Modern dialectical materialism
Dialects in a modern English: American, Australian, British, Canadian, Nigerian, Caribbean, New Zealand English. Most common mistakes that people make when referring to "dialect". Distinctive vocabulary and grammar. The dialects of present-day English.
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Modern English Dialects
Modern English is the form of the English language spoken since the Great Vowel Shift in England, completed in roughly 1550.
Despite some differences in vocabulary, texts from the early 17th century, such as the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, are considered to be in Modern English, or more specifically, are referred to as using Early Modern English or Elizabethan English. English was adopted in regions around the world, such as North America, India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand through colonisation by the British Empire. dialect english grammar
Modern English has a large number of dialects spoken in diverse countries throughout the world. This includes American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, Caribbean English, Hiberno-English, Indo-Pakistani English, Nigerian English, New Zealand English, Philippine English, Singaporean English, and South African English.
In the 19th century Public education increased literacy, and more people had access to books (and therefore to a standard language) with the spread of public libraries.Early Modern English lacked uniformity in spelling, but Samuel Johnson's dictionary, published in 1755 in England, was influential in establishing a standard form of spelling. Noah Webster did the same in America, publishing his dictionary in 1828.Many words entered English from other languages as a result of contact with other cultures through trade and settlement and from the migration of large numbers of people to the United States from other countries. World War I and World War II threw together people from different backgrounds, and the greater social mobility afterwards helped to lessen the differences between social accents, at least in the UK. The development of radio broadcasting in the early 20th century familiarised the population with accents and vocabulary from outside their own localities, often for the first time, and this phenomenon continued with film and television.
Dialect is one of those words that almost everybody thinks they understand, but which is in fact a bit more problematic than at first seems to be the case. A simple, straightforward definition is that a dialect is any variety of English that is marked off from others by distinctive linguistic features. Such a variety could be associated with a particular place or region or, rather more surprisingly, it might also be associated with a certain social group--male or female, young or old, and so on.
But whether the focus is regional or social, there are two important matters that need to be considered when defining `dialect'. We have to decide what the building blocks of a dialect might be. And even before this, we could usefully confront the most common mistakes that people make when referring to `dialect'.
Definition of Dialect
Actuality of Dialect
Aim of the Dialect
Object of Dialect
Subject of Dialect
Methods of Dialect
A common mistake is to confuse a `dialect' with an accent, muddling up the difference between words people use and the sounds they make, their pronunciation. If vocabulary and grammar are being considered alongside pronunciation, then `dialect' is a reasonable term to use. But often, when claiming to discuss a dialect, someone will concentrate just on pronunciations. If what is being spoken about are sounds alone--that is, accent--then the area of language study is rather pronunciation, or phonology.
It will be obvious from this that accent, or pronunciation, is a special element of a dialect that needs separate attention to be properly understood. Arguably the best-known phonological distinction in England is the so-called `BATH vowel', the quality of the a sound differing between north and south. Another, still more significant on the world stage, concerns the issue of rhoticity, relating to whether or not written r is sounded when it follows a vowel. Whilst most people in England and Wales do not pronounce the r (and are therefore non-rhotic), those in the English West Country and parts of Lancashire do. In this they are joined by most Scots and Irish speakers of English, and by the majority of North Americans. Although the English tend to regard rhoticity as an exotic aberration, it is in fact numerically and geographically the dominant form in world terms.
Another fundamental mistake is to think of the `standard' variety of a language as the language, with dialects relegated to substandard status. By subscribing to the definition of `dialect' as a distinct variety, we are agreeing that the standard variety itself is a dialect. Of course, that variety is special in that, for a space of time at least, it is regarded as a model for purposes that include language teaching and the general transmission of day-to-day information. But structurally there is nothing inherently superior in the make-up of a `standard dialect': non-standard dialects have vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation which are equally detailed in structure, and indeed are often imbued with pedigrees far older than those of the standard variety of the day.
