Lehrstuhl für Englische Sprachwissenschaft

    Frequently Asked Questions



    What is a language? What is a dialect?


    While most people have intuitions about what a (different) language is, linguists find it difficult to define the words language and dialect in clear-cut terms on the one hand, and on the other hand to distinguish both (Finegan 2008: 14). One of the most important characteristics is said to be mutual intelligibility – if speakers can understand each other, they speak the same language, but may speak different varieties. If they cannot understand each other, they speak different languages. However, this criterion is not valid in many situations. Danish and Norwegian, for example, are mutually intelligible (especially when speakers speak slowly and clearly), yet they are defined as different languages. On the other hand, dialects need not necessarily be mutually intelligible – speakers of different dialects of German may have serious problems understanding each other, and in the case of Cantonese and Mandarin, intelligibility is impossible (Finegan 2008: 14). Thus, additional criteria such as political and social factors must be used to distinguish between languages and dialects. Very often, political borders (such as the one between Denmark and Norway) are taken into account to define languages (Finegan 2008: 14).

    How do dialects develop?


    The development of dialects has socio-historical as well as linguistic reasons. Socio-historically, the arrival of different groups of settlers in a place like New Zealand led to language contact and the linguistic consequence was a dialect mixture due to accommodation, through which new dialects developed (Schreier & Hundt 2012: 5). The question of how dialects develop in the first place can be answered with “distance”: for the development of a dialect, it takes a particular group of people with either geographical or social distance, so that nothing influences their way of speaking, since this distance causes them to only converse among themselves (Finegan 2008: 348). In terms of geography this could be mountains or rivers/oceans that cannot be crossed physically (Wolfram & Schilling 2016: 30). Socially, linguists have observed that the upper class of society and their desire to differ from others often initiates language change (Wolfram & Schilling 2016: 34). Linguistically, it has been noted that language is prone to change over time as history has shown (Wolfram 2001: 34 ff.).

    Are there varieties within a variety, so to speak?


    Yes, varieties within a variety are very common, as the following examples will illustrate. The standard variety of American English is Standard American English but there are also a number of non-standard regional or ethnic varieties such as Eastern New England, New York, Inland Northern, Black English and many more (Kövecses 2000: 63). A variety of British English is, for instance, Scottish English, which itself can be further subdivided into other varieties. There are two main varieties of Scottish English which are Scots and Scottish Standard English, both of which are difficult to separate from one another (Stuart-Smith 2004: 74). Scots, the language of the native Scottish people (Wells 1986: 395), developed from Old English – just like Modern English. However, during the Middle English period, both developed distinctly from one another, causing major differences between Scots and historical and modern forms of English throughout the last seven centuries. Scots can be divided into Mid/Central Scots, Southern/Border Scots, Northern Scots and Insular Scots (Stuart-Smith 2008: 48).

    Who speaks English?


    The speakers of English can roughly be separated into the following groups: speakers of English as a native language, as a second language, or as a foreign language. Native speakers are raised with English as their mother tongue, whereas speakers of English as a second language come from former British colonies, and are exposed to English outside school, e.g., through television, newspapers, books, and in everyday conversations. Speakers of English as a foreign language are basically speakers from all other parts of the world, in which the use of English is largely restricted to the classroom (Jenkins 2003:14). Overall, it is estimated that about 350 million people are English native speakers and an enormous number of more than 1.4 billion people use English as a lingua franca (Rupp 2008: 33), not only in business communication, but also in air traffic, politics, or scientific research (Rubinstein 2014: 4). About 100 million of these people are estimated to have learned English as a foreign language (Crystal 1985: 3).

    From a linguistic point of view, can we distinguish between different Englishes, or is English always English?


    Yes, a distinction is possible. In fact, linguist Braj Kachru developed a model – The Three Circles of English (see picture) (1985) - that is supposed to illustrate the “types of spread of English”, “patterns of acquisition” and “functional domains in which English is used”. This model is called the Tripartite model, since it distinguishes between three types of English. It consists of an Inner, Outer and Expanding Circle: Every speaker whose mother tongue is English is part of the Inner Circle, e.g. Americans or Canadians (Bolton 2009b: 292). The Outer Circle comprises all nations with any other mother tongue than English, but with English as an official or second language. Lastly, every country where English is a foreign language is part of the Expanding Circle (Kollenrott 2007: 51).

    Depiction of Braj Kachru's model called the three circles of English

    Kachru's The Three Circles of English

    How much influence does English have worldwide?


    The influence of English is immense. Linguist David Crystal (2003: 6) believes that about 1.5 billion people have at least some basic knowledge of English. A comparison of this number with the actual number of English native-speakers shows that there are considerably more non-native speakers than native speakers. Furthermore, there is no other language that has spread as far as English – most probably due to the political influence of the United States as well as to the fact that English is the language of computer technology. And it has been used by such a great number of different nations (Smith 2006: 68) as a language of wider communication (LWC). The fact that English has had contact with virtually every language family emphasizes its influence (Kachru 2006: 254), which can also be seen in the adoption of many English loan words in other languages (Filipović 1996: 37).

    Is “World Englishes” a specialist term?


    The term World Englishes can in fact refer to quite a number of concepts. In a broad sense, linguists may use this term for labeling and categorising varieties of English all over the world. Especially in the last few years, there has been a flood of new terminology in order to subdivide World Englishes: localized varieties of English, non-native varieties of English or EFL (English as a Foreign Language) (Bolton 2009b: 289). In a narrow sense, World Englishes refers to the so-called New Englishes (Bolton 2009a: 240) that emerge in countries where English is usually used as a second language, or as one of several language within a multilingual community, e.g. in India (Jenkins 2003: 22).

    Are World Englishes used in advertising campaigns?


    Yes, the use of World Englishes in advertising has increased considerably. For a long time, international companies have struggled with the question of which language to use for their advertisements and of whether they need to adopt the language of the country in which they advertise their product. Globalization has ended this struggle, as today English has become the language of advertising. Studies found out that advertising “functions as a site for language contact”, which means that English is combined with other languages. In fact, there is a tendency towards a mixture of either different World Englishes or World English accents: A commercial with an inner circle accent might, for instance, demonstrate the international focus of the company (Bhatia 2009: 603), whereas the usage of a local variety of English expresses shared values and appeals to local consumers, or gives the commercial an authentic feel (e.g. the usage of an Indian accent in a curry commercial).

    Do American and British English speakers always understand each other?


    Even though what we today call American English and British English have the same linguistic ancestor, misunderstandings can occur. There are some words frequently used in American English that a speaker of British English might not understand because they do not exist in British English, such as caboose or bleachers, but also the other way round. Studies found out that up to 4,000 words (Svartvik & Leech 2010: 153) can lead to miscommunication between American and British English speakers. It is also striking that American English often exhibits the use of words and phrases that are long outdated in British English such as I guess (Davies 2005: 2). These differences are so prominent that the question of whether these two kinds of Englishes can be considered as two different languages keeps coming up - with supporters of both opinions (Kövecses 2000: 9).

    Is it possible to count all languages in the world?


    Naming a fixed number of languages is not as easy as it might seem. The first problem that one will encounter is to decide upon the autonomy of languages, i.e. when is a variety a dialect of a language, and when can we actually talk of two distinct languages. Rather than being decided on purely linguistic grounds, the answer to this question may be politically motivated. Moreover, new languages are occasionally encountered in parts of the world that have not yet been explored, for example in regions of the Amazonas. Other languages might cease to exist with the death of their last speaker, while other nearly extinct languages are being revived. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to name a total number of world languages. However, there have been several attempts to come up with such a number. Finegan (2008: 29), for instance believes there to be 6,912 languages, including sign languages.

    Why do languages borrow words from other languages?


    There are two hypotheses that explain the adaptation of loanwords: namely, the gap and the prestige hypothesis. The gap hypothesis suggests that borrowing takes place as the language does not have a word for “the concept under discussion” (Wright 2013: 61). Thus, a new lexeme is needed (Barber: 2009: 189). A recent example for this is the word smartphone, a new concept introduced into German a few years ago, to refer to a mobile phone with internet access. In addition, authors may simply want to show their creativity by choosing a loanword (Wright 2013: 61), or show variation in their text composition. The prestige hypothesis especially explains loan words of Latin origin. These words demonstrate “a sign of education or of social superiority” (Barber 2009: 189), setting speakers apart from speakers of ordinary language (Durkin 2014: 309). Thus, loanwords may serve practical reasons, and are sometimes meant to increase the prestige of the language (van Gelderen 2014: 179).