Features That Distinguish Different 'Englishes' and How Easy it is to Identify Varieties

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The English language has sprung many varieties in the form of accents, dialects, pidgins and Creoles. Each accent or dialect is distinct in its own right, yet when compared with other accents or dialects there are obvious similarities; the same is true of pidgins and Creoles. The grammar, syntax and prosody all show variation in different Englishes. There are also other factors to consider such as social, historical and topographical influences. This article by the author of explores the features of different 'Englishes' and how easy it is to identify the varieties.

The grammar and syntax used in English varies greatly from one form of English to another. This tends to show the greatest variation in spoken English; in written English through the advent of standardisation, the majority of local influence has been removed from literature and it follows standardised English grammar and vocabulary (Graddol et al, p.223). It is the variety in non-standard spoken English that interests the majority of linguists.

The grammar of the varieties of English itself varies dramatically between different Englishes. This variety can be traced from historical, geographical or social influences. Variation in verb forms such as the present tense can be traced across England. Areas such as the South West and East Anglia have varying use of verb forms compared to each other and Standard English. This can be related to the progression of non-standard English throughout the country, as it has not been codified as has Standard English. Consequently, in some cases the rules for non-standard English are more regular than that of Standard English (Graddol et al, p.227).

The use of the lexical and auxiliary verbs is also a defining factor in varieties of English as both can be used interchangeably. The use of 'have and 'do' varies depending upon the version of English spoken. For instance, the form 'have' may be used throughout the present tense for the auxiliary verb, whereas 'has' is found for the lexical verb.

Modal auxiliary verbs are another variation. As Trudgill and Hannah show, in Indian English 'could' and 'would' are preferred to 'can' and 'will' as they are seen as being more polite. This demonstrates the impact of social preferences upon the choice of grammar used in one of the varieties of English (Graddol et al, p.228)

Verbs are not the only grammatical feature to vary from English to English. Determiners of nouns vary from English to English; in some cases such as Singaporean English, the lack of determiners can be related to the influence of other languages which preceded the introduction of English. Malay may influence Singaporean English and Chinese, which have no definite/indefinite system like that found in Standard English - hence the lack of them in Singaporean English. Scottish English is well known for its use of determiners for institutions, illness and periods of time. This well known distinction is geographical in nature as it is found only in Scotland and the north of England. Pronoun usage is also variable amongst Englishes. In the English spoken in Tyneside the pronoun system is quite distinct from that of Standard English, yet shares some similar characteristics with it, as it also does with other forms of English in England. It uses 'us' instead of 'me' as a first person 'non-subject' pronoun, this is not uncommon in other variations of English but goes against the convention of 'Standard English'

The construction of sentences is an important point of change in variations of English. English generally favours a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure when constructing sentences. Because of this 'it' and 'there' are necessary because declarative sentences without a subject are not normally grammatical (Graddol et al, p.248). Examples however, can be seen from Englishes spoken in countries other than England where this is not the case such as 'Here is not allowed to stop the car' in Hong Kong English (Graddol et al, p.248). This again can be seen as the influence of background languages as many other languages do not require a "dummy" 'it' or 'there'.

Grammar and sentence structure are not the only factors that create varieties in English. Pronunciation and prosody also show a great deal of variety. As there is Standard English on which English grammar is based so there is 'Received Pronunciation' (RP) for spoken English. RP is also known as "The Queen's English" because it is seen as the model of how English should be spoken and is historically associated with the Court of the English Monarchy.

The phonemes utilised by speakers of English are a way in which distinctions can be seen in English. A clear distinction is seen between rhotic and non-rhotic accents. Speakers of both types will pronounce the /r/ in words such as profound and ground where it occurs before a vowel. The difference occurs when the /r/ is not followed by a vowel in words such as par and far. This type of pronunciation is referred to as 'non-prevocalic /r/'. This distinction is used outside of England, where migration patterns of Northern English (where the non-prevocalic /r/ is most commonly found) peoples to America and Canada where use of a non-prevocalic /r/ is prolific (Graddol et al, p.264). Aside from phonemes there are also phonetics. This is the actual realisation of the sounds that the phonemes make by the position of the tongue and movement of the lips when making vowel and consonant sounds.


