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Аветисян Н.Г. Восканян С.К. " Some aspects of Sociolinguistic Approach to the Study of Regional Varieties of English"

Аветисян Н.Г.

к.ф.н, доцент
кафедры региональных исследований
факультета иностранных языков
и регионоведения
МГУ имени М.В. Ломоносова
тел: (495)734-00-80
E-mail: rimo-231@mail.ru

Восканян С.К.

к.ф.н, доцент
кафедры региональных исследований
факультета иностранных языков
и регионоведения
МГУ имени М.В. Ломоносова
E-mail: sivosk@yandex.ru

 Some aspects of Sociolinguistic Approach to the Study of Regional Varieties of English

The users of English who speak it as their second language generally tend to have as a model one of the native varieties of English. The choice of a variety is not easy since there are several established standards from which to select. If we are to consider this matter, we have to do so in the light of some inevitable questions: 1) To what extent do British and American English differ? 2) How much alike are they? 3) Where do they differ? 4) Where are they similar? Why certain varieties of are preferred, as opposed to others, depends on historical, cultural, geographical, attitudinal considerations.

 Key words: idiom, grammar, spelling, pronunciation, pragmatic reasoning, World Standard English (WSE)

Те, кто говорит на английском языке как на втором или иностранном, как правило, используют в качестве модели один из национальных вариантов английского языка. Сделать выбор в пользу конкретного варианта не так просто, поскольку существует несколько утвержденных стандартов, которые можно взять за образец.  Для того, чтобы рассмотреть намеченную тему, нам необходимо принять во внимание некоторые неизбежные вопросы. Насколько существенны различия между британским и английским вариантами английского языка? Насколько велико сходство между ними? В чем проявляются различия? В чем заключается сходство? Предпочтение, отдаваемое тем или иным вариантам языка, объясняется историческими, культурными и географическими соображениями, а также обуславливается отношением к избираемому стандарту и его носителям.

Ключевые слова: лексика, грамматика, орфография, произношение, прагматический подход, мировой стандарт английского языка (WSE)

There are only five languages that claim a really large number of speakers, namely, Chinese, English, Hindi-Urdu, Russian, and Spanish. Of these languages, only English can claim to have attained the enviable position of a more or less universal language. A language, which is used in its various forms and functions by a large number of the human population for easy communication between peoples of diverse cultural and language backgrounds. Attempts have been made toward developing an artificial international language. These attempts, however, have not been successful. The reasons for their failure are many, but the fact is that they have less chance of general acceptance and survival than does a choice from among existing natural languages.

English, which was a minor language in the sixteenth century, has slowly but definitely gained an edge over other major languages and become the world's most widely used language. The primary reasons for such development and expansion are not essentially linguistic, but political, social, technological, economic, and demographic. Other reasons include a long and rich literary tradition of English in various forms, and its proven capacity to absorb from various languages and cultures. As Peter Funk once mentioned: "Our language is one that has borrowed lavishly from other nations and civilizations. And now, what we have gathered in is being returned to the world"[2, c.50] According to Randolph Quirk there are some objective criteria of relative importance of a language becoming international: the number of native speakers; the geographical dispersion of a language; its "vehicular load" (to what extent is it a medium for a science or literature or other highly regarded cultural manifestation - including "way of life"?); and the economic and political influence of those who speak it as "their own" language. By a combination of these four English is superlatively outstanding.

When we talk of the English language as an international or a universal language we distinguish three primary categories of use: as a native language, as a second language, and as a foreign language. Thus, the members of the English-using speech community form a spectrum with reference to their competence in English: those who use English as their first language, as a second language – a medium of education, language of government, and the like - or simply as a foreign language. These distinctions are important since they separate these varieties in terms of their functions, the proficiency of their speakers, and the processes which are used to acquire each variety.

