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date: 24 May 2017

World Englishes

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

English clearly is the world’s leading language today: the language of formal and other interactions in many countries, the main tool of globalization, and the default choice for transnational communication. Initially, the expansion of the British Empire, beginning in the 17th century and driven by various motives for colonization, brought it to all continents: North America and the Caribbean, the southern hemisphere (including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other territories), and also Asia, Africa, and the Pacific region. In contact with indigenous languages new, increasingly stable and localized varieties of English with properties and functions of their own have grown in many countries. These varieties have come to be summarily labeled as “World Englishes,” and a new sub-discipline in linguistics has emerged since the 1980s, investigating their features and conditions of use. They have conventionally been classified according to their status in specific countries and territories, as native, second, or foreign languages, respectively, and several theoretical models have been proposed to account for their status, developments, and mutual relationships. Vibrant changes of the recent past, broadly associated with a sociolinguistics of globalization and increasing super-diversity, have continued to push the dissemination of English to new contexts, both socially and individually, and a “post-varieties approach” is now being envisaged.

A wide range of facts and issues can be discussed and investigated when addressing World Englishes. The basic perspective, obviously, concerns the sociohistorical diffusion of the language: who brought English to which territories, when and why? And how has the language been transformed in different places? It has been argued convincingly (in the “Dynamic Model” of the evolution of Postcolonial Englishes) that, despite all geographical, historical, and social differences amazing similarities in the emergence of these new varieties, grounded in principles of sociolinguistic accommodation and identity transformations, can be identified. In all contexts and territories, contact with local and other languages has been determinative, usually via the process of second-language acquisition of English by indigenous people. Language policies and their implementation by means of strategies of language pedagogy have played a major role, and all of this is shaped decisively by linguistic attitudes—the question of what speakers and authorities believe about such emerging varieties and their relationship to norms of correctness. Also, specific structural patterns and types of linguistic phenomena can be observed in all these varieties on all levels of language organization.

Consequently, the notion of “English” today needs to be retuned from thinking of it as a single, monolithic entity, a linguistic “standard,” and a reference system, to understanding it as a set of related, structurally overlapping, but also distinct varieties, the products of a fundamental “glocalization” process with variable, context-dependent outcomes.