World English and globalization

Dr Claire Cowie

Many of us will have read recent reports about the decline in diversity of UK dialects [1]. But did you know that research into the homogenization of English language varieties goes much broader than the UK? On World English Language Day, PPLS lecturer Claire Cowie tells us about the phenomenon of changing World Englishes.


For the past 40 years or so, scholars of language contact have been studying the emergence of these “World Englishes”, both in terms of their linguistic make-up and their gradual acceptance by authorities. For example, in India, few English-medium educated speakers distinguish between ‘w’ and ‘v’ sounds; and the definite article is regularly deleted in English newspapers. These variants have become part of the accepted standard of English in that region.

Yet now it seems that younger generations may be shifting in the opposite direction and their use of English becoming less local, in response to intensified globalization and access to English media. This is illustrated in a number of recent research papers, which claim that youth in Singapore [2], India [3] and Hong Kong [4] can be heard producing American English features such as ‘r’ after a vowel (in words like car), a vowel like that of hat in half, and a ‘d’ in the middle of butter. These features are never heard in older generations of English speakers from those regions.

Increases in these sorts of American variants have already been observed in in other well-established international varieties such as New Zealand English, where the words trunk and pants are being adopted alongside their British counterparts boot and trousers [5]. But it is clear that New Zealand speakers do not treat the American variants as external “targets”, and do not desire to sound American. Rather, the set of forms that they can choose from has increased in number. Similarly, the most recent research on the use of ‘r’ after a vowel in Singapore has found that this pronunciation does not correlate with the consumption of US media [6]. R-users are not expressing American affiliation. They view themselves as cosmopolitans who adopt the feature as part of a careful, serious style.

My current project uses an experimental task to investigate the vowels of new students arriving at the University of Edinburgh from Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. The aim is not only to detect changes in pronunciation associated with globalization, but to study the manner in which these changes occur. For example, if it is the case that changes creep in from the margins, our American hat vowel would appear first in low frequency words such as gasp. On the other hand, the vowel may change first in the most common words such as last. Collecting data in this way will also provide opportunities for our linguistics students from these countries to study new developments in their own English varieties.

Claire Cowie is a lecturer in Linguistics and English Language in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

References & More Information:


[2] Tan, Y. Y. (2016). The Americanization of the phonology of Asian Englishes: Evidence from Singapore. Communicating with Asia: The future of English as a global language, 120-134.

[3] 10.1075/eww.31.1.01cha


[5] doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2003.00241.x


Maddie Long: Tales from the 3 Minute Thesis

Maddie Long

PPLS PhD student Maddie Long has just been awarded the People’s Choice Award in the National 3 Minute Thesis Competition, beating 1000s of students from all around the UK with her presentation: ‘Language and the Brain: The Skye’s the Limit.’ We caught up with her to chat about her research and her experiences of the 3 Minute Thesis competition.

Continue reading