English as a native language is spoken in Britain, Ireland, The United States,

Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa, without mentioning smaller countries like Rhodesia, Kenya, Jamaica, etc. Based on this division in terms of the English-speaking nations of the world, we can distinguish, for example, American English, British English, Australian English, Canadian English, Jamaican English and so forth, these being the national standards of the English language. Of these British English and American English are two national standards that are overwhelmingly predominant both in the number of distinctive usages and in the degree to which these distinctions are "institutionalized".

The users of English who speak it as their second language or as a foreign language generally tend to have as a model one of the native varieties of English.

The choice of a variety is not easy since there are several established standards from 'which one may select, for example, British, American, or Australian. Why certain varieties are preferred, as opposed to others, depends on historical, cultural, geographical, attitudinal considerations. For example, in India the preferred standard is British English, in Mexico the people are much more likely to come into contact with Americans, in such countries as Holland or Sweden people are closer to Britain than the United States, whereas in Italy the amount of contact with speakers of American English is surprisingly great. In the Soviet Union it was definitely British English that was taught as a foreign language, but the younger generation prefers American English in present-day Russia for the reasons outlined below.

Learners of English as a foreign language in various countries throughout the world are aware of differences between the forms of the language, which may be encountered in the United States, and that which is used in England. At one time, this caused relatively little difficulty. British English was accepted as the form to be taught within most school systems and that put an end to the matter.

Over the past thirty or thirty-five years (fifteen to twenty in Russia) the situation has changed. The greater involvement of the United States in the international scene, the presence of larger numbers of Americans in foreign countries, the improved ease and speed of travel have made for a much wider dissemination of American English than was formerly the case. More residents of foreign countries are hearing American English; more of them find it necessary to communicate with Americans. American English is slowly becoming today's world language, and its impact is all-pervasive on the English-speaking world. This new trend may therefore influence the choice of a model. What actually happens is that language and power go together. American English is accepted for the power and superiority, which America as a nation has acquired in the areas of science, technology, commerce, military affairs, and politics. The USA has become the center of Western political, economic, and technological innovations and activities.

Therefore, it is not surprising that even the speakers of English in Britain have become tolerant of the encroachment of American English into their English, as have the Australians who earlier took British English as the model. One notices this slow but definite encroachment in several semantic areas in British English, such as film, television, theatre, and advertising as typical examples, the area of film being perhaps the most powerful means of linguistic influence, which has brought transatlantic speech not only to the British Isles but also to the whole world. In advertising and salesmanship, Americans certainly are leaders. The area of mass media is opening up to American innovations as well. This intrusion of American English into British English, or for that matter into Australian and Canadian English, is slow but perceptible. True, British films and TV programmes are seen sufficiently often in the USA to mean that a growth in awareness of UK vocabulary should not be discounted. But the reverse pattern is less obvious. What were originally clear patterns of lexical differentiation have been obscured by borrowing on a world-wide scale.

In France, Spain, Germany, and Russia, for instance - in spite of resistance to the American influence - one notices an intrusion of Americanisms in the press, at social gatherings, and on the radio and television. Also the ubiquitous American tourist has contributed toward the spread of American English as much as Hollywood films and student and faculty training programmes. The difference in speech and use of American English is associated with a linguistic attitude towards this variety in the new generation. Therefore, it is natural that one should correlate generational differences with the use of the American standard. The changing British attitude (and not only British for that matter) and its acceptance of Americanisms cannot be possibly ignored. As a consequence, the previously held assumption that the British variety of English is necessarily the one to be taught in the schools has been challenged upon more than one occasion. Some teachers have recommended a shift from British to American English; others, feeling that the form of the language as it occurs in the country of its origin is somehow more correct or more eloquent, have resisted change. If we are to consider the question, which has been raised, we have to do so in the light of some inevitable questions. To what extent do British and American English differ? How much alike are they? Where do they differ? Where are they similar?

