English in the Commonwealth of Nations

The use of English in the Commonwealth of Nations was inherited from British colonisation. English is spoken as a first or second language in most of the Commonwealth; in a few countries, for example Cyprus and Malaysia, it does not have official status, but is widely used as a lingua franca. Many regions, notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Caribbean, have developed their own native varieties of the language.

Written English as used in the Commonwealth generally favours British as opposed to American spelling, with the exception of Canada, which combines elements of both.

In linguistics, the main subdivisions of English are British and American English, with Canadian English being included in the latter. Therefore there isn't a single group of dialects that can be called “Commonwealth English” along linguistic lines.

Native varieties

Southern Hemisphere native varieties of English began to develop during the 19th century, with the colonisation of Australasia and South Africa. Australian English, New Zealand English and South African English are non-rhotic dialects closely related to one another and to the English spoken in southeastern England. The vocabularies of these dialects are also similar to that of English language in England, with some differences and several terms that are peculiar to each country; Australian English features also a number of North American words. Differences in grammar and usage are mostly limited to colloquial speech.

Canadian English is a variety of (North) American English. It shares the same roots as the English of the United States because it is based on the immigration of British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century. It is also influenced by Scottish, Irish and English immigration after the War of 1812. While the language has continued to change in all of these places, modern Canadian spelling has come to include elements of both (US) American and British spelling. It has also inherited much vocabulary from the shared political and social institutions of Commonwealth countries.

The Caribbean

Caribbean English is influenced by the English-based Creole varieties spoken, but they are not one and the same. There is a great deal of variation in the way English is spoken, with a "Standard English" at the top of the social scale and creoles at the bottom. These dialects have roots in 17th-century English and African languages; unlike most native varieties of English, West Indian dialects often tend to be syllable-timed rather than stress-timed.

Non-native varieties

Second language varieties of English in Africa and Asia have often undergone "indigenisation"; that is, each English-speaking community has developed (or is in the process of developing) its own standards of usage, often under the influence of local languages. These dialects are sometimes referred to as New Englishes (McArthur, p. 36); most of them inherited non-rhoticity from Southern British English.


Several dialects of West African English exist, with a lot of regional variation and some influence from indigenous language. West African English tends to be syllable-timed, and its phoneme inventory is much simpler than that of Received Pronunciation; this sometimes affects mutual intelligibility with native varieties of English. A distinctive East African English is spoken in countries such as Kenya or Tanzania.

Small communities of native English speakers can be found in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia; the dialects spoken are similar to South African English.


India has the world's largest English-speaking population, although most speakers of Indian English are not native speakers. Indian English phonology is highly variable; stress, rhythm and intonation are generally different from those of native varieties. There are also several peculiarities at the levels of morphology, syntax and usage, some of which can also be found among educated speakers.

Southeast Asian English comprises Singapore English and Malaysian English; it features some influence from Chinese. Finally, in Hong Kong, which is no longer a Commonwealth country, English has nonetheless official status.


  • McArthur, Tom (2002). The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866248-3.
  • Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
  • Trudgill, Peter and Jean Hannah. (2002). International English: A Guide to the Varieties of Standard English, 4th ed. London: Arnold. ISBN 0-340-80834-9.

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