Study of Language: Module 3


Saussure introduced the synchronic and diachronic approaches to the study of language. He used the terms to distinguish between the description of the stage of a language at a given point of time and the description of changes that take place in language during the passage of time. Synchronic study of language refers to the investigation of that language as it exists at a particular point of time. For example, a study of the English of Shakespeare’s time or of the present day is synchronic. The synchronic approach looks at a language as we find it at a given period in time, regardless of its past history or future blueprint. So it is called descriptive linguistics. Diachronic study of a language is concerned with the historical development or evolution of that language over a period of time. For example, a study of the history of the English language is diachronic. The diachronic approach looks at a language over a period of time along with the changes that occurred in it. So it is called historical linguistics.


Language is a socio-cultural-geographical phenomenon. It is basic to social interactions, affecting them and being affected by them. It is in society that man acquires and uses language and so there is a deep relationship between language and society. Sociolinguistics is the study of the relation between language and society and of the way people with different social identities speak and how their speech changes in different social situations. Sociolinguistics is based on the fact that language is not a single homogeneous entity, but has different forms in different situations. The changes in language occur because of changes in social conditions — social class, gender, regional and cultural groups. For example, English is not a single language but has several varieties. One variety of English is RP (Received Pronunciation) which is particularly associated with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the BBC. It is used by educated people and is universally accepted as the standard form of English. But there are other varieties of English such as the English spoken in Scotland (Scottish English), Wales (Welsh English), Yorkshire (Yorkshire English) etc. There is also Cockney English which is spoken by the working class in London. Moreover, there are the varieties of English spoken by people of different countries – American English, Indian English and Australian English.

Sociolinguistics examines the characteristics of the varieties of language which are labelled as accent, dialect, register and slang. Accent is a distinct way of pronouncing a language. It can identify the locality in which its speakers live (regional accent); it can also indicate the socio-economic status of its speakers and their social class. Accents differ in the quality of voice, pronunciation of vowels and consonants, stress and pitch. Varieties of a language that are formed in different geographical regions are characterized by a change in the pronunciation as well as in the vocabulary and grammar. These changes bring about a distinctly different variety of the language known as dialect. All languages consist of dialects and everyone speaks at least one dialect. Dialect differences are usually minor and dialects of a language are usually mutually intelligible. There are two kinds of dialect – regional dialect and social dialect. The dialect spoken in a particular geographical area is called a regional dialect. For example in the case of Malayalam we have Trivandrum dialect, Kottayam dialect, Thrissur dialect, Kannur dialect etc. Social dialects / sociolects are the variations within a regional dialect based on factors such as education, occupation, socio-economic status, income and cultural background.

Varieties in language are also due to the specific area of human activity in which language is used. The variety of language characterized by its use in different fields like law, medicine, science etc is known as register. Thus we have legal register (‘I am much obliged, if your lordship pleases.’), medical register (Zanoxyn is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) and so on. Jargon is one of the defining features of a register. It is special technical vocabulary associated with a specific area of work or interest. Thus we have medical jargon (BP= blood pressure, FX= bone fracture), business jargon (‘chief cook and bottle-washer’ = a person who holds many responsibilities, ‘bang for the buck’ = to get the most for your money), military jargon (AWOL = absent without leave, PCS = permanent change of station), political jargon (‘getting a soapbox’ = making a speech in public, ‘left-wing’ = progressive viewpoint) and Internet jargon (CYA – see you around, BFF= best friends forever). 

There are ‘levels of formality’ in the language of individuals. On some occasions people talk formally and technically and on other occasions they talk formally but non- technically. Sometimes they become informal but technical or informal and non-technical :– formal technical – ‘We obtained some sodium chloride’ ; formal non-technical – ‘we obtained some salt’; informal technical – ‘we got some sodium chloride’; informal non-technical == ‘we got some salt.’ Slang is informal, non-standard language. It is the creation of people who disregard conventions and hanker after novelties of expression. For example, ‘barmy’ meaning crazy, ‘knackered’ meaning extremely tired and ‘to kick the bucket’ meaning to die. Many respectable words in modern English originated as slang – chap, coax, kidnap, pluck, pinch etc.


The English language crossed the Atlantic from England along with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1623 and developed in America as American English. British English and American English have diverged since the first settlements and there are marked differences between the two. Since these two are the foremost varieties of English, a study of American English entails a comparative study of British English and American English.

     The difference between British English and American English is felt mainly in four areas: (a) vocabulary; (b) spelling; (c) pronunciation and (d) grammar.


