Dialects, accents, and varieties
Dialectologists identify many English dialects, which usually refer to regional varieties that differ from each other in terms of patterns of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The pronunciation of particular areas distinguishes dialects as separate regional accents. The major native dialects of English are often divided by linguists into the two extremely general categories of British English (BrE) and North American English (NAE). There also exists a third common major grouping of English varieties: Southern Hemisphere English, the most prominent being Australian and New Zealand English.
United Kingdom and Ireland
Map showing the main dialect regions in the UK and Ireland
As the place where English first evolved, the British Isles, and particularly England, are home to the most diverse dialects. Within the United Kingdom, the Received Pronunciation (RP), an educated dialect of South East England, is traditionally used as the broadcast standard and is considered the most prestigious of the British dialects. The spread of RP (also known as BBC English) through the media has caused many traditional dialects of rural England to recede, as youths adopt the traits of the prestige variety instead of traits from local dialects. At the time of the Survey of English Dialects, grammar and vocabulary differed across the country, but a process of lexical attrition has led most of this variation to disappear.
Nonetheless this attrition has mostly affected dialectal variation in grammar and vocabulary, and in fact, only 3 percent of the English population actually speak RP, the remainder speaking regional accents and dialects with varying degrees of RP influence. There is also variability within RP, particularly along class lines between Upper and Middle-class RP speakers and between native RP speakers and speakers who adopt RP later in life. Within Britain, there is also considerable variation along lines of social class, and some traits though exceedingly common are considered "non-standard" and are associated with lower class speakers and identities. An example of this is H-dropping, which was historically a feature of lower-class London English, particularly Cockney, and can now be heard in the local accents of most parts of England—yet it remains largely absent in broadcasting and among the upper crust of British society.
English in England can be divided into four major dialect regions, Southwest English, South East English, Midlands English, and Northern English. Within each of these regions several local subdialects exist: Within the Northern region, there is a division between the Yorkshire dialects, and the Geordie dialect spoken in Northumbria around Newcastle, and the Lancashire dialects with local urban dialects in Liverpool (Scouse) and Manchester (Mancunian). Having been the centre of Danish occupation during the Viking Invasions, Northern English dialects, particularly the Yorkshire dialect, retain Norse features not found in other English varieties.
Since the 15th century, southeastern England varieties centred around London, which has been the centre from which dialectal innovations have spread to other dialects. In London, the Cockney dialect was traditionally used by the lower classes, and it was long a socially stigmatised variety. The spread of Cockney features across the south-east led the media to talk of Estuary English as a new dialect, but the notion was criticised by many linguists on the grounds that London had influencing neighbouring regions throughout history. Traits that have spread from London in recent decades include the use of intrusive R (drawing is pronounced drawring /ˈdrɔːrɪŋ/), t-glottalisation (Potter is pronounced with a glottal stop as Po'er /poʔʌ/), and the pronunciation of th- as /f/ (thanks pronounced fanks) or /v/ (bother pronounced bover).
Scots is today considered a separate language from English, but it has its origins in early Northern Middle English and developed and changed during its history with influence from other sources, particularly Scots Gaelic and Old Norse. Scots itself has a number of regional dialects. And in addition to Scots, Scottish English are the varieties of Standard English spoken in Scotland, most varieties are Northern English accents, with some influence from Scots.
In Ireland, various forms of English have been spoken since the Norman invasions of the 11th century. In County Wexford, in the area surrounding Dublin, two extinct dialects known as Forth and Bargy and Fingallian developed as offshoots from Early Middle English, and were spoken until the 19th century. Modern Irish English, however, has its roots in English colonisation in the 17th century. Today Irish English is divided into Ulster English, the Northern Ireland dialect with strong influence from Scots, as well as various dialects of the Republic of Ireland. Like Scottish and most North American accents, almost all Irish accents preserve the rhoticity which has been lost in the dialects influenced by RP.
North American English is fairly homogeneous compared to British English. Today, American accent variation is often increasing at the regional level and decreasing at the very local level, though most Americans still speak within a phonological continuum of similar accents, known collectively as General American (GA), with differences hardly noticed even among Americans themselves (such as Midland and Western American English). In most American and Canadian English dialects, rhoticity (or r-fulness) is dominant, with non-rhoticity (r-dropping) becoming associated with lower prestige and social class especially after World War II; this contrasts with the situation in England, where non-rhoticity has become the standard.
Separate from GA are American dialects with clearly distinct sound systems, historically including Southern American English, English of the coastal Northeast (famously including Eastern New England English and New York City English), and African American Vernacular English, all of which are historically non-rhotic. Canadian English, except for the Atlantic provinces and perhaps Quebec, may be classified under GA as well, but it often shows the raising of the vowels / and / before voiceless consonants, as well as distinct norms for written and pronunciation standards.
