The more widely spoken English is, the more confusing communication sometimes seems to get. Many travelers, expats, and international business men and women alike have found themselves wondering “Do you even speak English?” at one point or another when conversing with others.
There exist, after all, a multitude of different national and regional English varieties and dialects around the world. So let’s take a look at this global spread of the English language.
It is the year 1607. English entrepreneurs have just landed on the North American mainland after a long and hazardous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Their settlement, named Jamestown, will go down in history as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. As such, it is one of the starting points of a language development that results in what we now call American English.
Over the following years, the Kingdom of Great Britain manages to broaden its influence on the majority of North American regions. English, as the main language spoken in the British colonies, similarly spreads.
However, languages are constantly adapting and changing. With a whole ocean between them, language changes in the Americas and Europe do not necessarily follow the same patterns. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the subsequent alienation from the motherland, only served to hasten along different developments.
Furthermore, there were various other languages being spoken in the American colonies, from Native American languages to those of slaves and migrants from other countries. Their influence on the English used in the Americas can be seen particularly in regard to new vocabulary (e.g. opossum and cookie).
It is thus no surprise that today we differentiate between two national varieties: British English (BE) and American English (AE). And that is also why nowadays the /r/ at the end of a syllable is pronounced in the majorities of AE dialects and is silent in many BE ones. Why “color” is also spelled “colour”. And why “being pissed” means something entirely different in the US than in the UK (and interestingly enough does not refer to a loss of bladder control in either).
Of course, British English and American English are not the only English varieties in the world. Showcasing the development of the latter is only meant to serve as one example. Other varieties in former colonies of the British Empire have gone through their own distinct changes. There are, after all, various factors which can play a role in determining the development of a local English variety.
Such factors include, for example, the influence of other languages (particularly indigenous ones), the closeness to and length of contact with BE, and also the exact English variety or dialect that was first introduced in a country. The first English-speakers in Australia, for example, were mostly convicted felons who very rarely spoke what we would consider “proper” Queen’s English.
The national varieties of English in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, the Bahamas, Samoa, Singapore, etc., consequently differ from one another in various aspects, from vocabulary and syntax to pronunciation, rhythm, and more. Nevertheless, those with a Standard English variety as a mother tongue are usually able to understand one another with only the occasional difficulties.
Where it does get a bit more complicated, though, are English-based pidgins and creoles. These are languages which develop in regular and prolonged communication situations where no common tongue exists. The language situation of African slaves in the Americas, for instance, resulted in the creation of various pidgins and creoles, such as for example the Jamaican Patois. And while the vocabulary in such varieties is predominantly English-based, pronunciation, grammar, orthography and so on can very much differ from Standard English.
With non-native speakers, language blunders are also much more prone to happen. Errors are typically made in close connection to the speaker’s mother tongue. Those whose native language does not include the use of a <th>-sound (/θ/ or /ð/), for example, might find it difficult at first to produce and differentiate this sound from /s/, for example. German language learners often have this particular problem, something the following joke picks up:
Distress call from a ship at sea: We’re sinking!
German coast guard: What are you thinking about?
Further mistakes often made by English language learners is the use of their native grammar while speaking English, a misuse or general lack of vocabulary, so-called false friends (i.e. words that exist in both languages but do not carry the same meaning), overgeneralization in regard to grammar (e.g. “goed” instead of “went”), and more.
With English as a global lingua franca, particularly in business, as well as one of the most widely spoken languages online, the number of English speakers is increasing all the time. The potential for (funny) language mistakes and misunderstandings seems endless. And so people will keep having occasion to think: Do you even speak English?!