      The greatest difference between American and the British English is in their vocabulary. Expanding across a new continent with new flora and fauna and different natural features and faced with the needs of building a new society, the Americans were forced to adopt old words or coin new ones to meet their many needs.  A large part of the specifically American vocabulary was borrowed from other languages especially the language of the American Indians. The words borrowed from American Indians include moose, raccoon, skunk, sweet potato, wigwam and totem. Names of places and rivers were also adopted from the American Indians e.g. Mississippi which means ‘big river’ and Chicago which means a place of ‘wild onions’.


notice board                                   bulletin board

time table                                       schedule

railway station                               railway depot

car                                                  automobile

petrol                                              gas         

boot of a  car                                  trunk of a car

flat                                                  apartment

biscuit                                             cookie

dustbin                                            trash can

autumn                                            fall

lorry                                                truck

underground train                           subway     

letterbox                                          mailbox              

rubber                                              eraser      

ground floor                                    first floor   

punctured                                       flat

petrol station                                filling station  

native town                                  hometown

lawyer                                          attorney

postmortem                                  autopsy

ring up                                         call

coffee room                                 coffee shop      

season ticket                                commutation ticket                 

maize                                           corn

entrance fee                                 initiation fee

interval                                        intermission                 

no                                                nope             

     Certain slang expressions with ‘banana’ in them are peculiar to American;‘banana –head’ refer  to ‘ a stupid person’ ; ‘banana a oil’ means ‘nonsense’; ‘go bananas’ means ‘crazy’ or ‘enthusiastic.’


     There are two types of spelling differences between British English and American English .If the difference is systematic it affects a large number of words and in the case of a  non- systematic change only one word or a small group of words are affected.

The change of ‘our’ into ‘or’ is an important feature


colour                                          color

labour                                          labor

humour                                        humor

favour                                          favor

neighbour                                    neighbor

vigour                                         vigor

The change of the consonant ‘c’ to‘s’ is another feature

 Defence                          defense

So also the change of‘re’ to ‘er’

centre                             center

theatre                            theater

In the place of the double consonant in British English, American English has only one consonant.

traveller                            traveler

programme                      program

waggon                           wagon


     In pronunciation there are marked differences between Received Pronunciation and American English.

(a) instead of /a:/ in words like fast, bath, half, castle e.t.c in Received Pronunciation, American English has / æ / sound. So /f ɑ: st/, /b  ɑ: θ / /h ɑ: f/  and /k ɑ: s l / in Received Pronunciation but /f æ st/,/b æθ /, /h æ f/ and/k æ s l / in American English.

(b) / i:/ instead of / aɪ / in ‘neither’ and either

 Received Pronunciation / n aɪ  ð  ə  /               

American English        /n i:  ð ə /                          

(c) the use of the ‘r’ sound when it is followed by a consonant. In Received Pronunciation the ‘r’ is silent.

E.g. The car has arrived.

R.P                 / ð ə   k a:  h ə s  ə r aɪ v d /                          

Am Eng        / ð ə   k a: r  h ə s  ə r aɪ v d /  

There are differences in stress and intonation too. In general, the English use more violent stress contrast and a wider range of pitch than the Americans. There is a nasal twang and a drawl in American English which is not heard in R.P.


     In grammar and syntax, the difference between British and American usage is not very great. An American can say, ‘’do you have the time?’’ while an Englishman says, ‘’ have you got the time?’’ No Englishman will say, ‘’I have gotten.’’ Americans use an impersonal ‘one’ and continue with ‘he’ and ‘his’ as in : ‘’if one loses his temper, he should apologize’’ ; while Englishmen replace ‘his’ and ‘he’ by ‘one’s’ and ‘one.’ ‘’Meeting with a person’’ already known and ‘’meeting a person’’ for the first time are American distinctions. Prepositions too are sometimes different. An Englishman lives in Oxford Street, an American lives on Oxford Street. The Englishman caters for someone, an American caters to someone.

     G.B. Shaw has rightly observed that Great Britain and the United States of America are ‘’two countries separated by the same language.’’                        

General Indian English (GIE)

English is the associate official language of India and is one of the languages of the ‘three language formula’ proposed in the 1960s for educational purposes — state language, Hindi and English. It is used in the legal system, pan-Indian and regional administration, the armed forces, national business and the media. English and Hindi are the link languages in the complex, multilingual Indian society in which English is both a literary language and a library language. GIE is distinct in its phonology, pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

RP has two back vowels /ɒ/ and /ɔ:/ ; GIE has only one — /ɒ/. In GIE there is no distinction between ‘cot’ and ‘caught’. RP has eight diphthongs while GIE has only six; RP /eɪ/ is replaced by /e :/and /əu/ by  /o:/. In GIE voiceless plosives are un aspirated in all positions but in RP they are aspirated in initial positions. Most Indians tend to prolong the consonant in words with medial double consonant letters as in pepper, summer. GIE is rhotic,  / r / is pronounced in all positions.There is no distinction between / v/ and /w/. Gujaratis use /  ʤ / for /   z /:– zero / z ɪə rəu /  >   / ʤ ɪə rəu /. Malayalis use voiced plosives after nasals :– /tembl/ for temple. In GIE stative verbs are given progressive forms – ‘she is having two books’; ‘you must be knowing my cousin, Ram’. Reduplication gives added emphasis as in ‘I bought some small small things’; and ‘Yes No’ questions are used as question tags – ‘he is coming, yes ? GIE makes use of hybrid usages like ‘brahminhood’ in which one component is from English and one from a local language. GIE also uses more or less archaic words in British English – dicky for the boot of a car.  

