An introduction to regional Englishes

An introduction to regional Englishes: Dialect variation in England. By Joan C. Beal. (Edinburgh textbooks on the English language.) New York: Edinburgh University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 122. 9780748621170. $25.

Reviewed by Susanne Wagner, Chemnitz University of Technology

This short volume serves as an excellent introduction to dialect variation in England. Given the wide range of variation in the English-speaking world as well as in the accompanying research, such a narrow focus is almost inevitable in the field today. Joan C. Beal states on the very first page that the book will be limited to variation in England and elaborates later on her major reason for doing so.  In the context of the United Kingdom, issues of national identity, which often play a role in language variation, differ vastly.

The first chapter offers a comprehensive introduction to the topic, including a historical overview of dialectology and treatment of dialects. B focuses on such popular issues as the question of whether regional dialects are disappearing, emphasizing that while change is more rapid than ever before, new differences are emerging at the same time.

Chs. 2 through 4 follow a typical order of discussion in a book on regional variation, beginning with accent variation (Ch. 2), followed by a chapter on dialect variation (i.e. variation in morphology and syntax) and a chapter on lexical variation. All chapters focus not only on ‘old’ variables but also on current trends such as happy-tensing and l-vocalization, which—in terms of their regional distribution—defy traditional beliefs of language change and spread of features. The chapter on morphosyntax contains two main subsections, each focusing on one main constituent of the clause: the noun phrase and the verb phrase. While the restriction to England has been made explicit from the start, an occasional reference to parallels in other varieties of English—particularly to features that American English ‘inherited’ from English dialects—would have been helpful.

The hallmarks of the book are Chs. 5 and 6. In Ch. 5, two major patterns of language change, levelling and diffusion, are discussed. Importantly, B also includes a discussion on resistance and divergence, showing that levelling is not the only possibility. Ch. 6 introduces one of the current trends in studies on variation, namely its relation to identity. A theoretical introduction helps inexperienced readers in particular to put things into perspective and includes a discussion of William Labov’s Martha’s Vineyard study, today widely regarded as the first study to show the construction of identity through language. With the help of three case studies, B further elaborates on possible effects that identity can have on language (variation and change). Each of the three studies uses different methods and arrives at different conclusions, which nicely exemplifies the broad range of research conducted in the field.

Overall, this book is highly recommended for undergraduate students who want a quick overview of a small part of a large field. The book includes numerous ideas for further research and reading, and the exercises offer additional food for thought.