English is spoken today on all five continents as a result of colonial expansion in the last four centuries or so. The colonial era is now definitely over but its consequences are only too clearly to be seen in the presence of English as an official and often native language in many of the former colonies along with more or less strongly diverging varieties which arose in particular socio-political conditions, so-called pidgins which in some cases later developed into creoles. Another legacy of colonialism is where English fulfils the function of a lingua franca. Many countries, like Nigeria, use English as a lingua franca (a general means of communication) since there are many different and mutually unintelligible languages and a need for a supra-regional means of communicationEnglish has also come to play a central role as an international language. There are a number of reasons for this, of which the economic status of the United States is certainly one of the most important nowadays. Internal reasons for the success of English in the international arena can also be given: a little bit of English goes a long way as the grammar is largely analytic in type so that it is suitable for those groups who do not wish to expend great effort on learning a foreign languageThe two main groups are Britain and America. For each there are standard forms of English which are used as yardsticks for comparing other varieties of the respective areas.
In Britain the standard is called Received Pronunciation. The term stems from Daniel Jones at the beginning of the present century and refers to the pronunciation of English which is accepted - that is, received - in English society. BBC English, Oxford English, Queen’s English (formerly King’s English) are alternative terms which are not favoured by linguists as they are imprecise or simply incorrect.Those varieties of English which are spoken outside of Britain and America are variously referred to as overseas or extraterritorial varieties. A recent practice is to use the term Englishes (a plural created by linguists) which covers a multitude of forms. The label English World-Wide (the name of an academic journal dedicated to this area) is used to refer to English in its global context and to research on it, most of which has been concerned with implicitly comparing it to mainland varieties of Britain and America and then with trying to determine its own linguistic profile. Extraterritorial varieties are not just different from mainland varieties because of their geographical distance from the original homeland but also because in many cases a type of suspension has occurred vis à vis changes in point of origin, i.e. in many respects the overseas varieties appear remarkably unchanged to those from the European mainland. This phenomenon is known as colonial lag. It is a term which should not be overworked but a temperate use of the term is appropriate and it can be cited as one of the features accounting for the relative standardness of overseas varieties, such as Australian or New Zealand English with regards to British forms of English.