A good case of pedigree is that of while, which in West Yorkshire usage today (and well into the twentieth century in usage much further south) can mean `until' in such expressions as `wait while five o'clock'. It would be easy to dismiss this as quaint or even wrong, but its documented history goes back at least to the fourteenth century, and it was doubtless in spoken use well before then. At the level of social dialect, young men are often vilified, not least by their female friends, for calling young women birds. That this is too easy a judgment becomes apparent when one notes that burd has a long history, and is defined as a poetic word for `woman, lady'.
Undoubtedly the most accessible part of a language that we can study is its vocabulary, or lexis. As we move from one part of a country to another we hear words that are entirely strange to us. Or the words might be ones we understand but do not use, i.e. words that are in our passive rather than active vocabulary. Depending on where a person comes from in England, they might use the word gully or entry, ten-foot or ginnel, snicket or twitten, or some other word, to refer to a narrow path between buildings. In parts of the Midlands and north of England people use pikelet to describe what most people, and all the supermarket retailers, call a crumpet. People might be criticized for `getting it wrong' with this usage, but it is not in fact a mistake. Rather, it's a good example of distinctively regional vocabulary, and most of us who have roots in one particular area have special words, or use well-known words in a special way, that we only discover are `strange' to others when we travel away from home.
But distinctive vocabulary does not only mark us out as local to particular places. No matter where one comes from, one might eat pudding or dessert or sweet or afters, depending on a whole range of social factors, such as family, education and career, that influence the way a person talks. This brings us to another aspect of dialect that is sometimes forgotten. People with different upbringings or social backgrounds or aspirations often speak differently from one another, even though they live in the same community. So do people of different ages, with young people perhaps using words or phrases or pronunciations which older people do not, and which older people may disapprove of: minger used to describe a person judged to be unattractive is an excellent example. On occasions men may also speak differently from women, though this has less to do with their sex than with the roles that they play in society and the expectations placed on them. Differences like these are most definitely what we can call dialect, but it is social rather than regional dialect.
Another area of language difference, besides phonology and lexis, has to do with the way in which words can be changed to slightly alter their meaning, making them plural for example, and the way in which they are linked together in longer units to create messages. This is all the area of grammar.
To take the first of these elements of grammar--the alteration of words--do you refer to two or more swimming creatures as fish, or fishes? Do you say `I came to town yesterday', or `I come to town yesterday?'; `I was or I were?'; Themselves' or theirselves? In each example, the differences are caused by our selecting respectively from various ways of making individual words: the plural of nouns, the past tense of verbs, and reflexive pronouns. Many categories of words undergo change like this, involving word endings or other alterations (or non-alterations) of form. This feature of grammar, `word-grammar', is morphology. The second aspect of grammar, when words come together in various combinations so that they have collective meaning, is syntax. When asking for something to be given to them, most English speakers say `give me it'. But several million speakers of British English, largely but not only in the English West Midlands, are more likely to say `give it me', which does not sound at all strange to them although it does sound strange, and even confusing, to many others. (There is, of course, the possibility of saying `give it to me', using an alternative grammatical construction which neatly avoids this particular problem altogether.) Choices like this are not at all random, but depend a lot on where someone lives, or at least on where they lived when they learnt the language. Grammatical differences of syntax like this, and those of morphology, are all dialectal,
The lexis of dialects is perhaps their most conspicuous feature for listeners and readers. (If we see unfamiliar grammatical forms, we may be able to infer meaning readily; but if we see a novel lexeme we can at best guess its meaning from the context.) This will include both forms that are peculiar to the dialect and forms that are found elsewhere, but have a distinctive meaning in the dialect. So beer-off for an off-licence is a distinctive form (found in East Yorkshire), while happen is a verb in Standard English, but in some Yorkshire dialects is used as an adverb, in the sense of “maybe” or “perhaps”, corresponding to Shakespeare's haply. (For example, “Happen it may rain tomorrow”.) There is no initial /h/ sound, so in dialect the written form may be given as appen. The common written representation 'appen implies mistakenly that the speaker has dropped a sound that was never there in the first place.
