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Converging varieties of English in the twentieth century

Twentieth-century globalization has been a vehicle for the diversification of English. But it has also had the opposite effect, promoting convergence between varieties of English.

Cultural diffusion

Cultural diffusion, particularly via mass marketing and mass media, has facilitated the spread of linguistic features outwards from a high-prestige variety, with which others wish to align themselves.  In practice, this has generally meant US English, and the spread of American usages into British and other Englishes. Examples include:

  • The use of train station for railway station.
  • The use of can for tin.
  • The pronunciation of the sch- of schedule as /sk/ rather than /sh/.
  • The use of be like to introduce direct speech (I was like, ‘Oh my God!’).
  • The use of cool as an all-purpose term of approval.

These are all phenomena which have been widely recognized and often adversely commented on; although the fuss eventually dies down, as what were originally Americanisms, such as deputize, hindsight, and tornado, go quietly native.

Local convergence

Convergence of this type can happen not just between national varieties, but also within an individual variety. In Britain, for example, factors such as mass literacy and a largely centralized broadcasting service led over the twentieth century to a certain levelling out of regional linguistic differences. A high-profile recent manifestation of this has been so-called ‘Estuary English’ (a term coined in the 1980s by the linguist David Rosewarne). Elements of East London working-class speech, perhaps most notably the glottal stop (where words such as butter are pronounced ‘bu’er’), are found to be infiltrating the utterance of middle and upper-middle class speakers, and have been identified as far from their point of origin as northern England and even Scotland. Fears of homogeneity in British English are surely misplaced, though. The grip which standard English, and its vocal manifestation  received pronunciation, exercised on the language in the early and middle part of the twentieth century has relaxed somewhat, and greater variety in accent, grammar, etc. is now tolerated. And London and other urban centres are constantly having their linguistic resources revitalized by immigrants speaking other varieties of English and other languages entirely.

Colloquialization

This less rigid adherence to Standard English can be viewed as a manifestation of a process that has been called ‘colloquialization’. Until roughly the 1960s, written English was accepted as setting the standard of what the language should be, and spoken English was viewed as an irrelevant but occasionally annoying or embarrassing offshoot that needed to be kept in its place. At the start of the twenty-first century that is no longer so, and colloquial usages, both lexical and syntactic (for instance the use of contractions such as didn’t and I’ll, and of expletives formerly restrained by taboos), are widely accepted in situations (including quite formal writing) where they would once have been considered inappropriate.

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