English Language Variation: Levels of Linguistic Structure

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The term “language variety” may be used to indicate a distinct language such as Spanish or Japanese, a particular variety of a language spoken by a particular group such as speakers of Cajon English, or even the distinctive speech of an individual

The term “language variety” is used by linguists to refer to the many different types of language variation in common use.

The term may be used to denote a distinct language such as Spanish or Japanese, a particular variety of a language spoken by a specific group such as speakers of Cajun English, or even the distinctive speech of an individual--such as that spoken by William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, or Andy Warhol.

While we are probably most aware of differences in vocabulary choice and pronunciation when we are engaging in everyday conversation, the study of linguistics recognizes several levels of linguistic structure involving (but not limited to) the production of sound, vowel pronunciation, allowable consonant order, and possessive designation.  The five levels of linguistic structure provided here underlie our means of common verbal communication.

Phonetic Level:

In most American dialects, the sounds t, d, n, s, and z are produced with what is termed “alveolar” articulation (articulated with the tongue against or close to the alveolar ridge on the roof of the mouth), while other dialects heard in New York City have “dental” articulation, whereby the tip of the tongue touches the top teeth.

Some British and Scottish dialects of English produce a trilled “r,” while most American dialects have either a retroflex “r” (where the tongue articulates with the roof of the mouth behind the alveolar ridge, and may even be curled back to touch the palate or uvula) or a bunched “r,” (with the tongue in a coiled position).

Phonological Level:

Most American dialects  make a distinction between the “au” and “aw” sounds as in caught or hawk, while other dialects use the same sound--with Don and dawn, for example, sounding exactly the same.

In southern England, words like “flood,” “but,” “cup” are pronounced with an “a” sound, and words like “full,” “good,” and “put” with a “u” sound.  Many dialects of the north, however, pronounce both sets of word types with a “u” sound.

Standard British English does not allow the sequence V-r-C or V-r-?. This is also reflected in Bostonian English where the phrase "Park the car" is pronounced “pak d/te ka.”

Some African-American English dialects do not allow the sequence C-r or C-l, so the word professor would be pronounced as if, “pa-fe-sa.”

Morphological Level:

Some rural British English dialects use the possessive with pronouns, but not with nouns: thus, “my life,” “his dog,” but “Tom car,” and “the old lady house.” (This is also present in some African-American English dialects.)

In parts of northern England and southern Wales, “s” is not just a third person singular present tense indicator, but a general tense indicator, with speakers saying, “I likes him,” and “we goes.”

Appalachian English uses past tense forms of various verbs that are different from the past tense forms found in other commonly-used American dialects, for example, where “climbed” is pronounced klam, “heated” is pronounced het, and “ate” is pronounced et.

Some dialects of English use hisself and theirselves, while Standard English dictates, “himself,” and themselves.”

Syntactic Level:

For many southern speakers of American English, the word “done” is utilized as an auxiliary word, as in, “She done already told you.”

For many Appalachian speakers, the word “right” can function as an adverb: “A right good idea.”

In many related dialects (and heard throughout the American South) combinations of auxiliaries are prominent, such as, might could, might would, may can, and useta could.

Many American Midwest dialects use a linguistic variation whereby “The wheat needs to be watered” becomes, “The wheat needs watered.”

Semantic Level:

Reflected in cross-cultural comparison within the same language, to “knock up” in British English means to ‘awaken from sleep by knocking,’ while in American parlance it means to ‘make pregnant.’

Cross-cultural variation within the same language (and even regional variation within the same language) is also evident with words that have the same meaning as with soda, pop, soft drink, and soda pop--which in American English all mean the same thing, but may be replaced with entirely different sets of terms throughout other English speaking parts of the world.


A Biography of the English Language, Rinehart and Winston

Various linguistics classes and related studies provided at USF, St. Pete, FL, USA

Thumb via Superstarspeach.com (with my thanks)

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