Sociolinguistics & Varieties of English

As the name implies, sociolinguistics investigates the way(s) language and society influence each other. It has its origins in the kind of historical linguistics that became fashionable in the 18th & 19th centuries, more specifically in approaches to dialectology that started developing around the second half of the 19th century.


Dialectology, or dialect geography, initially mainly tried to investigate differences in dialectal vocabulary & pronunciation of individual words. The first large-scale linguistic survey was Wenker’s Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reiches, begun in 1876 and finally published in 1881. Other surveys followed soon and the data-gathering method of using questionnaires to elicit specific points of information kept on being refined. For Britain, the most important survey to date has been the Survey of English Dialects [SED] (1950-61; 62-78), and for the US the as yet unfinished Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada, begun in 1930.

Traditionally, dialect surveys used to concentrate on traditional dialects (or, more neutrally expressed, varieties) and ‘rural terminology’. The informants that were interviewed tended to be so-called ‘NORMs’ (Nonmobile Older Rural Males) and the outcomes of the research efforts tended to be dialect maps for the individual features under investigation, usually with isoglosses (dialect boundary lines) marking off particular regions, and which gave detailed information about the items, as well as providing some historical background about the different dialects. The following graphic shows the isogloss (thick dark line) separating areas in England where but is pronounced with /ʊ/ and /ʌ/.

Language & Society

With the advent of urban dialectology in the 1960ies and 70ies, the situation changed, and it was now no longer only the rural population that researchers were interested in. Along with this shift came an interest in the various social factors that made people of different ages, different sex/gender, ethnicity and social/socio-economic status speak in various ways. Some of the milestones in this new type of ‘social linguistics’ were:


  1. Are there any forms of pronunciation that may be variable in your speech (either in English or some other language)?
  2. If so, do you think one of them may be more appropriate for certain situations or carry more prestige?

What many sociolinguistic studies have repeatedly shown is that society – and especially pressure from in- or peer-groups – has a major influence on language behaviour. Frequently, people adopt a certain style of language or register in a certain environment because it helps them to fit in better or because they hope to gain an advantage in using a ‘better’ kind of speech. Often, there are also certain conventions that force us to adopt a specific register; e.g. it would be very odd if we suddenly started speaking to our friends in a very formal manner and to our teachers in an extremely informal or colloquial one.

Language Contact

Lingua Franca

The concept of lingua franca is a very important one in multi-cultural sociolinguistics. A lingua franca is a language, such as (international) English or formerly Latin, that is used by people from different language backgrounds in order to communicate with one another, usually on rather varying levels of proficiency. Use of a lingua franca thus represents a type of language use that is usually quite different from everyday language because if fulfils a far more practical and often rather restricted purpose.


  1. To what extent do you think the English you speak is a lingua franca?
  2. Justify your decision by trying to describe for which purposes/in which situations you use English and how frequently.

Language Development – From Pidgins to Creoles

When people from different language backgrounds come together and there is no lingua franca shared by both language communities, a new language may arise that is called a pidgin (language). This pidgin is usually based on a highly simplified version of a dominant source (superstrate) language spoken by one of the communities and its initial, highly restricted, purpose is usually trade or to conduct other matters relevant for survival and co-existence. So, for example, in a form of pidgin English, one speaker may say to another Me go eat now, rather than something more elaborate and idiomatic like I'm off for my lunch at the usual restaurant now. One of the best known examples of pidgin English is Tok Pisin, a pidgin that originated in New Guinea.

When a pidgin becomes so common that it is actually adopted as a first language and thus has native speakers, it may turn from a pidgin into a creole. This process of creolisation usually entails an increase in the complexity of the previously reduced structures of the pidgin, although this increase in complexity does not usually adopt the forms of the original source language. Not all creoles, though, need to be derived from pidgins, as had originally been assumed for many years.


Oddly enough, in many (or even most) Western societies, mono-lingualism, i.e. that fact that most people grow up speaking only one language and only acquire additional languages as foreign languages, seems to be the norm. In many other countries around the globe, as well as in immigrant communities, bi- or even multi-lingualism is far more common. In societies/communities where multiple languages are spoken, usually one language will again be the dominant one and may cause interference with the grammar or vocabularies of the other languages spoken, especially in younger children. Another phenomenon that can often be observed in multi-lingual communities is that of code switching, where speakers may suddenly change from one language into another.


