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   Research trends

Sociolinguistics, language change and varieties
Corpora for varieties
Development of the standard
Development of English overseas
Post-colonial varieties and World Englishes
Variational pragmatics
Overviews of the history of English

Before discussing research trends, it is necessary to specify what is understood here by ‘varieties of English’. The label is taken to refer to forms of English which were taken to overseas locations during the colonial period – roughly from the early 17th to the late 19th centuries – and which developed in specific ways, depending on such factors as regional English input, demographic composition of early settlers, social status of the settlers relative to each other, conditions at the overseas locations, particularly whether the latter developed to become independent nations with their own standards of English. In this sense the study of varieties of English is closely linked to what is known as new dialect formation (Trudgill 1986, 2004; Hickey 2003), the rise of new dialects from a mixture of inputs at some locations outside the British Isles. Here examining possible historical connections between older and newer varieties plays a major role.

Studying varieties of English is closely connected with the study of language change. The reason is that the very different conditions in different part of the English-speaking world have led to diverging outcomes. The range of scenarios provides ample opportunity to consider how language change occurs under specific external and internal conditions.

The study of varieties of English involves an historical dimension: the nature of British, Scottish and Irish English in the early modern and late modern periods, 16th / 17th and 18th / 19th centuries respectively, is crucial to rise of overseas varieties. Furthermore, the varieties involved are nearly always non-standard, indeed in earlier centuries it is difficult to say just what constituted standard English in Britain and whether it was used by those who left to settle overseas.

Research into varieties of English is closely associated with the research agenda known as language variation and change, which investigates the manner in which variation in language use leads to constant change, driven largely by social factors, but tempered by considerations of language structure, i.e. by internal factors. This approach is in its turn embedded in the larger field of sociolinguistics (Tagliamonte 2006, 2011). Those linguists concerned with phonology within this paradigm often present data based on sociophonetic analyses (see Thomas 2011 for a good introduction to this approach).

A necessary distinction is that between studying varieties of English and studying forms of international standard English. The latter is a branch in its own right (McArthur 1998) and there are dedicated journals dealing with matters which fall within its scope, such as World Englishes and English Today. There are also corpora dedicated to the collection of data on standard English from different countries, notably those contained in the International Corpus of English project and in others such as the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English or the Australian Corpus of English.

    Sociolinguistics, language change and varieties

The development of sociolinguistics in the twentieth century is due primarily to the pioneering work of William Labov who in the 1960s carried out seminal studies (above all, that published as Labov 1966) which provided the methodological framework for virtually every sociolinguistic investigation since. Labov has increasingly been concerned with the application of insights from sociolinguistics to the history of English (see Labov 1981), as well as to the development of varieties of the language, and many linguists have followed this same path, much to the benefit of scholarship in the field.

    Corpora for varieties

Corpus of English, International (ICE) A long-term, large-scale project initiated in the 1990s by Sidney Greenbaum at University College London and intended as a collection of regional and national corpora which would represent standardised varieties of English world-wide. The project is on-going with some corpora still to be compiled.

Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) A large-scale corpus of present-day American English, containing some 450 million words from 1990 to the present, consisting of transcripts of unscripted conversation, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts (about 90 million words each). 20 million words are added each year, to allow research on ongoing changes in American English.

Corpus of Spoken American English, The Santa Barbara This corpus consists of 'naturally occurring spoken interaction from all over the United States'. It also forms the spoken portions of the American component of the INTERNATIONAL CORPUS OF ENGLISH. It was compiled at the University of California at Santa Barbara under the supervision of John W. Du Bois.

Corpus of American Soap Operas A corpus of 100 million words consisting of more than 22,000 transcripts of soap operas from 2001 to 2012. It was compiled and is maintained at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Corpus of Global Web-Based English A very large corpus, some 1.9 billion words in size, based on 1.8 million web pages (including blogs) from 20 different English-speaking countries and released in spring 2013. The web-based user interface permits one to view the frequency of any word, phrase, or grammatical construction in each of the 20 different countries. It was compiled and is maintained at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. See ONLINE CORPUS.

Corpus of Irish English, A A corpus of literary documents - poetry, drama, prose - which attest to varieties of Irish English throughout its history compiled by Raymond Hickey. Available from the website

Corpus of Learner English, International A corpus of essays written by intermediate to advanced learners of English with diverse first languages, e.g. Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish. It was first published in 2002 with an expanded version appearing in 2009. The corpus was compiled at the UniversitÚ Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium and is an on-going project.

Corpus of London Teenage Language, The Bergen A corpus prepared in the early 1990s which consisted of spoken samples of teenagers' speech from different parts of London. It was compiled by scholars working at the University of Bergen, Norway under the supervision of Anna-Brita Stenstr÷m.

Corpus of Old African American Letters (COAAL) A corpus consisting of over 1,500 unedited letters by several hundred unschooled writers, stretching from the 1760s to the 1910s, covering more than 15 U.S. states. It is intended to provide new data for the study of the origin and development of African American English. The corpus was compiled at the University of Regensburg from 2007 to 2010. Interestingly neither completive done nor habitual be are attested in this corpus supporting the view of Neo-Anglicists that the latter are recent features of African American English.

Corpus of Written British Creole A corpus of written documents in Caribbean creole as used in Britain. It was compiled under the supervision of Mark Sebba at the University of Lancaster during the 1990s.

