Tiled letters spell out "English"

World English and globalisation

On World English Language Day, Linguistics lecturer Claire Cowie tells us about the phenomenon of changing World Englishes

Many of us will have read recent reports about the declining diversity of UK dialects (University of Cambridge, 2016). But did you know that research into the homogenisation of English language varieties goes much broader than the UK?

A history of variation

For the past 40 years or so, scholars of language contact have been studying the emergence of these “World Englishes”, both in terms of their linguistic make-up and their gradual acceptance by authorities. For example, in India, few English-medium educated speakers distinguish between ‘w’ and ‘v’ sounds; and the definite article is regularly deleted in English newspapers. These variants have become part of the accepted standard of English in that region.

Yet now it seems that younger generations may be shifting in the opposite direction and their use of English becoming less local, in response to intensified globalisation and access to English media. This is illustrated in a number of recent research papers, which claim that youth in Singapore (Tan, 2016), India (Chand, 2010) and Hong Kong (Hansen Edwards, 2015) can be heard producing American English features such as ‘r’ after a vowel (in words like car), a vowel like that of hat in half, and a ‘d’ in the middle of butter. These features are never heard in older generations of English speakers from those regions.

Increases in these sorts of American variants have already been observed in other well-established international varieties such as New Zealand English, where the words trunk and pants are being adopted alongside their British counterparts boot and trousers (Meyerhoff and Niedzielski, 2003). But it is clear that New Zealand speakers do not treat the American variants as external “targets”, and do not desire to sound American. Rather, the set of forms that they can choose from has increased in number. Similarly, the most recent research on the use of ‘r’ after a vowel in Singapore has found that this pronunciation does not correlate with the consumption of US media (Starr et al, 2016). R-users are not expressing American affiliation. They view themselves as cosmopolitans who adopt the feature as part of a careful, serious style.

About Claire Cowie

Claire Cowie is a lecturer in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh.

Her current project uses an experimental task to investigate the vowels of new students arriving at the University of Edinburgh from Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan.

The aim is not only to detect changes in pronunciation associated with globalisation but to study the manner in which these changes occur. For example, if it is the case that changes creep in from the margins, our American hat vowel would appear first in low-frequency words such as gasp. On the other hand, the vowel may change first in the most common words such as last. Collecting data in this way will also provide opportunities for our linguistics students from these countries to study new developments in their own English varieties.


Chand, V. (2010). Postvocalic (r) in urban Indian English. English World-Wide, 31, p. 1-39 DOI: 10.1075/eww.31.1.01cha

Hansen Edwards, J. G. (2015). Hong Kong English: attitudes, identity, and use. Asian Englishes, 17(3), p. 184-208 DOI: 10.1080/13488678.2015.1049840

Meyerhoff, M. and Niedzielski, N. (2003). The globalisation of vernacular variation. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7(4), p. 534-555 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2003.00241.x

Starr, R. L., Wang, T. and Jiang, M. P. T. (2016). Perception and use of variation in Mandarin Chinese among local and expatriate children in Singapore. Presented at New Ways of Analysing Variation, November 2016

Tan, Y. (2016). The Americanization of the phonology of Asian Englishes: Evidence from Singapore. In G. Leitner, A. Hashim, & H. Wolf (Eds.), Communicating with Asia: The Future of English as a Global Language (pp. 120-134). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107477186.009

University of Cambridge. 2016. Cambridge app maps decline in regional diversity of English dialects. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/cambridge-app-maps-decline-in-regional-diversity-of-english-dialects. [Accessed 23 April 2017].

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