British English is the English language as spoken and written in the United Kingdom or, more broadly, throughout the British Isles.Slight regional variations exist in formal, written English in the United Kingdom. For example, the adjective wee is almost exclusively used in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland, whereas little is predominate elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described by the term British English. The forms of spokenEnglish, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken, so a uniform concept of British English is more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English, British English shares “all the ambiguities and tensions in the word British and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity.”
When distinguished from American English, the term “British English” is sometimes used broadly as a synonym for “Commonwealth English“, the general dialect of English spoken amongst the former British colonies exclusive of the particular regionalisms of, for example, Australian or Canadian English.
English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers from various parts of what is now northwest Germanyand the northern Netherlands. The resident population at this time was generally speaking Common Brittonic—the insular variety of continental Celtic, which was influenced by the Roman occupation. This group of languages (Welsh, Cornish, Cumbric) cohabited alongside English into the modern period, but due to their remoteness from the Germanic languages, influence on English was notably limited. However, the degree of influence remains debated, and it has recently been argued that its grammatical influence accounts for the substantial innovations noted between English and the other West Germanic languages. Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of England. One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate. The original Old English language was then influenced by two waves of invasion: the first was by speakers of the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family, who conquered and colonised parts of Britain in the 8th and 9th centuries; the second was the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and ultimately developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. These two invasions caused English to become “mixed” to some degree (though it was never a truly mixed language in the strictest sense of the word; mixed languages arise from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication).
The more idiomatic, concrete and descriptive English is, the more it is from Anglo-Saxon origins. The more intellectual and abstract English is, the more it contains Latin andFrench influences (e.g. pig is the animal bred by the occupied Anglo-Saxons and pork is the animal eaten by the occupying Normans).
Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance branch of the European languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a “borrowing” language of great flexibility and with a huge vocabulary.
The major divisions are normally classified as English English (or English as spoken in England, which encompasses Southern English dialects, West Country dialects, East and West Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects), Welsh English (not to be confused with the Welsh language), Irish English and Scottish English (not to be confused with the Scots language). The various British dialects also differ in the words that they have borrowed from other languages.
Following its last major survey of English Dialects (1949–1950), the University of Leeds has started work on a new project. In May 2007 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a grant to a team led by Sally Johnson, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University, to study British regional dialects.
Johnson’s team are[a] sifting through a large collection of examples of regional slang words and phrases turned up by the “Voices project” run by the BBC, in which they invited the public to send in examples of English still spoken throughout the country. The BBC Voices project also collected hundreds of news articles about how the British speak English from swearing through to items on language schools. This information will also be collated and analysed by Johnson’s team both for content and for where it was reported. “Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Voices study is that the English language is as diverse as ever, despite our increased mobility and constant exposure to other accents and dialects through TV and radio.” Work by the team on this project is not expected to end before 2010.