Though breakdowns in communication are common enough between British and American English due to differences in vocabulary, idiom, grammar and particularly in pronunciation (differences in regional accents can at times be frustrating), there are more similarities than differences between the varieties of English. It is even surprising that in a language spoken as a native tongue by so many people on five continents of the globe the common element should be so great and the differences so few. Apparently, the forecast of Noah Webster back in 1789 that eventually American English would be as different from British English as Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from German, or from each other has not proved correct so far.

There are relatively few grammatical differences between educated British English and American English. The unity of English is particularly evident in its inflectional system and its syntax, whether it be the English of San Francisco, Canterbury, Sydney, or Toronto. Where they do occur, differences in these grammatical features of the language reflect social or class rather than regional or geographic differences. The grammatical differences include the use of present perfect tense vs past simple, verb agreement with collective nouns, the use of "have" vs "have got", the difference of word-order in the noun phase, differences in prepositions, past tense forms, etc. But these, after all, are minor matters. The framework of the standard language is basically the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Few Americans would hesitate even for a minute to use an English grammar written in the United Kingdom for their classes in the United States.

Conversely, a teacher in England would hardly question the applicability of a grammar written in the United States.

Uniformity is greatest in what is from most viewpoints the least important type of linguistic organization - the purely secondary one of orthography. Although printing houses in all English-speaking countries retain an element of individual decision (realise, realize; judg( e )ment; color, colour; etc), there is basically a single graphological spelling and punctuation system throughout: with two minor subsystems. The one is the subsystem with British orientation (used in all English-speaking countries except the United States) with distinctive forms in only a small class of words: favour, centre, levelled, etc. The other is the American subsystem: favor, center, leveled, etc. In Canada, the British subsystem is used for the most part, but some publishers (especially of popular material) follow the American subsystem and some a mixture (color, but centre). One minor orthographic point is oddly capable of Anglo-American misunderstanding: the numerical form of dates. In British (and European) practice "9/II 2001" would mean "9 November 2001 ", but in American practice it would mean "September II 2001 ".

The differences between American and British English are to be found principally in a few features of pronunciation and in certain sectors of the vocabulary. Pronunciation is a special case for several reasons. In the first place, it is the type of linguistic organization, which distinguishes one national standard from another most immediately and completely and which links in a most obvious way the national standards to the regional varieties. Secondly, it is the least institutionalized aspect of Standard English, in the sense that, provided our grammar and lexical items conform to the appropriate national standard, it matters less that our pronunciation follows closely our individual regional pattern. This is doubtless because pronunciation is essentially gradient, a matter of "more or less" rather than the discrete "this or that" features of grammar and lexicon. Thirdly, norms of pronunciation are subject less to educational and national constraints than to social ones: this means, in effect, that some regional accents are less acceptable for network use than others.

Vocabulary differences between British and American English occur in certain well-defined and predictable situations, namely when they reflect differences in physical objects or features characteristic of the two cultures, when they reflect different practices or ways of dealing with things, and when they are the product of institutional differences and realia in the two countries. To look at the lexical differences is to consider them as illustrative of certain cultural themes or processes, which serve to differentiate life in America from that in the United Kingdom. American culture is a mixture of many foreign cultures with an Anglo-Saxon base, which makes the American vocabulary a linguistic melting pot. On the other hand, both the culture and the language in America tend to preserve certain features which were originally English but which have disappeared in the mother country.

When considering various aspects of life one can observe little correspondence between, for example, plant and animal life in Britain and America, the difference being easily understandable. For obvious reasons many words in this aspect are borrowings from American Indian languages, such as hickory, tamarack, squash, moose, raccoon, caribou.

To take another aspect of life it should be recognized that American domestic architecture has been somewhat more experimental than its English counterpart. Hence, the terms denominating living space in both countries are by no means identical: duplexes, clapboard or row houses, condominium or co-op, mobile homes in the Unites States and semi-detached houses, terraced houses, bungalows, cottages in the United Kingdom.