Not only do the sounds that the actual vowels and consonants make constitute accent but an important factor is also prosody, which is constituted of rhythm and intonation. Without this factor the many connotations that make up speech would be lost, as a sentence can be influenced by both or either the rhythm and intonation. Although all types of English use rhythm and intonation, the patterns used vary from variety to variety thus making it an obvious factor in the constructions of differing forms of English.

A comparison of prosody can be made between Jamaican English and RP. Jamaican English can be stereotyped as being rhythmic - this is because the stress falls on the last syllable of the word as opposed to RP that places the stress on the first syllable. Jamaican English also gives an equal amount of time to syllables, unlike RP that varies depending upon the vowel in question. The intonation of Jamaican English is therefore quite different from that of RP, giving it its distinct sound and rhythm.

Geographical locations play an important part of accent, or at the very least of peoples perception of it. People can tell the difference, and usually name the accent of varying counties and locations in England. This point shows that geography plays an important part in the distinctiveness and role of accents. It is here that we encounter the problem of dialect and accent; namely that whilst simple to separate in nature, in practice it is much harder as in social settings not only does pronunciation changes but the grammar and vocabulary will change also [ref7].

Local languages also play an important part in the differing sounds used in Englishes found across the globe. In India, for example, a speaker of Indian English can be recognised from the region where he comes from by his accent of English, this is due to the influence of indigenous languages, as English is unlikely to be an Indian's first language, so his mother tongue affects his pronunciation of various phonemes (Graddol et al, p.270).

This variation of accents can be traced using isoglosses to show the boundaries of differing forms of pronunciation. Isogloss shows that there is a distinct difference in pronunciation between the north and south of England, this can be attributed the 'Great Vowel Shift' started in the Fifth Century, tracing this shows that history has an import in the pronunciation of different accents, as RP and accents of the north differ in that the accents of the north hold more in common with Middle English accents and dialects than with RP, and have held steadfastly to.

Social influences also have an influence on how people use their accents; people define certain ways of speaking with a social status or setting. Labov pioneered this type of linguistic investigation, and found from his results that lower middle classes actually hypercorrect. That is that they try and elevate their speech even higher than that of their peers. Labov concludes that this is because lower middle class speakers are insecure and wish to attain a higher social status than that which they already hold (Graddol et al, p.229). He also found that it was more common in women than in men, showing that gender also has an effect upon the progression of accent in the English language.

As I have shown above, the varieties between different Englishes are many. It is however, harder to actually establish a difference between the different Englishes, because they all stem from the root language of English. Compared to Standard English, it is quite easy to see the differences, but between the various non-standard varieties the differences are balanced by the similarities. All have variations from the standard English, some which correlate to others, some which don't. The easiest way in which to differentiate between Englishes is in the prosody as no two forms of English sound exactly alike, as it is possible to tell Geordie from Brummy. Yet these are merely a change in accent as they both retain many of the same grammatical features. Indeed, it is the standard variety of English that seems to be the most incongruous in many respects as although many people aim to achieve the norm, their local accent and or dialect is the key factor in their speech.

The various pidgins and Creoles of English are more easily definable from that of the English spoken in England. This can be related to the nature in which English interacts with the languages already present in the country to which English was introduced. These languages will affect the grammar and prosody of the English used, especially if English is not the first language of the speaker.

In conclusion, although the differences in the various Englishes are individually easily defined, when they are bought together into a language it is far harder to differentiate between the languages. This is because the definitions of languages are ambiguous - the difficulty in ascertaining between accent and dialect is a predominating factor. In the case of pidgins and Creoles the influence of native languages is all too obvious in the grammar and prosody of the English spoken.

Material referred to: Graddol, Leith & Swann (2002 5th edn) English, history, divertsity and change, London. Routledge

Jennifer is a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives, holding the LL.B with first class honours and having over six years of experience as a lawyer in private practice. She now works for a private company in the Midlands and, in her spare time, writes for various websites including Law of Contract and Easy Essay Writing.