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STANDARD ENGLISH VARIANTS AND DIALECTS




Standard English the official language of Great Britain taught at schools and universities, used by the press, the radio and the television and spoken by educated people may be defined as that form of English which is current and literary, substantially uniform and recognised as acceptable wherever English is spoken or understood. Its vocabulary is contrasted to dialect words or dialecticisms. Local dialets are varieties of the English language peculiar to some districts and having no normalised literary form. Regional varieties possessing a literary form are called variants. In Great Britain there are two variants, Scottish English and Irish English, and five main groups of dialects: Northern, Midland, Eastern, Western and Southern. Every group contains several (up to ten) dialects.

One of the best known Southern dialects is Cockney, the regional dialect of London. According to E. Partridge and H.C. Wylde, this dialect exists on two levels. As spoken by the educated lower middle classes it is a regional dialect marked by some deviations in pronunciation but few in vocabulary and syntax. As spoken by the uneducated, Cockney differs from Standard English not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary, morphology and syntax. G.B. Shaws play Pygmalion clearly renders this level of Cockney as spoken at the time when the play was written and reveals the handicap Cockney obviously presents in competition with speakers of standard English. Professor Henry Higgins, the main character of the play, speaking about Eliza Doolittie, the flower girl, says: You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass this girl off as a duchess ... even get her a place as ladys maid or shop assistant which requires better English.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica treats Cockney as an accent, not acknowledging it the status of dialect.

Cockney has attracted much literary attention, and so we can judge of its past and present on the evidence of literature. As recorded by Ch. Dickens over a century ago, Cockney was phonetically characterised by the interchange of the labial and labio-dental consonants [w] and [v]: wery for very and vell for well. This trait was lost by the end of the 19th century. The voiceless and voiced dental spirants [θ] and [∂] are still replaced though not very consistently by [f] and [v] respectively: fing for thing and farver for father (inserting the letter r indicates vowel


length). This variation is not exclusively characteristic of Cockney and may be found in several dialects. Another trait not limited to Cockney is the interchange of the aspirated and non-aspirated initial vowels: hart for art and eart for heart. The most marked feature in vowel sounds is the substitution of the diphthong [ai] for standard [ei] in such words as day, face, rain, way pronounced: [dai], [fais], [rain], [wai].

There are some specifically Cockney words and set expressions such as up the pole drunk, youll get yourself disliked (a remonstrance to a person behaving very badly).

Cockney is lively and witty and its vocabulary imaginative and colourful. Its specific feature not occurring anywhere else is the so-called rhyming slang, in which some words are substituted by other words rhyming with them. Boots, for instance, are called daisy roots, hat is tit for tat, head is sarcastically called loaf of bread, and wife trouble and strife. It has set expressions of its own. Here is an example of a rather crude euphemistic phrase for being dead: She may have pulled me through me operation, said Mrs Fisher, but streuth Im not sure I wouldnt be better off pushing up the daisies, after all. (M. Dickens)

The study of dialects has been made on the basis of information obtained with the help of special techniques: interviews, questionnaires, recording by phonograph and tape-recorder, etc. Data collected in this way show the territorial distribution of certain key words and pronunciations which vary from region to region.

Dialects are now chiefly preserved in rural communities, in the speech of elderly people. Their boundaries have become less stable than they used to be; the distinctive features are tending to disappear with the shifting of population due to the migration of working-class families in search of employment and the growing influence of urban life over the countryside. Dialects are said to undergo rapid changes under the pressure of Standard English taught at schools and the speech habits cultivated by radio, television and cinema.

For the most part dialect in literature has been limited to speech characterisation of personages in books otherwise composed in Standard English. There are Yorkshire passages in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Lancashire passages in Mary Barton by E. Gaskell. A Southern dialect (that of Dorset) is sometimes introduced by Th. Hardy, A. Tennyson used Lancashire dialect in two of his poems reproducing peasant speech ("Northern Farmer: Old Style and Northern Farmer: New Style").

The Northern Farmer: Old Style is the monologue of a dying old man. He knows that his death is near and is resigned to it: If I must die I must die. He wants his nurse to bring him ale, although doctor has forbidden it. The last stanza runs as follows: What atta stannin theer for, an doesn bring ma the yaäle? Doctors a tattier, lass, an as hallus V the owd taäle; I weänt break rules for Doctor, a knows now moor nora floy, Git ma my yaäle I tell tha, an gin I doy I doy. (Tennyson)

The dialect vocabulary is remarkable for its conservatism: many words that have become obsolete in standard English are still kept in dialects, e. g. to and envy < OE andian; barge pig < OE berg; bysen blind < OE bisene and others.


According to O. Jespersen, however, dialect study suffered from too much attention being concentrated on the archaic traits. Every survival of an old form, every trace of old sounds that have been dropped in standard speech, was greeted with enthusiasm, and the significance of these old characteristics greatly exaggerated, the general impression being that popular dialects were always much more conservative than the speech of educated people. It was reserved for a much later time to prove that this view is completely erroneous, and that popular dialects in spite of many archaic details are on the whole further developed than the various standard languages with their stronger tradition and literary reminiscences."1

The standard work of reference in dialect study is Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary.

After this brief review of dialects we shall now proceed to the discussion of variants.

The Scottish Tongue and the Irish English have a special linguistic status as compared with dialects because of the literature composed in them. The name of Robert Burns, the great national poet of Scotland, is known all over the world. There is a whole group of modern poets including Hugh MacDiarmid writing in this variant of the English language.

A few lines from R. Burnss poem dedicated to his friend James Smith will illustrate the general character of Scottish:


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