I have heard it said (sorry, no refs for you) that when a colony is formed from a parent population, then the colonists 'freeze' in time with respect to language and accents, perhaps cultural aspects and values, and so on. An example is Australia - apparently the Australian accent is similar to a 'British' accent from some time near the early days of the colony (I know that there's no British accent; obviously there would be the influence of many: Irish especially). The parent (UK) changes and evolves, while the smaller colony does so at a much reduced rate.

4 Answers 4


This might be a better question for the Linguistics Stack Exchange site, but I'll give it a shot. Language divergence or linguistic divergence is "when a language breaks into dialects due to a lack of spatial interaction among speakers of a language, and continued isolation causes new languages to be formed."

The branch of linguistics that deals with this is called dialectology:

Dialectology treats such topics as divergence of two local dialects from a common ancestor and synchronic variation.

Dialectologists are concerned with grammatical features that correspond to regional areas. Thus, they are usually dealing with populations living in specific locales for generations without moving, but also with immigrant groups bringing their languages to new settlements.

There is also the term dialect continuum -- "a range of dialects spoken across some geographical area that differ only slightly between neighboring areas, but as one travels in any direction, these differences accumulate such that speakers from opposite ends of the continuum are no longer mutually intelligible."

  • I'm too scared to ask it at the linguist's site. Besides I doubt I would understand the answers. Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 4:15
  • 1
    @adifferentben, go right ahead and ask it on the linguistics site. We're friendly, and we're happy to explain things in laymen's terms!
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 8:14

The linguists use the term


for the phenomenon of where a language preserves older features, rather than creating new ones (as is often the case).

But it is not a universal that the colonies are more conservative then the home culture. Italian is the most conservative in Romance, and it is the geographically divergent members ones that have the most changes (French and Romanian).

As to English, RP is non-rhotic which is supposedly a newer innovtion. But in America... mostly rhotic but some Southern accents are non-rhotic, mostly corresponding historically to West country accents. So out of all that, how can you really say which one is being conservative and which not?

  • As a Sutherner, I pronounce the r's ... Boston is famous for not doing so ... "park the car in the yard" in Boston sounds something like "pahk the cah in the yahd".
    – AnWulf
    Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 0:56
  • @Mitch. Which West country? England? If so, were the older West country accents non-rhotic, because they certainly are rhotic today?
    – Qube
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 7:47
  • @Qube: SW England. Yes, current General American English, and rural West Country are both rhotic (along with Irish and Scottish English). Non-rhoticity is supposedly an innovation in standard British English.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 12:18

I think a term such as "fossilisation" is what you are looking for. But I'm not sure that it is real in the context you are talking about, though there is certainly a perception that it occurs.

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    You're right that it doesn't happen to languages and populations, but rather to individual language phenomena and individual speakers. The generalization of a simple "colony effect" in language is wrong. Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 15:24
  • I heard that residents of Iceland can read Old Norse documents, whereas most Norwegians cannot.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 1:36
  • That is one well-known instance where the colony has been linguistically conservative. This does not make it a general principle (Americans, of course, all talk like Shakespeare).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 9, 2012 at 11:47
  • @GEdgar. There is a similar Polish/Russian situation, where Poles can understand much of what a Russian says (in Russian!), but Russians don't understand much Polish.
    – Qube
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 7:30
  • @Qube: that's quite a different topic. GEdgar was talking about how Modern Icelandic is much close to Old Norse than are other descendants such as NOrwegian.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 16:41

There are a number of factors connected to how a language dialect(s) develop in a colony. Firstly, the influence of the first colonisers -their original regional dialect in the 'mother country'. Secondly, any contact with and borrowing from other languages -so-called stratum effect, with non-dominant languages being termed substrates (in the US: native languages, German, Dutch, French, etc). Finally, any novel terms, expressions or ideas born out of that contact, not to mention mixing of English dialects from new arrivals -both first and second language English speakers.

In light of the above, the statement that US English is somehow a form of older 'original' English is not easy to support, as there is space for considerable subsequent influence.

  • I don't think anybody seriously makes that claim about US English, myths about the Ozarks to the contrary.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 16:43
  • Such views are alive...google it. Bill Bryson gets as close as he dares to lending support to that view (Made in America, 1994:24). Hardly high academia, but it doesn't need to be to be alive as a view within society.
    – Qube
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 19:00
  • Bill Bryson is an extremely entertaining writer, but you've only to count the errors in Native Tongue to see how much he knows about linguistics. (I do understand your point though, and I have no answer except to rue the gullibility of many people).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 22:48

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