Variations on English

I already wrote about the differences a Brit encounters in America and vice-versa, yet to leave it at that would be forgetting the numerous varieties of English that are spoken throughout not only the British Isles and the US, but all over the globe. Wikipedia tells me that there are something like 27 cases of Pidgin English and around 50 English-based Creole languages spread across every inhabited continent, not to mention all the geographic, social and ethnic variations we find form one village to the next in Standard English-speaking countries.

The most comprehensive collection of variation which I have come across is the Freiburg Institute’s eWAVE project (Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English). They have so far mapped 235 different features, covering 13 domains of grammar, across 74 varieties of English. On their website you can browse by variety (e.g. Manx, Rural African American, Aboriginal, Nigerian Pidgin…), feature (e.g. absolute use of reflexives, double determiners, be as perfect auxiliary…), or informant (if you’re looking for the work of a particular person). Alternatively, if all these grammatical terms confuse the heck out of you, you can just have a look through the recorded sentences given as examples for each variety and marvel at the diversity on display.

Yale University has also begun a similar project but focused uniquely on micro-syntactic variations in North-American English (although they have also mapped a few variations in the UK). The ambition of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project is to bring together research from the last decades, and if possible record not only the academic source for each piece of data, but also information about each recorded speaker such as age and ethnicity. You’ll find some unexpected examples in there like the ‘positive anymore’ in Arizona (“Men are wearing hats anymore.”, meaning “All men are now wearing hats, and they didn’t do so before”), or double modals (“Might should we have invited Jim?”, “I might just couldn’t see it.”). However, the number of phenomena mapped so far is limited and many recorded examples date back to research in the 60s and 70s which makes me question their relevance today.

Both of these projects are aimed at collecting and increasing research into language variation, and they are created to be used by people who don’t need explaining what a benefactive personal dative construction is. For mere mortals like us, there is another source of linguistic fun in the form of the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar? websiteHere you can click to hear recordings of English variation throughout the British Isles. It is handily divided into lexical, phonological, grammatical and social variation, and even those terms are carefully explained. They even have a section about language change and encourage people to record their own voice to add to the mapping and investigation of regional variation. Hats off to the British Library quite frankly.

And good luck sorting out Billinge:

Thanks go to Neil for the link (he’s from Lancashire and still couldn’t quite understand it), and for making me realise that there was a more incomprehensible dialect than Glaswegian. Neil has lately also been spending his time on rope-swings in the Bolivian rainforest, all in the name of linguistic research.


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