While in Standard English indicates simultaneous time. But in East and West Yorkshire dialect it has the sense expressed by “until” in Standard English. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Home Truths (Saturday 24th January 2004) the wife of a member of the Spurn lifeboat crew said of her husband and his colleagues: “A lot of men go out in the morning. They don't get back while seven o'clock at night..
Distinctive grammar in dialects may be harder to detect or explain than distinctive lexis.
One example is the way that dialect speakers on Tyneside use modal verbs.
Another would be the use of past participle in Scots after wants or needs. (Barrie Rhodes notes that in Yorkshire, generally, we use want as the auxiliary in such constructions, where want and need are more or less interchangeable in other regions.)
Because it is so immediately accessible and, more importantly, because it opens a window on the past, it is not surprising that vocabulary played a most important part in the early study of dialect. Undoubtedly the most famous work on dialect lexis is Joseph Wright's six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) which remains an essential text for all students of the subject. This pioneering work drew on the collections of the English Dialect Society, set up to gather its data and disbanded in 1896 when it saw its task to having been completed. But the torch was carried forward by innumerable independent enthusiasts and, most significantly amongst scholars, by Frederick Cassidy and the Dictionary of American English (DARE) team in the United States, and in England by Harold Orton and his Survey of English Dialects (SED).
In view of the scale of these efforts, it would be easy to see the lexicon as the prime focus for dialectologists. However, the other areas of study--into phonology and grammar--have not been neglected, and in recent years interest in lexis has rather faded. Decades before Joseph Wright, the English gentleman-scholar Alexander Ellis began to investigate regional pronunciation, no mean feat prior to the invention of the International Phonetic Alphabet and sound recording. Beginning his attempts at description in 1848, Ellis announced his intention to survey accents in 1871, shortly before his famous contemporary Georg Wenker began a German dialect-accent survey designed to test the `neogrammarian hypothesis' that sound changes occur systematically across communities. Ellis's monumental findings were published in his On Early English Pronunciation Part V, the title of which suggests the historical motivation of dialect studies at this time. Focus on pronunciation also occupied Joseph Wright, as did concentration on grammatical morphology (or `accidence'), both of which are discussed in the English Dialect Grammar appended to the Dictionary in its final volume dated 1905. And the widening of the scope of dialectology to encompass all areas of variation continued through the twentieth century: in the USA under the watchful eye of the American Dialect Society and in the UK with the work of the SED, and more recently the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects and the Linguistic Survey of Scotland.
The dominance of large-scale geographical dialect surveys was broken in the 1960s with the advent of `social dialectology'. Although the focus remained on language change, linguists interested in variation, led in large measure by the American William Labov, began to look at differences of the moment (that is, synchronic variations) within communities, as displayed by speakers with different social profiles. Now the aim was to go beyond the facts of difference over time to reach some understanding of the causes of change. In addition to social sampling, the main tool of such linguists is the `variable'. This is a linguistic feature that is expressed in two or more ways (`variants') and which, collected in bulk, allows their relative prominence to be statistically analysed. In this kind of study phonology comes to the fore as pronunciation features constantly recur in any collection of data. Just as importantly, distinctions in the pronunciation of any variable (the BATH-vowel, for example) are quite minutely observable. By contrast, lexis--more open-ended in scope and harder to collect naturally than either phonology or grammar--was sidelined in the wake of social surveys.
Until recently it seemed as though the two schools of dialectology, `regional' and the `social', were destined to remain apart, with the latter dominant. Each showed only grudging admiration of the other, even though some leading practitioners of the social route are skilled historians of English and admirers of traditionally-gained insights. Now, however, it is becoming apparent that all areas of variation might usefully be studied. This is made possible by our ability to store and process data electronically, permitting lexical items to be quantified and evaluated alongside those of phonology and grammar. Joseph Wright's great Dialect Dictionary has been digitized at the University of Innsbruck. And the BBC's Voices project of 2004-7 has, as part of its contribution to dialectology, provided a very large lexical dataset, tagged for location, age, and gender of speaker. There is thus every reason to suppose that dialect studies can continue to progress with both strands--the historically-oriented study of essentially regional variation, and the socially-focused detailing of differences in speech within particular communities--with each contributing to a better understanding of speech differences, and what these tell us about how a language changes over time.