Corpus of Historical American English, The A corpus of some 400 million words covering a time span from 1810 to 2009 and consisting of documents from the history of English in the United States. It was compiled and is maintained at Brighan Young Universtiy in Provo, Utah.

Corpus of Early English Correspondence A corpus of private letters, chiefly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was compiled at the University of Helsinki by Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg.

Corpus of English Texts, Helsinki A corpus of small representative text extracts (over 240) from the entire history of English which was compiled at the University of Helsinki under the supervision of Matti Rissanen and Merja Kyt÷.

    Development of the standard

The data for nearly all the investigations listed above derive in the main from the English language as attested in England. There has been criticism of this fact by several linguists who see in the concentration on England, a covert prescriptivism as if the history of English was the domain of English English. Discussion of such attitudes are to be found in James and Lesley Milroy (1991) and, by the provision of contrasting scenarios, in Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (eds) (2001). The issue of standards – deliberately set in the plural – is a central theme in Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (eds) (1999) and of Hickey (ed., 2012). The historical background to the rise of standard English in England and the attendant increase in prescriptivism is treated in such books as Jenny Cheshire and Dieter Stein (eds) (1997), Tony Crowley (1989, 1991) and Mugglestone (2003, 2nd edition); Rosina Lippi-Green (1997) looks at similar subject matter within the American context. A critique of different views in some branches English linguistics is to be found in Mufwene (2001).

    Development of English overseas

The development of overseas varieties of English and their relationship to regional dialects of British, Irish and Scottish English has been examined in depth recently, see the volumes on English overseas (Burchfield, ed. 1994) and on English in North America (Algeo, ed., 2001). in the Cambridge History of the English Language and Raymond Hickey (ed., 2004) as well as the study by Tagliamonte (2013). Issues concerning English in a global context has been served well by many book-length publications and there are quality journals dedicated to this subject, such as English World Wide, 1980- (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), with an accompanying book series. There are also introductions by major scholars in the field, e.g. Schneider (2011).

    Post-colonial varieties and World Englishes

In recent years there has been increasing scholarly activity dedicated to (i) the post-colonial nature of many overseas forms of English and (ii) the nature and structure of World Englishes. The former area has been investigated in particular by Edgar Schneider, see Schneider (2007) as an overview of his views on the matter. World Englishes has been a central concern of certain scholars over a long period of time, e.g. Braj Kachru and Tom McArthur. Since the turn of the millenium a number of works have appeared in which these forms of English are centre stage, e.g. McArthur (2002), Kachru, Kachru and Nelson (eds) (2006). A general overview and introduction is provided by Mesthrie and Bhatt (2008) and the handbook by Filppula, Klemola and Sharma (eds, 2017). In this context one can mention the specific treatments of English in Asia which have also appeared, e.g. Bolton (ed.) (2002), Bolton (2003), Bolton and Kachru (eds) (2007). For more information on these areas, please consult the module English in a global context.

    Variational pragmatics

Among recent approaches to varieties of language which have opened up promising avenues of research is the paradigm labelled Variational Pragmatics. This looks at languages which are pluricentric, such as English, but also Romance languages like Spanish and French and considers to what extent geographical and cultural separation has led to differences in language use arising over time. This would involve such issues as requests, offers, responses, small talk and politeness strategies in general. Schneider and Barron (eds) 2008 is a newly published volume which provides an overview of this field. Many volumes are studies of the pragmatics of particular varieties of English, e.g. Barron and Schneider (2005) and Amador Moreno, McCafferty and Vaughan (2015) for Irish English.

    Overviews of the history of English

In the 1980s and 1990s a number of studies of the history of English appeared which strove to apply the insights of modern linguistics to this subject. The main work here is the many-volume Cambridge History of the English Language (ed. Richard Hogg). Single volume studies often with innovative approaches are Richard Bailey (1991), Norman Blake (1996), Barbara Fennell (1998), Roger Lass (1987), Roger Lass (1994), Jeremy Smith (1996) (see references below for full details).

The turn of the millennium has seen several new studies of which one could mention the single-volume treatments of the history of English by Laurel Brinton and Leslie Arnovick (2005), Lynda Mugglestone (ed.) (2006) and Richard Hogg and David Denison (eds) 2006.

Many studies on late modern English appeared in the 1990s reflecting a concern with the centuries immediately preceding modern English. Of these studies one could mention the new edition of Charles Barber (1976) in 1997 and the more recent Richard Bailey (1996) as well as Manfred Görlach (1991), Manfred Görlach (1999), Terttu Nevalainen (2004) and Joan Beal (2004).

The 1990s also saw two large one volume guides to the English language with McArthur (1992) and Crystal (1995), the former with a broad brief and the latter with a specific emphasis on the history of the language. It also saw the introduction of a journal specifically dealing with the analysis of the English language, generally from a diachronic perspective: English Language and Linguistics, 1997- (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

At present the history of English is being reassessed by many scholars on the basis of insights gained over the past decade or two. This is obvious in the volume by Nevalainen and Traugott (eds, 2012) and that by Kytö and Pahta (eds, 2016).

More information on the history of English can be found on the website Studying the History of English


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Bailey, Richard W. 1991. Images of English. A cultural history of the language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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