Australian English (AusE)

After the circumnavigation of Australia by James Cook in 1770, Britain established its first penal colony in Sydney in order to relieve the pressure on the overcrowded prisons in England. At the same time ‘free’ settlers also began to enter the country and as years went by their number grew. The fact that the British Isles provided the main source of settlers justifies the main influence on the language. Many of the convicts came from London and Ireland and features of the Cockney dialect of London and the brogue accent of Irish English can be traced in the speech patterns heard in Australia today. It also features many expressions from Aboriginal languages, and in recent years the influence of American English and of a growing number of immigrant groups has given the country a mixed linguistic character.

AusE pronunciation

The most noticeable aspect of AusE is its pronunciation. The Australian accent is different from that of Britain and America in that it is homogenous. Regional differences in accent are almost absent but there are significant social differences. Thus AusE pronunciation is classified into three: Cultivated Australian (closest to RP, spoken by the least number of people), General Australian (typical Australian accent, spoken by the majority) and Broad Australian (exhibits extreme regional features).


Like BrE, but unlike AmE, AusE is non-rhotic (excludes /r/ sound before a consonant). Carpet is articulated as /kɑ:pɪt/ in BrE and AusE while it is pronounced /kɑ:rpɪt/ in AmE. Like AmE, AusE too has the tendency to flap and voice intervocalic /t/ (between two vowel sounds). Thus butter (/bʌtə/) and metal (/metl/) are pronounced /bʌdə/ and /medl/.


Vowels are in general closer and more frontal than in BrE. The pure vowels /i:/ and /u:/ are diphthongised to /əɪ/ and /əu/ respectively. /ə/ frequently replaces /ɪ/ in unstressed positions nullifying the difference between words like boxes and boxers. Some diphthongs shift, RP /eɪ/ towards /ʌɪ/, as in Australia, mate, etc. and /ɑɪ/ towards /ɒɪ/, as in wide, I’ll etc.

                                      BrE (RP)                    AusE

Tea                                  /ti:/                             /təɪ/

Who                                /hu:/                           /həu/

Market                            /mɑ:kɪt/                      /mɑ:kət/

Day                                 /deɪ/                            /dʌɪ/

High                                /hɑɪ/                            /hɒɪ/

Goat                                /gəut/                          /gʌut/

AusE Intonation

AusE speech pattern, especially among young people, is characterised by what is known as Australian Question Intonation (AQI). It is peculiar in that even declarative sentences are uttered with a rising intonation. It is part of the turn-taking mechanism where the speaker seeks verification of comprehension. It helps in keeping the users attentive and also evokes responses.

AusE Vocabulary

AusE has quite a large number of distinct words and phrases in their vocabulary but only a few are internationally accepted. AusE vocabulary has borrowed words extensively from aboriginal languages primarily to describe the flora and fauna which are unique to the continent. Words like Kangaroo, Koala (a bear), Kookaburra (a Kingfisher bird), boomerang, wallaby (small kangaroo) etc. are Australian in origin but accepted throughout the English speaking world. AusE has borrowed words from both BrE and AmE as well. Given below are examples of borrowing as well as that of typical AusE words.

BrE                                      AmE                                   AusE

Railway                                Railroad                             Railway

Goods train                          Freight train                       Goods train

Lorry                                    Truck                                 Truck

Pavement                              Sidewalk                           Footpath

Petrol station                        Gas station                        Service station (servo)

Pickup                                   Pickup truck                     Ute (from ‘utility’)

AusE is more liberal than BrE when it comes to admitting colloquial constructions. The line between formal and informal usage is less rigidly drawn in Australia than elsewhere. Thus the suffixes (endings) –ie, -y and -o are freely added to words mostly to reduce their length.

Australian         Aussie   /ɒzi:/

Mosquito          Mozzie

Afternoon         Arvo      /ɑ:vʌu/

Breakfast         Brekky

The convict legacy of Australia influenced the extensive use of certain law-and-order words, but applied, mostly, in a sense different to that of BrE. A mob (flock) of sheep is mustered (rounded up) by a jackaroo (a trainee) and is led along the paddocks (fields) towards the station (farm). 

Australians are known for their notorious use of slang words and phrases. Thus a bludger (a lazy person) will be stoked (really happy) if he is gifted an esky (portable freezer) since he need not walk, every now and then, to the refrigerator to get the drinks he purchased from the bottle-o (liquor shop).

AusE Grammar and Spelling

In terms of grammar and spelling there is not much difference between standard AusE and BrE although in certain cases AmE spellings are preferred. While BrE spellings are used for words like analyse, anaesthetic, install, colour etc., AmE spelling is followed for words like enroll, program, encyclopedia etc.

Users of the Broad Australian dialect tend to use me and my interchangeably as in the sentences – They arrested me boy and He was angry at my scoring a goal. Other differences include usage of double negative – I never said nothing to them cops – omission of the auxiliary ‘have’ – I got to go – using ‘don’t’ in place of ‘doesn’t’ – He don’t visit us these days – ending sentences with ‘but’ – Yes, know her. Her I’m not going to invite but – using ‘–ing’ as a progressive indicator of something – I am enjoying my yoga classes, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s