G.F., that's
a girl friend, and a B.F. is a boy friend. I thought everybody knew
The phrases boy friend and girl friend, now widely used everywhere,
originated in the USA. So it is an Americanism in the wider meaning of the
term, i.e. an Americanism "by right of birth", whereas in the above
definition it was defined Americanism synchronically as lexical units
peculiar to the English language as spoken in the USA. Particularly common
in American English are verbs with the hanging postpositive. They say that
in Hollywood you never meet a man: you meet up with him, you do not study a
subject but study up on it. In British English similar constructions serve
to add a new meaning.
With words possessing several structural variants it may happen that
some are more frequent in one country and the others in another. Thus, amid
and toward, for example, are more often used in the States and amidst and
towards in Great Britain.
A well-known humourist G. Mikes goes as far as to say: "It was decided
almost two hundred years ago that English should be the language spoken in
the United States. It is not known, however, why this decision has not been
carried out." In his book "How to Scrape Skies" he gives numerous examples
to illustrate this proposition: "You must be extremely careful concerning
the names of certain articles. If you ask for suspenders in a man's shop,
you receive a pair of braces, if you ask for a pair of pants, you receive a
pair of trousers and should you ask for a pair of braces, you receive a
queer look. It has to be mentioned that although a lift is called an
elevator in the United States, when hitch-hiking, you do not ask for an
elevator, you ask for a lift.
There is some confusion about the word flat. A flat in America is
called an apartment; what they call a flat is a puncture in your tyre (or
as they spell it, tire). Consequently the notice: flats fixed does not
indicate an estate agent where they are going to fix you up with a flat,
but a garage where they are equipped to mend a puncture." Disputing the
common statement that there is no such thing as the American nation, he
says: "They do indeed exist. They have produced the American constitution,
the American way of life, the comic strips in their newspapers: .they have
their national game, baseball —which is cricket played with a strong
American accent — and they have a national language, entirely their own."
This is of course an exaggeration, but a very significant one. It
confirms the fact that there is a difference between the two variants to be
reckoned with. Although not sufficiently great to warrant American English
the status of an independent language, it is considerable enough to make a
mixture of variants sound unnatural, so that students of English should be
warned against this danger.
Local Dialects in the USA
The English language in the USA is characterized by relative
uniformity throughout the country. One can travel three thousand miles
without encountering any but the slightest dialect differences.
Nevertheless, regional variations in speech undoubtedly exist and they have
been observed and recorded by a number of investigators. The following
three major belts of dialects have so far been identified, each with its
own characteristic features: Northern, Midland and Southern, Midland being
in turn divided into North Midland and South Midland.
The differences in pronunciation between American dialects are most
apparent, but they seldom interfere with understanding. Distinctions in
grammar are scarce. The differences in vocabulary are rather numerous, but
they are easy to pick up.
Cf., e.g., Eastern New England sour-milk cheese, Inland Northern Dutch
cheese, New York City pot cheese for Standard American/cottage cheese
The American linguist F. Emerson maintains that American English had
not had time to break up into widely diverse dialects and he believes that
in the course of time the American dialects might finally become nearly as
distinct as the dialects in Britain. He is certainly greatly mistaken. In
modern times dialect divergence cannot increase. On the contrary, in the
United States, as elsewhere, the national language is tending to wipe out
the dialect distinctions and to become still more uniform.
