How English Dialects Developed Around the World

Tuesday, June 274 min read

As we’ve already learned in our study of how the English language developed, it is the most-studied language in the world, with around 1.5 billion people speaking 150 different English dialects. A dialect is a regional variety of a language, and while the base language is the same, there are vast differences in English dialects. Let’s examine some of the various dialects of English around the world and how they came to be spoken.

Indian English

Great Britain’s rule over India lasted nearly a century, from 1858 until 1947, when India and Pakistan gained their independence. Along with colonization came the introduction of British English to the subcontinent, which had such a lasting impact that one of India’s two official languages is still English (Hindi is the other official language). There are around 125 million Indian English speakers today, though most of these people consider it their second language.

Key Characteristics:

  • More formal than American English — it is similar to British English at the time of the Victorian era
  • The sounds for “w” and “v” are not distinguished from each other
  • Compound words are popular (“cousin-sister” refers to a female cousin)

Australian English

Australian English began deviating from British English in the 18th century after the colonization of Australia, and today, it is the de facto national language of the island nation, with 20 million native speakers. It combines aspects of both British and American English.

Key Characteristics:

  • Most closely resembles British English spelling
  • The pronunciation of “i” is very different than in other English dialects (“night” sounds like “noight”)
  • The suffix “-ing” is not fully articulated (“singin’” and “watchin’”)

Singaporean English

Almost half of all Singapore residents use English as their primary language at home. Similar to the United States, Singapore is a melting pot of culture, ethnicity, and language. English is one of four main languages spoken there, along with Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. Although it was brought to the region through British colonialism (which ended when Singapore became a state of Malaysia in 1963, and then an independent republic in 1965), English remained and is still used as the country’s main language of business. The dialect dubbed “Singlish” is a version of English that incorporates loanwords and other elements of Singapore’s various languages. It changes the language so much that British or American English speakers likely would not be able to understand most of it.

Key Characteristics:

  • The sound “th” is sometimes said as “d” (“though” sounds like “dough”)
  • “Can” is extremely versatile in Singlish (“Can meh?” means “Are you sure?”)
  • Articles (“the” or “a”) are sometimes dropped (“I want to get new bike”)

Nigerian English

Nigeria is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, with over 100 million speakers. The language was brought to Nigeria in the 1880s through British colonialism and the subsequent slave trade. Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, but the English dialect remains. The West African nation also has hundreds of native languages, so English is typically used to bridge language gaps between Indigenous populations.

Key Characteristics:

  • Articles are often omitted (“I went to store”)
  • Vowels are pronounced differently than in British or American English (“chip” and “cheap” sound the same)
  • Letters that are silent in other dialects are pronounced (such as the “t” in “listen”)

Canadian English

Over 27 million Canadians speak English as their first language, and a few million more are bilingual, with French being the second-most-spoken language in Canada. While it retained most of the spelling from British English (a holdover from Canada’s colonial period), Canadian English sounds more like American English these days.

Key Characteristics:

  • The “cot–caught merger” (the vowels in these words are pronounced the same way)
  • Other vowel sounds are different (“about” sounds more like “aboat” or “aboot”)
  • Most words retain British spelling, except for Greek-derived words, which use American spelling (for example, “recognize” is spelled with a “z” in American and Canadian English but with an “s” in British English)

Jamaican English

Jamaican Patois — a combination of English and West African languages — is the official language of Jamaica. Also called Patwa or Jamaican Creole, this language is spoken by 2.7 million people, nearly the entire population of the island nation. Around 50,000 Jamaican residents also speak traditional English, a language that was brought to the island during the slave trade. Along with English and West African languages, Jamaican Patois includes words and aspects from Arawakan (the Aboriginal language of Jamaica), French, Chinese, Portuguese, Irish, Scottish, and Spanish.

Key Characteristics:

  • Consonants tend to be dropped at the end of words (“friend” sounds like “fren”)
  • The “h” is dropped if it is at the beginning of a word (“hour” sounds like “our”)
  • Linguistic hyper-correction results in the addition of “h” to words not spelled with the letter (“egg” sounds like “hegg”)

A New Dialect: The Northern Cities Shift

Linguists and historians agree that English dialects everywhere are still changing. This is caused by a combination of mass communication, education, and travel.

One of the most obvious examples of this is happening right now in the Great Lakes region, in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and the surrounding areas. Around 34 million people in this region speak what is often referred to as the “Northern City Vowel Shift.”

The shift impacts six different “short” vowel sounds, demonstrated by the words “caught,” “cot,” “cat,” “bit, “bet,” and “but.”

  • “Caught” sounds more like “cot”
  • “Cot” sounds more like “cat”
  • “Cat” sounds more like the vowel in “bit”
  • “Bit” sounds more like “bet” or “but”
  • “Bet” sounds more like the vowels in “cat” or “but”
  • “But” sounds more like the vowel in “caught”

For speakers in this region, these vowels have transformed from their original pronunciation, a change that has been noticeable since the 1960s and is only becoming more prominent. This linguistic shift supports the notion that dialects will continue to change and diversify (not converge) everywhere as more time passes.

Featured image credit: FG Trade Latin/ iStock

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