Letters from the linguists: variety is the spice of language

by Rachel Belsham

They say variety is the spice of life. And that’s certainly true of language. There isn’t just one “English” but countless varieties.

In the UK, there are many different words for something even as simple as a bread roll. Or is it a cob? Or a bap? Or a bun? Well, it depends on who you ask!

And vocabulary is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to variation. Grammar and pronunciation are also thrown into the mix.

So, where did these language varieties come from?

Language is constantly evolving. Words take on different meanings. New grammatical structures come into use. Pronunciation changes. And so on…

In the past, contact between different communities was more limited. Go far enough back and most people were unlikely to travel further than the next town. This relative isolation played a part in establishing regional varieties.

The English spoken in a Scottish town would develop distinctive features over time. Meanwhile, people who lived in a town in the South of England would adopt a different set of linguistic characteristics. Speakers from these regions rarely crossed paths. And so, these language varieties continued to evolve independently. They certainly turned out a wee bit different!

This process has resulted in some very distinctive, localized varieties. Take Cockney, for example. Although spoken less frequently today, it was once commonplace in London’s East End – more specifically within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. Famous for its rhyming slang, Cockney is a fantastic example of just how creative you can be with language. To those who don’t know, it’s a mystery how saucepans and weasel can mean kids and coat respectively. I mean, seriously!? The key is these rhyming phrases “saucepan lids” and “weasel and stoat”.

But change happens…

The industrial revolution paved the way for social and technological change. Crucially, the railway gave people more freedom to travel. With increased mobility, regional varieties started to become less distinctive.

Fast forward to the present day. Mass and social media play a significant role in our daily lives. Thanks to modern technology we can communicate with people all over the world.

Many are asking whether variation is going to disappear as the world becomes increasingly connected.

But how we speak comes down to more than just geography. It’s strongly linked to identity, and where you live is just one part of that. How you speak can reflect your age, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic background, education, occupation, and so on.

One of the great benefits of the internet is that it connects people who share beliefs, interests, and characteristics. It helps establish strong group identities that transcend geographical boundaries. Someone who identifies as LGBTQ+, for example, can easily connect with other members of that community from all over the world. The language they use may reflect this shared social identity.

Variation isn’t just going to disappear now that we can hop on a plane or spend a Sunday evening scrolling through Twitter. In fact, technology facilitates the building of group identities – which is key to linguistic variation.

‘Letters from the linguists’ is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians. 

Phrasee’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance and drive more revenue for global brands. 

Looking for more Letters from the linguists?

Phrasee is FULL of smart people!