In Southern American English, the most populous American "accent group" outside of GA, rhoticity now strongly prevails, replacing the region's historical non-rhotic prestige. Southern accents are colloquially described as a "drawl" or "twang," being recognised most readily by the Southern Vowel Shift initiated by glide-deleting in the /aɪ/ vowel (e.g. pronouncing spy almost like spa), the "Southern breaking" of several front pure vowels into a gliding vowel or even two syllables (e.g. pronouncing the word "press" almost like "pray-us"), the pin–pen merger, and other distinctive phonological, grammatical, and lexical features, many of which are actually recent developments of the 19th century or later.
Today spoken primarily by working- and middle-class African Americans, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also largely non-rhotic and likely originated among enslaved Africans and African Americans influenced primarily by the non-rhotic, non-standard older Southern dialects. A minority of linguists, contrarily, propose that AAVE mostly traces back to African languages spoken by the slaves who had to develop a pidgin or Creole English to communicate with slaves of other ethnic and linguistic origins. AAVE's important commonalities with Southern accents suggests it developed into a highly coherent and homogeneous variety in the 19th or early 20th century. AAVE is commonly stigmatised in North America as a form of "broken" or "uneducated" English, as are white Southern accents, but linguists today recognise both as fully developed varieties of English with their own norms shared by a large speech community.
Australia and New Zealand
Since 1788, English has been spoken in Oceania, and Australian English has developed as a first language of the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Australian continent, its standard accent being General Australian. The English of neighbouring New Zealand has to a lesser degree become an influential standard variety of the language. Australian and New Zealand English are each other's closest relatives with few differentiating characteristics, followed by South African English and the English of southeastern England, all of which have similarly non-rhotic accents, aside from some accents in the South Island of New Zealand. Australian and New Zealand English stand out for their innovative vowels: many short vowels are fronted or raised, whereas many long vowels have diphthongised. Australian English also has a contrast between long and short vowels, not found in most other varieties. Australian English grammar aligns closely to British and American English; like American English, collective plural subjects take on a singular verb (as in the government is rather than are). New Zealand English uses front vowels that are often even higher than in Australian English.
Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia
English is spoken widely in South Africa and is an official or co-official language in several countries. In South Africa, English has been spoken since 1820, co-existing with Afrikaans and various African languages such as the Khoe and Bantu languages. Today, about 9 percent of the South African population speaks South African English (SAE) as a first language. SAE is a non-rhotic variety, which tends to follow RP as a norm. It is alone among non-rhotic varieties in lacking intrusive r. There are different L2 varieties that differ based on the native language of the speakers. Most phonological differences from RP are in the vowels. Consonant differences include the tendency to pronounce /p, t, t͡ʃ, k/ without aspiration (e.g. pin pronounced [pɪn] rather than as [pʰɪn] as in most other varieties), while r is often pronounced as a flap [ɾ] instead of as the more common fricative.
Nigerian English is a dialect of English spoken in Nigeria. It is based on British English, but in recent years, because of influence from the United States, some words of American English origin have made it into Nigerian English. Additionally, some new words and collocations have emerged from the language, which come from the need to express concepts specific to the culture of the nation (e.g. senior wife). Over 150 million population of Nigerians speak English.
Several varieties of English are also spoken in the Caribbean Islands that were colonial possessions of Britain, including Jamaica, and the Leeward and Windward Islands and Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and Belize. Each of these areas are home both to a local variety of English and a local English based creole, combining English and African languages. The most prominent varieties are Jamaican English and Jamaican Creole. In Central America, English based creoles are spoken in on the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua and Panama. Locals are often fluent both in the local English variety and the local creole languages and code-switching between them is frequent, indeed another way to conceptualise the relationship between Creole and Standard varieties is to see a spectrum of social registers with the Creole forms serving as "basilect" and the more RP-like forms serving as the "acrolect", the most formal register.
Most Caribbean varieties are based on British English and consequently, most are non-rhotic, except for formal styles of Jamaican English which are often rhotic. Jamaican English differs from RP in its vowel inventory, which has a distinction between long and short vowels rather than tense and lax vowels as in Standard English. The diphthongs /ei/ and /ou/ are monophthongs [eː] and [oː] or even the reverse diphthongs [ie] and [uo] (e.g. bay and boat pronounced [bʲeː] and [bʷoːt]). Often word-final consonant clusters are simplified so that "child" is pronounced [t͡ʃail] and "wind" [win].
As a historical legacy, Indian English tends to take RP as its ideal, and how well this ideal is realised in an individual's speech reflects class distinctions among Indian English speakers. Indian English accents are marked by the pronunciation of phonemes such as /t/ and /d/ (often pronounced with retroflex articulation as [ʈ] and [ɖ]) and the replacement of /θ/ and /ð/ with dentals [t̪] and [d̪]. Sometimes Indian English speakers may also use spelling based pronunciations where the silent ⟨h⟩ found in words such as ghost is pronounced as an Indian voiced aspirated stop [ɡʱ].