Dinner supper tea

It is a commonplace factoid that English has more varieties than any other language - so do teachers of English B have to try to cover this enormous range under the conceptual understanding of 'Variation'?

Don't worry: the short answer is 'no'! But we need to try to explore in more detail what we should aim to teach...

To start with, let's unfold what is involved in this word 'variation'. Here are some basic statements:-

  • language varies, according to context and audience - we can take this as a given, since it is constantly observable
  • the observable evidence we have is formed of variations of vocabulary, grammar, phrasing and usage
  • we can organise such variations into varieties: i.e. patterns of variations which we can relate to social groups of one sort or another

To go back to the factoid in the opening sentence: how many varieties of English there may be will depend on who devises the categories, according to which criteria ... so we're very unlikely to be able to confirm or reject the factoid in any reliable way. However, there will be little dispute that English, as a globally-used language, has a lot of varieties, and that our students will certainly meet, and have to deal with, some of these as they communciate in English.

Accordingly, I would argue that we should not be concerned with teaching lists of facts about multiple varieties of English, but rather that we should teach students skills of:-

  • how to watch out for and recognise variations in English ... which means paying close attention to vocabulary, grammar, phrasing and usage
  • how to inquire into why such variations exist ... which means applying basic ideas of socio-linguistics: the ways in which language defines, and is defined by, society and culture

To illustrate...

The text that forms the basis of this page comes from a witty and entertaining blog called Same Same But Different, subtitled Ryan and Janine's expat and travel adventures - a blog name which combines the memorably enigmatic with the perfectly clear, don't you think? When you look at the site, go to 6 Ways to Divide England Linguistically: Explained which contains some maps devised by Ryan which went "a little bit viral".

The maps present the ways in which various different words and phrases are used in England to express similar concepts. This approach is worth presenting to the students as a model of how to recognise variations in English, and of how to explore the socio-cultural reasons for such variations.

With Ryan and Janine's permission, I here extract the map + explanation which deals with the usage of the completely commonplace words 'dinner', 'supper' and 'tea'.

So, why should different words be used in different parts of the country?

You can project this map, using Presentation mode, to introduce the topic and the idea - and then move on to the handout which has the real meat of the lesson. (In fact, the map is not vital: it presents one key notion, that of the geographical distribution of the usage of the words between the South East and the rest of England ... and the slightly mysterious yellow blob refers, I presume, to the idea that middle class usage has some influence in both areas.)

Handout tasks

The language of the text is quite straightforward, and most students will not have difficulty in understanding it. The questions are mostly intended to encourage active reading: the ability to scan and re-organise the meaning, so as to grasp and summarise the key ideas fully. Active reading is vital if we wish to apply critical thinking - see the final section of this page.

Here are the expected answers.

Summary and inference

Scan through the text to find the answers to the following questions.

1.  Which 5 names of meals are used generally, with little or no disagreement?

......... breakfast ......................

.......... lunch ...........................

........ Sunday dinner .................

...... Christmas dinner ..............

......... school dinners ............................

2.  Which 3 names of meals are used according to custom and tradition?

...... afternoon tea ...............................

........ Sunday dinner .................

...... Christmas dinner ..............

3.  In which 2 ways was the use of ‘dinner’ affected by the work habits of different classes? One way is explained explicitly, and one way is implicit.

explicit: ...... "working class, a large meal in the middle of the day was important to help them keep working" (or similar meaning in different words) ..........................

implicit: ....... "middle and upper classes, the largest meal was usually eaten 6:30 and 8pm" - i.e. after work (or similar meaning in different words) ..........................................

4.  If you just wanted a ‘snack’, which two names might you use?

......... lunch ...............

........ supper ................

5.  What is the main reason given for linking social class to geography?

......... more middle class in the (richer) South east - therefore more middle class influence on language - middle class influence more rejected in the working class North and West (or similar meaning in different words) .......................

Critical thinking exercise

Project these questions, using Presentation mode, and ask the students to explore them through discussion. If you click on the icon beneath each question, you can reveal some suggested answers (but these are merely possibles, and should not be seen as The Right Answers !) You should aim to elicit all of these ideas, and more, from the students in class discussion - and only fall back on the icon notes if necessary or as a final checklist.

Why should social class affect how language is used?

> different access to education?

> different types of education? (But why, and for what purposes?)

> different needs - i.e. different things to describe, or different emotions to express?

> different attitudes about what is important?

> different types of social relationships, requiring different ways of relating through language?

> And...?

Would it be better for everyone to use language in the same way?

If so, why? If not, why not?


> No chance of confusion ... or at least, less chance of confusion

> So, people would communicate more efficiently, and not waste time explaining


> it would be boring - nobody would ever say things in original or amusing ways

> language helps to form small, individualised social groups - if everyone used the same words, we would all just belong to some huge impersonal mass

> it wouldn't work, because the real world is infinitely more complex than could ever be expressed in a severely limited vocabulary

> to start with, the world is continuously changing, so how could a rigid language system keep up?

> and anyway, who would decide? and what would happen to people who didn't / couldn't use the language 'correctly'?

Would it be possible for everyone to use language in the same way?

If so, why? If not, why not?


> if people were taught properly

> if there was an official reference source online, people could always consult the 'correct' word or phrase

...but No!

... people are unavoidably different, and have different experiences, so...

... people will always have different needs, to say nothing of...

... people have different views of the world, different values

... and see more reasons under 'No' above

Three social classes are mentioned in the text.

Is this an accurate description of the real world?

If not, why not?

Basically, No

> perhaps accurate, but in pretty simple terms - it's not UNtrue, but it tells us very little

> why not five categories...or seven...or 21? Because the more categories of generalisation, the more difficult to pigeon-hole

> even with the simple three, there will be mixtures and influences and cross-overs, so they will not be 'pure'

> to say nothing of the regional variations mentioned in the text

> or personal variations (see last paragraph) - each individual is likely to escape from any simple, limited category

Is it helpful to have a system of social classes?


Highly debateable, this, but we can imagine the following arguments

> society is better organised like that - people know their place in the structure, and so know how to behave

> social relationships are more predictable, since people recognise other people more easily, as types

> there are always different roles in any society (some people are better at certain jobs than others), and so...

> ... we should recognise and respect the different contributions each group makes to the common good

(But the problem is that systems of social class always seem to involve hierarchy - some people are seen as 'better' than others ... usually because of the brutal fact that they have more power than the others! Is there such a thing as a genuinely horizontal system of social class?)

Is it unhelpful to have a system of social classes?


Basically, Yes

> simple (& simplistic) class structures present a caricature view of reality

> caricature views are the basis of stereotypes and prejudices, thus social conflict

> if individuals believe in the class structure, they will probably end up seeing themselves in terms of the caricature / stereotype


> a sense of social class may give people a sense of group loyalty, of belonging, of identity (but is this false?)

> sorting people into classes, or categories, is probably an essential tool in sociology - we couldn't form theoretical understandings about society without making generalisations


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