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STANDARD ENGLISH VARIANTS AND DIALECTS
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 recognised as acceptable wherever English is spoken or understood. Its vocabulary is contrasted to dialect words or dialecticisms. Local dialeсts are varieties of the English language peculiar to some districts and having no normalised literary form. Regional varieties possessing a literary form are called variants. In Great Britain there are two variants, Scottish English and Irish English, and five main groups of dialects: Northern, Midland, Eastern, Western and Southern. Every group contains several (up to ten) dialects.
One of the best known Southern dialects is Cockney, the regional dialect of London. According to E. Partridge and H.C. Wylde, this dialect exists on two levels. As spoken by the educated lower middle classes it is a regional dialect marked by some deviations in pronunciation but few in vocabulary and syntax. As spoken by the uneducated, Cockney differs from Standard English not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary, morphology and syntax. G.B. Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” clearly renders this level of Cockney as spoken at the time when the play was written and reveals the handicap Cockney obviously presents in competition with speakers of standard English. Professor Henry Higgins, the main character of the play, speaking about Eliza Doolittie, the flower girl, says: You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass this girl off as a duchess ... even get her a place as lady’s maid or shop assistant which requires better English.
“The Encyclopaedia Britannica” treats Cockney as an accent, not acknowledging it the status of dialect.
Cockney has attracted much literary attention, and so we can judge of its past and present on the evidence of literature. As recorded by Ch. Dickens over a century ago, Cockney was phonetically characterised by the interchange of the labial and labio-dental consonants [w] and [v]: wery for very and vell for well. This trait was lost by the end of the 19th century. The voiceless and voiced dental spirants [θ] and [∂] are still replaced — though not very consistently — by [f] and [v] respectively: fing for thing and farver for father (inserting the letter r indicates vowel
length). This variation is not exclusively characteristic of Cockney and may be found in several dialects. Another trait not limited to Cockney is the interchange of the aspirated and non-aspirated initial vowels: hart for art and ‘eart for heart. The most marked feature in vowel sounds is the substitution of the diphthong [ai] for standard [ei] in such words as day, face, rain, way pronounced: [dai], [fais], [rain], [wai].
There are some specifically Cockney words and set expressions such as up the pole ‘drunk’, you’ll get yourself disliked (a remonstrance to a person behaving very badly).
Cockney is lively and witty and its vocabulary imaginative and colourful. Its specific feature not occurring anywhere else is the so-called rhyming slang, in which some words are substituted by other words rhyming with them. Boots, for instance, are called daisy roots, hat is tit for tat, head is sarcastically called loaf of bread, and wife — trouble and strife. It has set expressions of its own. Here is an example of a rather crude euphemistic phrase for being dead: “She may have pulled me through me operation,” said Mrs Fisher, “but ‘streuth I’m not sure I wouldn’t be better off pushing up the daisies, after all.” (M. Dickens)
The study of dialects has been made on the basis of information obtained with the help of special techniques: interviews, questionnaires, recording by phonograph and tape-recorder, etc. Data collected in this way show the territorial distribution of certain key words and pronunciations which vary from region to region.
Dialects are now chiefly preserved in rural communities, in the speech of elderly people. Their boundaries have become less stable than they used to be; the distinctive features are tending to disappear with the shifting of population due to the migration of working-class families in search of employment and the growing influence of urban life over the countryside. 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.
For the most part dialect in literature has been limited to speech characterisation of personages in books otherwise composed in Standard English. There are Yorkshire passages in “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë, and Lancashire passages in “Mary Barton” by E. Gaskell. A Southern dialect (that of Dorset) is sometimes introduced by Th. Hardy, A. Tennyson used Lancashire dialect in two of his poems reproducing peasant speech ("Northern Farmer: Old Style” and “Northern Farmer: New Style").
“The Northern Farmer: Old Style” is the monologue of a dying old man. He knows that his death is near and is resigned to it: “If I must die I must die.” He wants his nurse to bring him ale, although doctor has forbidden it. The last stanza runs as follows: “What atta stannin’ theer for, an’ doesn bring ma the yaäle? Doctor’s a ‘tattier, lass, an a’s hallus V the owd taäle; I weänt break rules for Doctor, a knows now moor nora floy, Git ma my yaäle I tell tha, an gin I тип doy I тип doy.” (Tennyson)
The dialect vocabulary is remarkable for its conservatism: many words that have become obsolete in standard English are still kept in dialects, e. g. to and ‘envy’ < OE andian; barge ‘pig’ < OE berg; bysen ‘blind’ < OE bisene and others.
According to O. Jespersen, however, dialect study suffered from too much attention being concentrated on the “archaic” traits. “Every survival of an old form, every trace of old sounds that have been dropped in standard speech, was greeted with enthusiasm, and the significance of these old characteristics greatly exaggerated, the general impression being that popular dialects were always much more conservative than the speech of educated people. It was reserved for a much later time to prove that this view is completely erroneous, and that popular dialects in spite of many archaic details are on the whole further developed than the various standard languages with their stronger tradition and literary reminiscences."1
The standard work of reference in dialect study is Joseph Wright's “English Dialect Dictionary”.
