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Lexicology. Different dialects and accents of English

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

decisive measures'.

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.

D. Schweitzer:

British spelling American spelling

offence offense

cosy cozy

practice practise

thralldom thralldom

jewellery jewelery

traveling traveling

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

in America.

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



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.