In the last three hundred years the English language has extended to all the continents of the world and the number of English speakers has multiplied.
In OE and Early ME periods the English dialects were confined to part of the British Isles: they were spoken in what is known as England proper; from the 13th to the 17th c. the English language extended to the whole of the British Isles with the exception of some mountainous regions in Wales, Northern Scotland and some parts of Ireland.
The number of English speaking people grew: at the end of the 11th c. it is estimated at one and a half or two millions; by 1700 English had over 8 million speakers. In the course of two centuries of British expansion overseas, colonisation and emigration to other continents, the number of English speakers increased at such a high rate that by 1900 it had reached one hundred and twenty three million.
In Great Britain two varieties of English distinguished from Standard English – Scottish and Anglo-Irish – claimed to be literary tongues. The English language in Ireland displays sharper differences from British English than the Scottish dialect, as for several hundred years it developed in relative isolation from the monopoly. Despite the attempts to revive the Irish language, by 1900 a variety of English with a strong Irish accent, known as the “brogue”, had become the main language of the population.
England’s colonial expansion to the New World began in the late 16th c. when her first colonies were set up in Newfoundland. But the real start came later: in 1607 the first permanent settlements were founded in Jamestown and in 1620 the famous ship “Mayflower” brought a group of English settlers to what became known as New England. The settlers came from the London area, from East Anglia and Yorkshire; later colonists came from other regions, including Scotland and Ireland. They spoke different dialects of English. In North America those dialects gradually blended into a new type of the language, American English.
American English was first proclaimed to be an independent language by Noah Webster (1758 – 1843), a schoolmaster from Connecticut. In his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ (1828), he showed the differences in vocabulary and pronunciation. American English, in his opinion, was a pure uncorrupted descendant of Chaucer and Shakespeare, while British English had been spoiled by linguistic change. He admitted, though, that the two types of English were basically identical.
Australia was a place of deportation of British convicts since the late 18th c. A flow of immigrants were attracted to Australia, at first by the free grants of land, later – by the discovery of gold. The bulk of the population in Australia, as well as in New Zealand, came from Great Britain; their language is regarded by some linguists as an independent geographical variant of English, though its difference from British English is not great: it is confined to some peculiarities of pronunciation and specific words. The list of countries with an English-speaking population outside the British Isles includes the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the South African Republic (Rastorgueva 1983).
A pidgin is a system of communication which has grown up among people who do not share a common language, but who want to talk to each other. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, a reduced grammatical structure, and a much narrower range of functions, compared to the language which gave rise to them. They are the native language of no-one, but they are a main means of communication for millions of people. Most pidgins are based on European languages – English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese. In time, these languages may come to be used on the radio, in the press, and may even develop a literature of their own. Some of the most widely used expanded pidgins based on English are Krio (Sierra Leone), Nigerian Pidgin English, and Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea).