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Variants of English in the United Kingdom

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The Main Variants of the English Language


In modern linguistics the distinction is made between Standard English and territorial variants and local dialects of the English language.

Standard English may be defined as that form of English which is current and literary, substantially uniform and recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken or understood. Standard English is the variety most widely accepted and understood either within an English-speaking country or throughout the entire English-speaking world.

Variants of English are regional varieties possessing a literary norm. There are distinguished variants existing on the territory of the United Kingdom (British English, Scottish English and Irish English), and variants existing outside the British Isles (American English, Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English and Indian English). British English is often referred to the written Standard English and the pronunciation known as Received Pronunciation (RP).

Local dialects are varieties of English peculiar to some districts, used as means of oral communication in small localities; they possess no normalized literary form.


Besides British English which is often regarded as a collective term for the forms of English spoken on the British Isles, two other variants of the English language existing on the territory of the United Kingdom, Scottish English and Irish English, can be singled out.

Scottish English and Irish English have a special linguistic status as compared with dialects because of the literature composed in them.

Scottish English is considered the variant of the English language spoken in Scotland. Scottish English has a long tradition as a separate written and spoken variety. Pronunciation, grammar and lexis differ, sometimes substantially, from other varieties of English existing on the territory of the British Isles.

The identity of Scottish English reflects an institutionalized social structure, as it is most noticeable in the realms of law, local government, religion, and education, and raises problems of intelligibility that have no parallel elsewhere in Britain.

Among lexical peculiarities of Scottish English the following linguistic facts are of importance: 1) some semantic fields are structured differently in Scottish English and in British English. For example, the term minor in British English is used to denote a person below the age of 18, while Scottish law distinguishes between pupils (to age 12 for girls and 14 for boys) and minors (older children up to 18); 2) there are so many words which have the same form, but different meanings in Scottish English and British English. For example, the word gate in Scottish English means “road”; 3) some Scottish words and expressions are used and understood across virtually the whole country, e.g. dinnae (“don’t), wee (“small”), kirk (“church”), lassie (“girl”) and others.

Irish English is considered the variant of the English language used in Ireland. It is also widely referred as Anglo-Irish. Anglo-Irish is the oldest, long associated with people of mainly English origin.

Irish English subsumes all the Englishes of the island, and other terms stands for subvarieties. The two main politico-linguistic divisions are Southern and Northern, within and across which further varieties are Anglo-Irish, Hiberno-English, Ulster Scots, and the usage of the two capitals, Dublin and Belfast.

The Irish English vocabulary is characterized by the following distinctive features: 1) the presence of words with the same form as in British English but different meanings in Irish English, e.g. backward – “shy”; to doubt – “to believe strongly”; bold – “naughty”; 2) the presence of words typical only of Irish English (the so-called Irishisms), e.g. begorrah – “by God”; 3) the layer of words shared with Scottish English, e.g. ava – “at all”; greet – “cry, weep”; and some other features.

Besides distinctive features in lexis Irish English has grammatical, phonetical and spelling peculiarities of its own, e.g. the use of ‘does be/to be” construction in the following phrase: “They do be talking on their mobiles a lot’. In Irish English the plural form of you is distinguished from the singular, normally by using the otherwise archaic English word ye to denote plurality, e.g. “Did ye all go to see it?”


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