Without the notion of Standard English, we may find it hard to identify anything as a dialect at all - since the distinctiveness of a dialect consists in those things that are different from the Standard. (This does not mean that a dialect emerged from people who took Standard English and then changed it; it is more likely that the standard variety and the dialect variety developed from some common and some locally distinctive influences over time, or that the dialect forms are older, and have been more resistant to tendencies to converge towards a standard variety.)
There is a problem in identifying any dialect as the standard, since this implies that other dialects are inferior or wrong. In the case of spoken English, we have good evidence that such prejudice exists - so there is an exaggerated danger that, in referring to a standard, we will strengthen what is already a tyranny. It may help to note that Standard English, too, is a dialect - albeit one that is no longer found in any one region of Britain. Barrie Rhodes notes:
This is what has been termed "...the tyrrany of the standard" which gives the impression that there is something called "English" and all other varieties are, somehow, degraded, deficient, "incorrect" forms of this. [The idea of convergence towards this standard] for me, reinforces the impression that there is some set-in-stone ideal towards which people should strive. Some observers would claim that this is what made people uncomfortable and ashamed of their native speech modes...The notion is very strong and well established that there is something called "English"...And everything else is a deviation from this, arrived at through ignorance of the "proper" form. When I give talks to various groups, I find the biggest challenge is to get people to accept that there are many Englishes, all with an equal and valid claim to be "proper" within their own contexts. Only historical and geographical accidents brought prestige to what today we call the standard. But students could usefully ask (within a sociolinguistic paradigm) why people still choose to use non-standard speech when "...they should know better". My paternal grandmother...heard on the radio, understood and wrote Standard English (very well) - but she never spoke it. Had she done so, she would have soon found herself socially distanced from the close "West Riding" speaking community she lived in. There are all sorts of identity and self-esteem issues here that are worth investigating.
The "standard" is a human choice that could have been otherwise (like driving on the right or left). It is not in any intrinsic way better or worse than other dialects. Nor are the historic regional dialects corrupt variants. Indeed, in many cases they preserve far older lexis, meanings or grammar than the so-called standard.
In studying dialect forms, as they exist now, you should be aware of the history behind them. Regional varieties of English have historical causes that may go as far back as the Old English period. They may embody or reflect much of the history of the places where they are used.
Language is not a uniform and unchanging system of communication. It varies with place and changes over time. For example, human beings are capable (physically) of a wider range of speech sounds than any one speaker ever uses. Each language in its spoken standard forms has its own range of speech sounds, while regional varieties may leave out some of these and add others. Welsh has a distinctive sound represented in spelling by ll (voiceless unilateral l, common in place names). Some English speakers use post-vocalic r (rhoticization), though this is not common outside the north, Scotland and the south-west.
The social history of any region often explains the language variety that has arisen there. York was the heart of the Danelaw, the Viking kingdom in Britain. To this day, the lexicon of dialect speakers in the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire retains many words that derive from Old Norse. Scandinavian influence on the language does not stop with the end of the Danelaw, however: in the 19th and 20th centuries maritime trade and commerce in the North Sea and the Baltic brought many Danes, Norwegians and Swedes to ports like Hull and Newcastle.
The West Riding also has a large corpus of words of Old Norse origin. The Norwegian influence is stronger here, whereas Danish is more influential in the East Riding - there are more "Norwegian" forms than the "Danish" of, say, the East Riding. There is a historical explanation in the trade routes from Dublin, via the north-west coast of England, over the Pennine uplands to York, capital of the Danelaw. We see an illustration of this in the place-name ending -thwaite, of Norwegian origin, which is common in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District, but rare east of the Pennines, where the Danish cognate -thorpe is far more common.
