Types of variation

The language is highly variable and continually changing. There is a long history of academic interest in language variation and change, which has broadened out recently with increasing attention paid to the 'new Englishes' spoken in many parts of the world.

Like other languages, English varies in several different ways. For instance, language differs in written texts and oral speech. Language also varies in relation to different speakers or writers, where they come from and what social groups they belong to; and it varies for the same individual in different contexts, for instance depending on whether the speaker perceives a context as formal or informal, and depending on the purpose of that context.

There are numerous varieties of English. The major five types of variation are:

1) region; 2) social group; 3) field of discourse; 4) medium; 5) attitude.

Any use of the language necessarily involves variation within these five types. The first two types of variation relate primarily to the language user. People use a regional variety because they live in a region or have once lived in that region. Similarly, people use a social variety because of their association with some social group. These varieties are relatively permanent for the language user. At the same time, we should be aware that many people can communicate in more than one regional or social variety and can therefore switch varieties according to the situation. And of course people move to other regions or change their social affiliations, and may then adopt a new regional or social variety.

Other types of variation relate to language use. People select these varieties according to the situation and the purpose of communication. The field of discourse relates to the activity in which they are engaged: the medium may be spoken or written, generally depending on the proximity of the participants in the communication; and the attitude expressed through language is conditioned by the relationship of the participants in the particular situation. A common core is present in all the varieties and it is the fact that justifies the application of the name 'English' to all the varieties.

We shall focus mainly on regional and social varieties of English, which relate primarily to the language user. Language varieties are not simply linguistic phenomena. They carry important social meanings.