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About English (British) Language

British English, or UK English or English English (BrE, BE, en-GB), is the broad term used to distinguish the forms of the English language used in the United Kingdom from forms used elsewhere. The Oxford English Dictionary applies the term to English "as spoken or written in the British Isles; esp[ecially] the forms of English usual in Great Britain...", reserving "Hiberno-English" for "The English language as spoken and written in Ireland".

There are slight regional variations in formal written English in the United Kingdom (for example, although the words wee and little are interchangeable in some contexts, one is more likely to see wee written by someone from northern Britain (and especially Scotland) or from Northern Ireland than by someone from Southern England or Wales). Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described as "British English". The forms of spoken English, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken, and a uniform concept of "British English" is therefore more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English (p. 45), "[f]or many people...especially in England [the phrase British English] is tautologous," and it shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word British, and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity".

History

English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to England by Germanic settlers from various parts of what is now northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate. The original Old English language was then influenced by two waves of invasion; The first was by language speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family; they conquered and colonised parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second was the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree (though it was never a truly mixed language in the strictest sense of the word; mixed languages arise from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication).

Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance branch of the European languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility and with a huge vocabulary.

Dialects

Dialects and accents vary between the four countries of the United Kingdom, and also within the countries themselves. There are also differences in the English spoken by different socio-economic groups in any particular region.

The major divisions are normally classified as English English (or English as spoken in England, which comprises Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects), Welsh English, and Scottish English (not to be confused with the Scots language). The various British dialects also differ in the words that they have borrowed from other languages. The Scottish and Northern English dialects include many words originally borrowed from Old Norse and a few borrowed from Gaelic, though most of the structure and common words are conservative Anglo-Saxon, hence 'kirk' (church), 'beck' (stream), 'feart' (feared), 'fell' (hillside), 'kistie' (chest, box), 'lang syne' (long ago) etc.

Regional

The form of English most commonly associated with the upper class in the southern counties of England is called Received Pronunciation (RP). It derives from a mixture of the Midland and Southern dialects which were spoken in London during the Middle Ages and is frequently used as a model for teaching English to foreign learners.[8] Although speakers from elsewhere within the UK may not speak with an RP accent it is now a class-dialect more than a local dialect. It may also be referred to as "the Queen's (or King's) English", "Public School English", or "BBC English" as this was originally the form of English used on radio and television, although a wider variety of accents can be heard these days. Only approximately two percent of Britons speak RP, and it has evolved quite markedly over the last 40 years.

Even in the South East there are significantly different accents; the London Cockney accent is strikingly different from RP and its rhyming slang can be difficult for outsiders to understand. In the South Eastern county of Surrey, where RP is prevalent, closer to London it approaches Cockney, further south it becomes more rural, and this continues through Sussex and Hampshire where the accents and language are even more rustic. In fact the accents and dialect of the south coast can range from the classic South Eastern RP through rustic to increasing an West Country accent as one passes through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and finally into the Celtic county of Cornwall, where the language of Cornish is also spoken by some people.

Estuary English has been gaining prominence in recent decades: it has some features of RP and some of Cockney. In London itself, the broad local accent is still changing, partly influenced by Caribbean speech. Communities migrating to the UK in recent decades have brought many more languages to the country. Surveys started in 1979 by the Inner London Education Authority discovered over 100 languages being spoken domestically by the families of the inner city's school children. As a result, Londoners speak with a mixture of accents, depending on ethnicity, neighbourhood, class, age, upbringing, and sundry other factors.

Since the mass immigration to Northamptonshire in the 1940s and its close accent borders, it has become a source of various accent developments. There, nowadays, one finds an accent known locally as the Kettering accent, which is a mixture of many different local accents, including East Midlands, East Anglian, Scottish, and Cockney. In addition, in the town of Corby, five miles (8 km) north, one can find Corbyite, which unlike the Kettering accent, is largely based on Scottish. This is due to the influx of Scottish steelworkers.

Outside the southeast there are, in England alone, other families of accents easily distinguished by natives, including:

  • West Country (South West England)
  • East Anglian
  • West Midlands (Black Country, Birmingham)
  • East Midlands
  • Liverpool (Scouse)
  • Manchester (Mancunian) and other east Lancashire accents
  • Yorkshire (Varies significantly in each region.)
  • Newcastle (Geordie) and other northeast England accents

Although some of the stronger regional accents may sometimes be difficult for some anglophones from outside Britain to understand, almost all "British English" accents are mutually intelligible amongst the British themselves, with only occasional difficulty between very diverse accents. However, modern communications and mass media[citation needed] have reduced these differences significantly. A small number of British films have been dubbed when released in America as Americans struggle to understand certain dialects (e.g. Kes in the Yorkshire dialect, Trainspotting in the Edinburgh dialect).

In addition, most British people can to some degree temporarily 'swing' their accent towards a more neutral form of English at will, to reduce difficulty where very different accents are involved, or when speaking to foreigners. This phenomenon is known in linguistics as code shifting.

Standardisation

As with English around the world, the English language as used in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is governed by convention rather than formal code: there is no equivalent body to the Académie française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) record usage rather than prescribe it. In addition, vocabulary and usage change with time; words are freely borrowed from other languages and other strains of English, and neologisms are frequent.

For historical reasons dating back to the rise of London in the 9th century, the form of language spoken in London and the East Midlands became standard English within the Court, and ultimately became the basis for generally accepted use in the law, government, literature and education within Britain. Largely, modern British spelling was standardised in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), although previous writers had also played a significant role in this and much has changed since 1755. Scotland, which underwent parliamentary union with England only in 1707 (and devolved in 1998), still has a few independent aspects of standardisation, especially within its autonomous legal system.

Since the early 20th century, numerous books by British authors intended as guides to English grammar and usage have been published, a few of which have achieved sufficient acclaim to have remained in print for long periods and to have been reissued in new editions after some decades. These include, most notably of all, Fowler's Modern English Usage and The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. Detailed guidance on many aspects of writing British English for publication is included in style guides issued by various publishers including The Times newspaper, the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press, and others. The Oxford University Press guidelines were originally drafted as a single broadsheet page by Horace Henry Hart and were, at the time (1893) the first guide of their type in English; they were gradually expanded and eventually published, first as Hart's Rules and, most recently (in 2002), as part of The Oxford Manual of Style. Comparable in authority and stature to The Chicago Manual of Style for published American English, the Oxford Manual is a fairly exhaustive standard for published British English, to which writers can turn in the absence of any specific document issued by the publishing house that will publish their work.

 

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