Over many centuries, regional varieties retained distinctive lexis, grammar and speech sounds, because most speakers stayed in the place where they grew up, or near to it. In the late 20th century greater social and geographical mobility, combined with the influence of film and broadcast media, has altered the way varieties develop. Geographical location still exerts an influence, but it is not the only one. So, for example, British people of Asian descent, living in Bradford may speak a variety of English, which has West Yorkshire and Asian speech sounds, as well as those of Received Pronunciation, and a lexicon based on standard English with neologisms from the languages of the Indian sub-continent, and perhaps a few traditional Yorkshire dialect words.
The London standard
The dialects of present-day English can be seen as the continuation of the dialect areas which established themselves in the Old English period. The dialectal division of the narrower region of England into 1) a northern, 2) a central and 3) a (subdivided) southern region has been retained to the present-day. The linguistic study of the dialects of English goes back to the 19th century when, as an offspin of Indo-European studies, research into (rural) dialects of the major European languages was considerably developed. The first prominent figure in English dialectology is Alexander Ellis (mid-19th century), followed somewhat later by Joseph Wright (late 19th and early 20th century). The former published a study of English dialects and the latter a still used grammar of English dialects at the beginning of the present century. It was not until the Survey of English Dialects, first under the auspices of Eugen Dieth and later of Harald Orton, that such intensive study of (rural) dialects was carried out .
The main divide between north and south can be drawn by using the pronunciation of the word but. Either it has a /u/ sound (in the north) or the lowered and unrounded realisation typical of Received Pronunciation in the centre and south, /?/. An additional isogloss is the use of a dark /?/ in the south versus a clear /l/ in the north. The south can be divided by the use of syllable-final /r/ which is to be found in the south western dialects but not in those of the south east. The latter show `initial softening' as in single, father, think with the voiced initial sounds /z-, v-, ?/ respectively.
The rise of the London standard
In the group of varieties of English that of the city of London occupies a special position. The early development of English in this city is marked by migration from various parts of England as of the early Middle English period. The language of the migrants into the city has had a pronounced influence on that which emerged later here (Strang 1970: 160).
First of all one should remember that in the Old English period the capital of England was Winchester in the south-central part of the country. It is only after the Norman invasion that the city on the estuary of the Thames was raised to the status of capital. As the seat of government and king London gained in significance. The nearby town of Westminister (now just an inner city suburb) strengthened this position given that it was an ecclesiastical centre. Due to its need for staff in civil service London exercised an attraction for the surrounding areas, the so-called home counties.The earliest attestations of London English are in Latin documents and are as a rule proper and personal names, above all street names. From these sources one can conclude that early London English showed a close affinity with that of Essex which is immediately north-east of the city (Samuels 1972: 165). This assumption is confirmed by documents such as the proclamation of Henry III in 1258 which is written in English and which shows the typical distinction of late Old English /?:/ which is characteristic of Essex. There are also features which point to the counties of Middlesex and Surrey (in the south).
In the late 13th and in the course of the 14th century a re-orientation would seem to have occurred away from southern forms towards those typical of the midlands. The transition, inasmuch as it is attested, is characterised by mixed varieties which show various features of surrounding dialects (Samuels 1972: 166). For instance the ending -and(e) is found for the present participle in London texts, something which is probably due to the influence of Norfolk and Suffolk. Nonetheless by the time of Chaucer -- late 14th century -- there is a preponderance of midland forms. These in fact increase in the 15th century, especially after English replaced Latin and French as an official language (after 1430). Among the forms of midland origin which entered London English were many of ultimately northern origin but which had spread into the south. For instance Chaucer still has a /j-/ at the beginning of the verb `give', e.g. yaf `gave'. This is replaced in the 15th century by an initial /g-/ which has its source in a Scandinavian pronounciation in the north of the country. The same is true of an initial /?-/ in forms of the third person plural (Chaucer has hir(e) which corresponds to the later their(e)).
The relative significance of dialects in the formation of London English is determined by the inmigration for different directions into the city. For example there were connections with Essex to begin with, later in the 14th century movements from the relatively thickly populated areas of Norfolk and Suffolk are to be seen. By the late 14th century the relationship was shifted in favour of migrants from the central midlands.
