colonial lag (language varieties)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

colonial lag
Elizabeth Little points out that the notion of colonial lag "lives on today in the relatively common perception that there are isolated pockets in Appalachia that still use Elizabethan English. (There aren't.)" (Trip of the Tongue, 2012). (H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)


In linguistics, colonial lag is the hypothesis that colonial varieties of a language (such as American English) change less than the variety spoken in the mother country (British English).

This hypothesis has been vigorously challenged ever since the term colonial lag was coined by linguist Albert Marckwardt in his book American English (1958). For example, in an article in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume 6 (2001), Michael Montgomery concludes that in regard to American English, "[t]he evidence cited for colonial lag is selective, often ambiguous or tendentious, and far from indicating that American English in any of its varieties is more archaic than innovative."

See Example and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • Marckwardt on Colonial Lag
    "These post-colonial survivors of earlier phases of mother-country culture, taken in conjunction with the retention of earlier linguistic features, have made what I should like to call a colonial lag. I mean to suggest by this term nothing more than that in a transplanted civilization, such as ours undeniably is, certain features which it possesses remain static over a period of time. Transplanting usually results in a time lag before the organism, be it a geranium or a brook trout, becomes adapted to its new environment. There is no reason why the same principle should not apply to a people, their language, and their culture."
    (Albert H. Marckwardt, American English. Oxford University Press1958)
  • Colonial Lag in American English
    - "There was for a long time a popular belief that languages separated from their home countries, like a bud nipped from its stem, ceased to develop. This phenomenon was called colonial lag, and there were many--including, notably, Noah Webster--who argued in particular for its applicability to American English. But though the colonial languages in the New World might have been isolated from their homelands, these languages were not unaffected by their trip to the New World. Colonial lag is, as linguist David Crystal says, 'a considerable oversimplification.' Language, even in isolation, continues to change."
    (Elizabeth Little, Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Languages. Bloomsbury, 2012)

    -"With ongoing language changes, it is often argued that colonies follow the linguistic developments of the mother country with some delay because of the geographical distance. This conservatism is called colonial lag. In the case of American English it is witnessed, for instance, in changes that took place in the modal auxiliaries can and may. Can gained ground in uses previously associated with may earlier and more rapidly in England than in the American colonies (Kytö 1991).

    "Colonial lag is not, however, in evidence with all linguistic changes. In the case of third-person singular present-tense suffixes, for instance, no such tendency can be observed."
    (Terttu Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Colonial Lag in New Zealand English
    - "Because of the fragmentation of transplanted speech communities, the children of colonial founding populations may lack well-defined peer groups and the models they provide; in such an event, the influence of the dialects of the parents' generation would be stronger than in more typical linguistic situations. This is especially true of more isolated settlers' children. As a result, the dialect that develops in such situations largely reflects the speech of the previous generation, thus lagging behind.

    "[P]arental origin is often an important predictor of aspects of individuals' speech. This provides some support for the notion of colonial lag."
    (Elizabeth Gordon, New Zealand English: Its Origins and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

    - "[T]here are a number of grammatical features in the New Zealand archive which can be described as archaic in that we assume that they were more typical of mid-nineteenth-century English than of later periods. One reservation, however, is that a number of grammatical changes which have affected English in the British Isles in the last 200 years have started in the south of England and spread out from there, arriving later in the English north and southwest--and then in Scotland and Ireland, if at all--with some considerable time lag. There are a number of conservative features on the ONZE tapes [Origins of New Zealand English project] which may therefore be either archaic, or English regional, or Scottish, or Irish, or all four. One such is the use of for-to infinitives, as in They had for to gather the crops."
    (Peter Trudgill, New-Dialect Formation: The Inevitability of Colonial Englishes. Oxford University Press, 2004)