Skip to main content

World Englishes: Variation, Development, and Function

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

Because the study of World Englishes is concerned in part with the development of new varieties of the English language outside of the anglosphere, the discipline's literature provides both theoretical and practical frameworks for understanding how these new Englishes develop. This resource briefly describes some common ideas that are required to understand these frameworks. Then, it summarizes how new varieties of English tend to arise.

Note that the sources cited in this resource are catalogued on the World Englishes: Suggested Readings page.

What counts as a "new" English?

The answer to this question depends on the standards used to differentiate one set of English-speaking practices from another.

Most scholars are careful to distinguish between the notions of language and dialect. While Melchers and Shaw (2003) note that this distinction is not clear-cut, languages are generally autonomous, whereas dialects are heteronomous. In other words, one can say that X is a dialect of language Y or that language Y has the dialects X and Z, but never that Y is a language of dialect X. This is a useful distinction, though it is contentious in borderline cases (p. 11).

Another difference offered by Melchers and Shaw (2003) is that dialects, in contrast with languages, are mutually intelligible. While dialects are typically spoken and do not, like languages, have a codified written form, some regional/social or nonstandard dialects are frequently reflected in writing. Dialects are also said to be used only in certain “domains,” whereas languages show maximal variation or “elaboration of function” (p. 12).  

In order to avoid making the notoriously difficult dialect/language distinction, some linguists prefer a more neutral term, “variety,” which covers both concepts and is not tainted through popular usage. The concept of “varieties” is very useful, as “variety” in the singular is a neutral label applied to many different types of language use. According to Kachru et al. (2006), the phrase “varieties of English” suggests the heteronomy of such varieties to the common core of English. Bauer (2002) argues that we can use “variety” to mean a language, a dialect, an idiolect, or an accent; it is a term which encompasses all of those ideas.

Today, “variety” is an academic term used for any kind of language production, whether viewed as being determined by region, by gender, by social class, by age or by our own inimitable individual characteristics. 

How do new English varieties develop?

In non-English-speaking regions, English tends to emerge initially as an import from an English-speaking region. This can occur for many reasons, including migration/diaspora, colonization, the adoption of new technology, and the proliferation of entertainment like movies. However, local languages, cultures, values, and perceptions toward English can also influence the development and spread of the new language. It may, for instance, initially take root in just one particular domain of society, like the education or media spheres. Gradually, however, it tends to spread into other domains as a dialect (or even as a new variety of English) and starts evolving at a societal level.

Chambers (1995) provides two basic causes for any language variations: naturalistic and socially-constructed explanations. Chambers argues that the underlying cause of sociolinguistic variation is the human instinct to establish and maintain social identity (p. 250).Therefore, the recognition of “new varieties” of English has not historically rested on linguistic criteria alone. For instance, in addition to a distinctive vocabulary and accent, important defining features of new varieties also include a historical tradition, creative writing, and the existence of reference works of various kinds.

The World Englishes initiative in recognizing and describing the new Englishes of the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia has been party motivated by a consideration of the local linguistic “facts,” and partly by the desire to creatively remodel and reconstruct discursive practices. The notion of “varieties” in this context is similarly dynamic, as new contexts, new realities, and the origins and traditions of the metalanguage have the potential to assist our own conceptualizations and theorizations of this branch of linguistics (Kachru et al., 2006, p. 308).

Variation in World Englishes can thus potentially be found (and can potentially begin) in all domains of language: i.e., spelling, phonetics/phonology, morphology, syntax, the lexicon (vocabulary), and discourse.

How do new English varieties function?

As each setting is shaped by local cultural and social values, local norms of use develop consistent with these values. These norms specify what, when, where, and how something can be said at all linguistic levels, from the phonological to the pragmatic (Berns, 2009). Any variety of English works similarly in any particular context, which means the varieties of English function locally based on their local norms and values.

To observe the functions of any variety of English, scholars have provided a heuristic called the functional framework (later termed “sociolinguistic profile”). This framework, adopted by Berns (1990 and originally proposed by Kachru (1981), helps researchers understand English usage in any particular context.

According to the framework, there are four categories that explain the distinctive uses of English language in any particular context: the regulative function (for administrative and legal purposes), the instrumental function (status of a language as a medium of instruction), the interpersonal function (to serve as a link language and to symbolize prestige, elitism, and modernity), and the imaginative/innovative function (literary creation). Berns (1990) mentions that this sociolinguistic profile highlights the salient features of use and users in a particular context and serves as a basis for comparison of these features in a range of contexts (native as well as non-native). Comparison of this type is instrumental in understanding the characteristics that distinguish one context from another.

There are multiple sociolinguistic profiles published already based on Berns’ (1990) functional framework. The following are just a few examples of profile articles published in World Englishes, a leading journal in the field:

  • “English in Colombia: A sociolinguistic profile” (Gloria Valez-Rendon, 2003)
  • “English in a multilingual Algeria” (Kamal Belmihoub, 2018)
  • “English in Costa Rica” (Jorge Aguilar-Sanchez, 2005)
  • “English in Mongolia” (Roger Cohen, 2005)
  • “English in Turkey” (Seran Dogncay-Aktuna and Zeynep Kiziltepe, 2005)
  • “English in Russia” (Irina P. Ustinova, 2005)

These sociolinguistic profiles focus on the local context and highlight how English has been used in different domains of that context, viewing these usages through the different perspectives of the functional framework. For instance, in Japan, English serves a variety of functions. Some Japanese people use English words and phrases for professional purposes, while others use it to identify themselves as modern, Western, or sophisticated. Similarly, in Nepal, English functions (mostly) as a primary language in schools, though English is not an official language in the country.