Such demographic movements can be quoted as evidence for details of language change in this period which have no apparent motivation (Samuels 1972: 169). This would appear to hold especially for the forms of suffixes which indicated the present participle and which went through a change from -ind(e) to and(e) and finally to yng(e), ing(e). A language internal reason for the adoption of a regional variant of a form can be seen in the case of the pronouns of the third person plural as the midland forms in th- (from Scandinavian) were helpful in disambiguating the prounouns of the third person, singular and plural.
The supremacy of midland forms in the formation of the late Middle English London dialect had a reason which should not be underestimated: the midland variety of Middle English, because of its central position in the country, represented a comprehensible form for a large number of speakers. Leith (1983: 38f.) views the east midland variety as a kind of lingua franca in a triangle between London, Oxford und Cambridge, which was also used as a means of communication between the students who travelled to these cities to study.
This function as a means of communication would seem to have held less for the geographically peripheral forms such as East Anglia and Surrey or Kent (Wakelin 1977: 26), a fact which would explain the decreasing influence of these varieties in the capital.
A side effect of the demographic movements of the late Middle English period is an increased awareness of dialect differences and conversely of the notion of a standard. This awareness can be seen with Chaucer, who caricatured speakers from the north in the Reeve's Tale, and it continued to develop in the early modern period and is attested by many authors including Shakespeare for instance in the three nations scene in Henry the Fifth in which he shows awareness of the English of the Celtic regions of Britain.
The language of London continued on a path where it became less and less bound to a specific region. For instance the initial softening, which is typical of the area immediately south and south-west of the capital, is not to be found in London texts from the late Middle English period (Wakelin 1977: 27). The development of a form of English with the upper classes of the population of London took a separate course from that of the city dialect, Cockney. The split between this variety and the standard became greater in the course of the following centuries and led to the codification of a pronunciation norm in the 19th century, above all in the schools of the middle and upper classes and for areas of public life, which was given the label Received Pronunciation by the phonetician Daniel Jones at the beginning of the century.
The development of a standard is not directly connected with literature of the late Middle Ages. For instance Chaucer shows many southern forms which were not continued in the later standard. What was of course the case is that his reputation as a writer contributed to the increased prestige of the dialect of London (Bourcier 1981: 140).
he formation of a standard in London goes back geographically to the eastern variety of midland Middle English but also to scribal practices of the time. Already at the end of the 14th century there were a group of non-clerical scribes who used a conventionalised orthography (Strang 1970:157). By the mid 15th century this form was accepted for official usage (Leith 1983:40). Above all the language of the Chancery, an official department in London which prepared documents for the court, played a considerable role in the emergence of a written standard (Fisher 1977, 1996). The Chancery was responsible for legal and parliamentary documents as well as for those which were written on the commission of the king (Fisher 1977: 875f.). The Chancery recruited its scribes from all parts of England and had its seat at Westminister (from the middle of the 14th century). Because of the diverse backgrounds of those employed there, a linguistic norm was all the more necessary.
According to Fisher (1977: 885) one can recognise different sources for this late Middle English standard. Firstly, the literary standard which was used by Wycliffe, the first translator of the Bible into English, and his followers (the so-called Lollards). Secondly, the literary language used by London authors like Chaucer and Gower. Thirdly, the influence of certain writers of the Chancery, e.g. those who used northern varieties, from which the pronominal forms with initial th- were adopted and which are not to be found with Chaucer for instance.
The spelling and morphology of Chancery English was conservative. For example one finds orthographic renderings of velar/palatal fricatives (gh as in slaughter; right, high) which may well have already disappeared from the spoken language of the time. The ending -th for verbs in the third person singular present tense was used for some considerable time although these were replaced by forms in -s which have their origin in the north of England. Other preferences of Chancery English were such for s(w)ich(e), not for nat, through for thurgh, etc.
It is clear that already by the 15th century the language of the Chancery was not a regional variety but a mixed form of English which was used as a general means of communication between dialects. Here one can recognise the seed of a development which was to become typical for the later standard of English, i.e. a form of language which was not regionally bound and which was used by speakers of widely differing dialectal backgrounds.
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