  1. To what extent do you switch between different languages?
  2. Which situations/conditions lend themselves to this?

World Englishes

There are many varieties of English around the world. Sometimes, as already stated above, these correspond to the English of native and non-native speakers spoken as a lingua franca, but often these ‘Englishes’ also constitute genuine varieties in their own right. In many cases, though, it is fairly difficult to decide whether a form of English spoken in a region where it is not an L1 – such as Hong Kong – actually constitutes such a variety, and this issue is often highly politicised, and many researchers in World Englishes often assume highly ideological points of view. We’ll here try to largely avoid these issues, and simply focus on a brief description of how people have been trying to categorise English around the world, and how originally non-native varieties may gradually become more L1-like, as well as pointing out some common features that many types of World Englishes share.

One of the most influential models in the categorisation of the spread and use of English around the world has been Kachru’s model of the concentric circles of World Englishes depicted below:

In the above model, the Inner Circle represents the original forms of native-speaker English, as spoken in Britain & Ireland, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Until relatively recently, their status as norm-providing varieties (especially British and American English) was generally accepted, but has frequently been questioned in the context of the growing ‘globalisation’ of English. The Outer Circle varieties are essentially those that developed in former British colonies in Asia and Africa, such as e.g. India, Singapore, Tanzania, and Kenya, although Philippine English, as an American-influenced, variety also counts amongst them. As English in these countries has generally been used for more than just an exchange between colonisers and locals, but also achieved an important status in public life, such as e.g. being one of the offical languages in India, and developed its own local vocabulary, literary culture, and to some extent also grammar, and frquently acts as an L2, these varieties are seen as norm-developing. The varieties of English spoken in the rest of the world are then characterised as belonging to the Expanding Circle, where English generally is learnt as a foreign Language (EFL). As these varieties are not seen as developing their own normative systems, but only represent an ever-increasing mass of learners (and thus potential users) of English, these varieties are seen as norm-dependent because they need towards some established norms, which so far have mainly been inner circle ones.

Kachru’s model, however, can only explain the status quo, but does not help us to identify whether the English spoken in a particular region should in fact be considered an independent variety. To try and achieve this, we can use another model, that of Schneider’s stages in the evolution of New Englishes:

  1. Foundation – through settlement & interaction with indigenous population; minimal indigenous influence, apart from possibly place names
  2. Exonormative stabilization – orientation towards home country norms for grammar & pronunciation, but possible adoption of local cultural (customs and objects) and environment-related terms (animals and plants); English becomes an elite language for the indigenous population, facilitating trade & exchange; possible beginnings of substrate language influence on phonology
  3. Nativization – gradual acceptance that home country norms may no longer be completely relevant; development of characteristic local grammar, collocations & idioms
  4. Endonormative stabilization – beginning acceptance of typically local norms and move towards a local standard (e.g. in public policy documents, dictionaries, or grammars), and associated identity
  5. Differentiation – sociolinguistic diversification

We can probably assume that a genuine independent variety of English only comes to exist once at least stage 4 has been reached, and maybe stage 5 is already in its beginning stages.


  1. Considering the above stages, do you think ‘Hong Kong English’ is already a genuine variety?
  2. Justify your answer by trying to provide some evidence.

Some Common Features of World Englishes

The following is a very brief, but certainly not exhaustive, list of some of the features that some/many World Englishes have in common. All examples for grammatical issues are taken from the ICE-HK corpus, but could easily apply to other varieties. Parts in red signal deviations from the expected standard norm, while parts in blue signify omissions.

Sources & Further Reading:

Chambers, J. & Trudgill, P. (1998). Dialectology (2nd ed.). Cambridge: CUP.

Llamas, C., Mullany, L. & Stockwell, P. (Eds.). (2007). The Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics. London: Routledge.

Milroy, L. & Gordon, M. (2003). Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Trudgill, P. (1983). Sociolinguistics: an Introduction to Language and Society (2nd ed.). London: Penguin.

Schneider, E. (2003). The dynamics of New Englishes: From identity construction to dialect birth. Language, 79. 233-281.