After this brief review of dialects we shall now proceed to the discussion of variants.
The Scottish Tongue and the Irish English have a special linguistic status as compared with dialects because of the literature composed in them. The name of Robert Burns, the great national poet of Scotland, is known all over the world. There is a whole group of modern poets including Hugh MacDiarmid writing in this variant of the English language.
A few lines from R. Burns’s poem dedicated to his friend James Smith will illustrate the general character of Scottish:
To James Smith
Dear Smith, the slee’st, pawkie thief
Owre human hearts;
Against your arts.
For me, I swear by sun and moon,
Just gaun to see you;
Mair taen I’m wi’ you...
Here slee’st meant 'slyest’, pawkie ‘cunning’, ‘sly’, rief ‘robbery’, warlock-brief ‘wizard’s contract’ (with the devil), prief ‘proof’, aboon
1 Jespersen O. Language, Its Nature, Development and Origin. London, 1949. P. 68.
‘above’, shoon ‘shoes’. The other dialect words differing only in pronunciation from their English counterparts (owre : : over; mair : : more) are readily understood.
The poetic features of Anglo-Irish may be seen in the plays by J.M. Synge and Sean О’Casey. The latter’s name is worth an explanation in this connection. O’ is Gaelic and means ‘of the clan of’. Cf. Mac — the Gaelic for ‘son’ found in both Scottish and Irish names.1 Sean, also spelled Shawn and pronounced [So:n], is the Irish for John.
Some traits of Anglo-Irish may be observed in the following lines from “The Playboy of the Western World” by J.M. Synge: I’ve told my story no place till this night, Pegeen Mike, and it’s foolish I was here, maybe, to be talking free, but you’re decent people, I'm thinking, and yourself a kindly woman, the way I was not fearing you at all.
Pegeen exemplifies the diminutive suffix found in Standard English only in loan-words. The emphatic personal pronoun yourself appears in a non-appositional construction. Cf. also It was yourself started it (O’Casey). The main peculiarities concern syntax, and they are reflected in some form words. The concrete connective word the way substitutes the abstract conjunction so that. Cf. also the time that, the while for when, and all times for always. E.g.: I’d hear himself snoring out — a loud, lonesome snore he’d be making all times, the while he was sleeping’, and he a man’d be raging all times the while he was waking (Synge). The Anglo-Irish of J.M. Synge, however, should not be taken as a faithful reproduction of real speech, as it is imbued with many romantic poetic archaisms.
Words from dialects and variants may penetrate into Standard English. The Irish English gave, for instance, blarney n ‘flattery’, bog n ‘a spongy, usually peaty ground of marsh’. This word in its turn gave rise to many derivatives and compounds, among them bog-trotter, the ironical nickname for Irishman. Shamrock (a trifoliate plant, the national emblem of Ireland) is a word used quite often, and so is the noun whiskey.
The contribution of the Scottish dialect is very considerable. Some of the most frequently used Scotticisms are: bairn ‘child’, billy ‘chum’, bonny ‘handsome’, brogue ‘a stout shoe’, glamour ‘charm’, laddie, lassie, kilt, raid, slogan, tartan, wee, etc.
A great deal in this process is due to Robert Burns who wrote his poems in Scottish English, and to Walter Scott who introduced many Scottish words into his novels.
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
1 Cf. fitz (ultimately from Latin filius), which is used in the same way in the Anglo-Norman names: Fitzgerald ‘son of Gerald’.
normalised form called Standard American (or American National Standard), 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 we 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-up ‘a staged or preconcerted law case’; guess ‘think’; mail ‘post’; store ‘shop’.
A general and comprehensive description of the American variant is given in Professor A.D. Schweitzer’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 systematic.
The American variant of the English language differs from British English1 in pronunciation, some minor features of grammar, but chiefly in vocabulary, and this paragraph will deal with the latter. 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 colonisers were contemporaries of W. Shakespeare, E. Spenser and J. Milton. Words which have died out in Britain, or changed their meaning may survive in the USA. Thus, I guess, was used by G. 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 bullfrog ‘a large frog’, moose (the American elk), opossum, raccoon (an American animal related to the bears) for animals; and corn, hickory, etc. for plants.
The opposition of any two lexical systems among the variants described is of great linguistic and heuristic2 value, because it furnishes ample data for observing the influence of extra-linguistic factors upon 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’, gerrymander ‘to arrange and falsify the electoral process to produce a favourable result in the interests of a particular party or candidate’, all-outer ‘an adept of decisive measures’.
Both in the USA and Great Britain the meaning of leftist is ‘an adherent of the left wing of a party’. In the USA it also means a left-handed person and lefty in the USA is only ‘a left-handed person’ while in Great Britain it is a colloquial variant of leftist and has a specific sense of a communist or socialist.
1 It must be noted that an Englishman does not accept the term “British English”.
2 Heuristic means ‘serving to discover’.
Many of the foreign elements borrowed into American English from the Indian languages or from Spanish penetrated very soon not only into British English but also into several other languages, Russian not excluded, and so became international due to the popularity of J.F. Cooper and H. Longfellow. 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 [æ] for [a:] in ask, dance, path, etc., or [e] 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.
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