Find out how migrants from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean have added variety and diversity to the rich patchwork of accents and dialects spoken in the UK.
For more than half a century, immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean have added variety and diversity to the rich patchwork of accents and dialects spoken in the UK. British colonisers originally exported the language to all four corners of the globe and migration in the 1950s brought altered forms of English back to these shores. Since that time, especially in urban areas, speakers of Asian and Caribbean descent have blended their mother tongue speech patterns with existing local dialects producing wonderful new varieties of English, such as London Jamaican or Bradford Asian English. Standard British English has also been enriched by an explosion of new terms, such as balti (a dish invented in the West Midlands and defined by a word that would refer to a ‘bucket’ rather than food to most South Asians outside the UK) and bhangra (traditional Punjabi music mixed with reggae and hip-hop).
The recordings on this site of speakers from minority ethnic backgrounds include a range of speakers. You can hear speakers whose speech is heavily influenced by their ethnic background, alongside those whose speech reveals nothing of their family background and some who are ranged somewhere in between. There are also a set of audio clips that shed light on some of the more recognisable features of Asian English and Caribbean English.
As with the Anglo-Saxon and Norman settlers of centuries past, the languages spoken by today’s ethnic communities have begun to have an impact on the everyday spoken English of other communities. For instance, many young people, regardless of their ethnic background, now use the black slang terms, peng (‘good-looking’) and diss (‘insult’ – from ‘disrespecting’) or words derived from Hindi and Urdu, such as chuddies (‘underpants’) or desi (‘typically Asian’). Many also use the all-purpose tag-question, innit – as in statements such as you’re weird, innit. This feature has been variously ascribed to the British Caribbean community or the British Asian community, although it is also part of a more native British tradition – in dialects in the West Country and Wales, for instance – which might explain why it appears to have spread so rapidly among young speakers everywhere.
Original influences from overseas
The English Language can be traced back to the mixture of Anglo-Saxon dialects that came to these shores 1,500 years ago. Since then it has been played with, altered and transported around the world in many different forms. The language we now recognise as English first became the dominant language in Great Britain during the Middle Ages, and in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. From there it has been exported in the mouths of colonists and settlers to all four corners of the globe. ‘International English’, ‘World English’ or ‘Global English’ are terms used to describe a type of ‘General English’ that has, over the course of the 20th century, become a worldwide means of communication.
The first permanent English-speaking colony was established in North America in the early 1600s. The Americans soon developed a form of English that differed in a number of ways from the language spoken back in the British Isles. In some cases older forms were retained – the way most Americans pronounce the <r> sound after a vowel in words like start, north, nurse and letter is probably very similar to pronunciation in 17th century England. Similarly, the distinction between past tense got and past participle gotten still exists in American English but has been lost in most dialects of the UK.
But the Americans also invented many new words to describe landscapes, wildlife, vegetation, food and lifestyles. Different pronunciations of existing words emerged as new settlers arrived from various parts of the UK and established settlements scattered along the East Coast and further inland. After the USA achieved independence from Great Britain in 1776 any sense of who ‘owned’ and set the ‘correct rules’ for the English Language became increasingly blurred. Different forces operating in the UK and in the USA influenced the emerging concept of a Standard English. The differences are perhaps first officially promoted in the spelling conventions proposed by Noah Webster in The American Spelling Book (1786) and subsequently adopted in his later work, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Both of these publications were enormously successful and established spellings such as center and color and were therefore major steps towards scholarly acceptance that British English and American English were becoming distinct entities.
Influence of Empire
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the British Empire was expanding dramatically, and during the 1700s British English established footholds in parts of Africa, in India, Australia and New Zealand. The colonisation process in these countries varied. In Australia and New Zealand, European settlers quickly outnumbered the indigenous population and so English was established as the dominant language. In India and Africa, however, centuries of colonial rule saw English imposed as an administrative language, spoken as a mother tongue by colonial settlers from the UK, but in most cases as a second language by the local population.
English around the world
Like American English, English in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa has evolved such that they are distinct from British English. However, cultural and political ties have meant that until relatively recently British English has acted as the benchmark for representing ‘standardised’ English – spelling tends to adhere to British English conventions, for instance. Elsewhere in Africa and on the Indian subcontinent, English is still used as an official language in several countries, even though these countries are independent of British rule. However, English remains very much a second language for most people, used in administration, education and government and as a means of communicating between speakers of diverse languages. As with most of the Commonwealth, British English is the model on which, for instance, Indian English or Nigerian English is based. In the Caribbean and especially in Canada, however, historical links with the UK compete with geographical, cultural and economic ties with the USA, so that some aspects of the local varieties of English follow British norms and others reflect US usage.
An international language
English is also hugely important as an international language and plays an important part even in countries where the UK has historically had little influence. It is learnt as the principal foreign language in most schools in Western Europe. It is also an essential part of the curriculum in far-flung places like Japan and South Korea, and is increasingly seen as desirable by millions of speakers in China. Prior to World War Two, most teaching of English as a foreign language used British English as its model, and textbooks and other educational resources were produced here in the UK for use overseas. This reflected the UK’s cultural dominance and its perceived ‘ownership’ of the English Language. Since 1945, however, the increasing economic power of the USA and its unrivalled influence in popular culture has meant that American English has become the reference point for learners of English in places like Japan and even to a certain extent in some European countries. British English remains the model in most Commonwealth countries where English is learnt as a second language. However, as the history of English has shown, this situation may not last indefinitely. The increasing commercial and economic power of countries like India, for instance, might mean that Indian English will one day begin to have an impact beyond its own borders.