Even when the material or physical objects are quite alike in the two countries, they are not always dealt with in precisely the same manner, and again this leads to some differences in terminology. This is particularly true with respect to food. The American broils a steak; he does not grill it. He rarely eats mutton, and if he does, he is likely to call it lamb. The American goes to burger bars, fast-food outlets, the English go to pubs, fish and chip shops. The sandwich, originally from Britain, is made with great variety in America. The American vocabulary of the sandwich (the cheeseburger with an amazing degree of versatility) and the soda fountain, the latter with its innumerable combinations of ice-cream sodas and sundaes, constitutes a unique development in the language.

Differences in the two countries are bound to produce varying terminologies in the vocabulary of different institutions like education, governmental system, banking, etc. To illustrate, assistant professor, associate professor, president in the U.S., lecturer, senior lecturer or reader, vice chancellor in the U.K.; in the U.S. a candidate runs for office, in the U.K. a candidate stands for office, an American candidate is nominated, while an English candidate is named by his party, American cabinet members are secretaries, their English counterparts are ministers; a mutual fund, common stock, a checking account, a savings account in the U.S., a unit trust, ordinary shares, a current account, a deposit account in the U.K.

It is possible to consider differences in the terminologies of other spheres of life, such as religion, law, medicine, sports, etc. The discussion, in fact, could be endless.

The differences outlined have been presented in terms of the historical and cultural background of the two English-speaking nations. Any notion of the supposed superiority of one type of English over the other is absolutely irrelevant, because one kind of life, or one chain of historical development and hence, language development cannot be superior to the other. Actually each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others. All other countries can be grouped into those which follow American English, those which follow British English, and those (e.g. Canada) where there is a mixture of influences.

In terms of teaching English as a second or foreign language in the world today, we get a strong impression that there is a World Standard English (WSE), acting as a strongly unifying force among the vast range of variation, which exists.

There is a great deal of evidence to support this impression: the newspapers or the newscasters around the English-speaking world, the leading international institutions, the English commonly heard in the corridors of power of the European Union, and called "Euro-English". But this impression could be misleading in some respects. "A totally uniform, regionally neutral, and unarguably prestigious variety does not yet exist worldwide" [3], and the mixture of influences is unavoidable. In this connection, the following criterion for approaching the question of which kind of English to teach may not be unwelcome. It is the cultural aspects of British and American life, which the students in question are likely to encounter, and this places social utility in the foreground. "The pressure for international intelligibility is very strong, and may by now be unstoppable. International travel, satellite broadcasting, world press and television, world stock markets, multinational corporations, intergovernmental agencies, and many other institutions have guaranteed a situation of daily contact for hundreds of millions of English speakers who together represent every major variety. Historical loyalties (e.g. to Britain) have been largely replaced by pragmatic, utilitarian reasoning. If using British English can sell goods and services, then let British English be used. If it needs American English, then so be it. And let either or others be employed as occasion demands"[1, c.113].

One of the aspects of the mixed usage is spelling. In certain domains, such as computing and medicine, US spellings have become increasingly widespread (program, disk, pediatrics). A great deal of lexical variation can be observed in the specialized terms of local politics, business, culture, advertising, banking and finance, and the national mass media.

The notion of a "standard pronunciation" is useful in the international setting of English as a second or foreign language, but here too there is more than one teaching model - mainly, British Received Pronunciation and US General American. Decisions about such an issue as which English is more preferable are made in innumerable contexts every day. There is no single easy answer to this question, nor will the answer necessarily be the same for all of the countries in which it is now an issue. "It will take time before the world sees a consensus, and only time will tell whether this consensus will display the domination of a present-day variety of English or the development of a new, composite variety" [3].


  1. Crystal D., The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, p. 113.
  2. Funk P.,"It pays to increase your word power". A Bantam Book, 1970, p.50.
  3. Quirk R., "More Than Just Talking Proper", The Independent, 18 April 1993.

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