Comparison of the dialect differences in the British Isles and in the USA
reveals that not only are they less numerous and far less marked in the
USA, but that the very nature of the local distinctions is different. What
is usually known as American dialects is closer in nature to regional
variants of the literary language. The problem of discriminating between
literary and dialect speech patterns in the USA is much more complicated
than in Britain. Many American linguists point out that American English
differs from British English in having no one locality whose speech
patterns have come to be recognized as the model for the rest of the
CANADIAN, AUSTRALIAN AND INDIAN VARIANTS
It should of course be noted that the American English is not the only
existing variant. There are several other variants where difference from
the British standard is normalized. Besides the Irish and Scottish variants
that have been mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there are Australian
English, Canadian English, Indian English. Each of these has developed a
literature of its own, and is characterized by peculiarities in phonetics,
spelling, grammar and vocabulary. Canadian English is influenced both by
British and American English but it also has some specific features of its
own. Specifically Canadian words are called Canadianisms. They are not very
frequent outside Canada, except shack 'a hut' and to fathom out 'to
The vocabulary of all the variants is characterized by a high
percentage of borrowings from the language of the people who inhabited the
land before the English colonizers came. Many of them denote some specific
realia of the new country: local animals, plants or weather conditions, new
social relations, new trades and conditions of labour. The local words for
new not ions penetrate into the English language and later on may become
international, if they are of sufficient interest and importance for people
speaking other languages. The term international w о г d s is used to
denote words borrowed from one language into several others simultaneously
or at short intervals one after another. International words coming through
the English of India are for instance: bungalow n, jute n, khaki adj, mango
n, nabob n, pyjamas, sahib, sari.
Similar examples, though perhaps fewer in number, such as boomerang,
dingo, kangaroo are all adopted into the English language through its
Australian variant. They denote the new phenomena found by English
immigrants on the new continent. A high percentage of words borrowed from
the native inhabitants of Australia will be noticed in the sonorous
Australian place names.
Otherwise an ample use was made of English lexical material. An
intense development of cattle breeding in new conditions necessitated the
creation of an adequate terminology. It is natural therefore that nouns
like stock, bullock or land find a new life on Australian soil: stockman
'herdsman', stockyard, stock-keeper 'the owner of the cattle'; bullock v
means 'to work hard', bullocky dray is a dray driven by bullocks; an
inlander is a stock-keeper driving his stock from one pasture to another,
overland v is 'to drive cattle over long distances'; to punch a cow 'to
conduct a team of oxen'; a puncher 'the man who conducts a team of oxen';
tucker-bag 'the bag with provision'.
The differences described in the present chapter do not undermine our
understanding of the English vocabulary as a balanced system. It has been
noticed by a number of linguists that the British attitude to this
phenomenon is somewhat peculiar. When anyone other than an Englishman uses
English, the natives of Great Britain, often half-consciously, perhaps,
feel that they have a special right to criticize his usage because it is
"their" language. It is, however, unreasonable with respect to people in
the Vfiited States, Canada, Australia and some other areas for whom English
is their mother-tongue. Those who think that the Americans must look to the
British for a standard are wrong and, vice versa, it is not for the
American to pretend that English in Great Britain is inferior to the
English he speaks. At present there is no single "correct" English and the
American, Canadian and Australian English have developed standards of their
I. English is the national language of England proper, the USA,
Australia and some provinces of Canada. It was also at different times
imposed on the inhabitants of the former and present British colonies and.
protectorates as well as other Britain- and US-dominated territories, where
the population has always stuck to its own mother tongue.
II. British English, American English and Australian English are
variants of the same language, because they serve all spheres of verbal
communication. Their structural pecularities, especially morphology, syntax
and word-formation, as well as their word-stock and phonetic system are
essentially the same. American and Australian standards are slight
modifications of the norms accepted in the British Isles. The status of
Canadian English 'has not yet been established.
III. The main lexical differences between the variants are caused by
the lack of equivalent lexical units in one of them, divergences in the
semantic structures of polysemantic words and peculiarities of usage of
some words on different territories.
IV. The British local dialects can be traced back to Old English
dialects. Numerous and distinct, they are characterized by phonemic and
structural peculiarities. The local dialects are being gradually replaced
by regional variants of the literary language, i. e. by a literary standard
with a proportion of local dialect features.
V. The so-called local dialects in the British Isles and in the USA are
used only by the rural population and only for the purposes of oral
communication. In both variants local distinctions are more marked in
pronunciation, less conspicuous in vocabulary and insignificant in grammar.
VI. Local variations in the USA are relatively small. What is called by
tradition American dialects is closer in nature to regional variants of the
national literary language.