The "Inner Circle" of the English Language

Inner Circle of the English Language
According to linguist David Crystal, the total number of English speakers in the inner circle is between 320 and 380 million (English as a Global Language, 2003). John Lamb / Getty Images

The Inner Circle is made up of countries in which English is the first or the dominant language. These countries include Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States. Also called the core English-speaking countries.

The inner circle is one of the three concentric circles of World English identified by linguist Braj Kachru in "Standards, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle" (1985).

Kachru describes the inner circle as “the traditional bases of English, dominated by the 'mother tongue' varieties of the language.” (For a simple graphic of Kachru's circle model of World Englishes, visit page eight of the slideshow World Englishes: Approaches, Issues, and Resources.)

The labels inner, outer, and expanding circles represent the type of spread, the patterns of acquisition, and the functional allocation of the English language in diverse cultural contexts. As discussed below, these labels remain controversial.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

What is the Inner Circle?

  • "Inner circle nations are countries where English is spoken as a first language ('mother tongue' or L1). They are very often nations to which very large numbers of people migrated from the U.K. For example, the U.S. and Australia are inner circle nations. . . . 

    "Whether a country is in the inner, outer, or expanding circle . . . has little to do with geography but more to do with history, migration patterns and language policy. . . . [W]hile Kachru's model does not suggest that one variety is better than any other, inner circle nations are, in fact, perceived as having greater ownership over the language, in that they have inherited English as their L1. Even among inner circle nations, not all nations can claim authenticity of the English language. The U.K. is widely perceived as being the 'origin' of the English language and is seen as the authority on what counts as 'standard' English; inner circle nations tend to be regarded as 'authentic' speakers of English (Evans 2005). However, . . . the English used even in inner circle nations is not homogenous."
    (Annabelle Mooney and Betsy Evans, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, 4th ed. Routledge, 2015)

    Language Norms

    • "The most generally held view is that the Inner Circle (eg. UK, US) is norm-providing; this means that English language norms are developed in these countries and spread outwards. The Outer Circle (mainly New Commonwealth countries)  is norm-developing, easily adopting and perhaps developing its own norms. The Expanding Circle (which includes much of the rest of the world) is norm-dependent, because it relies on the standards set by native speakers in the Inner Circle. This is a one-directional flow and learners of English as a foreign language in the Expanding Circle look to the standards set in the Inner and Outer Circles."
      (Mike Gould and Marilyn Rankin, Cambridge International AS and A Level English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2014)  
    • "In the so-called 'inner circle' English is multifunctional, transmitted through the family and maintained by governmental or quasi-governmental agencies (e.g. media, school, etc.), and is the language of the dominant culture. The 'outer' circle contains countries (usually multilingual) colonized by English-speaking powers. English is typically not the language of the home, but transmitted through the school, and has become part of the country's chief institutions. Norms come officially from the inner circle, but local norms also play a powerful role in dictating everyday usage."
      (Suzanne Romaine, "Global English: From Island Tongue to World Language." The Handbook of the History of English, ed. by Ans van Kemenade and Bettelou Los. Blackwell, 2006)
    • "[W]hile inner circle nations are now well in the minority among users of English, they still exert strong proprietary rights over the language in terms of norms. This applies far more to discourse patterns than to grammatical rules or pronunciation norms (the latter varying considerably between the inner circle countries in any case). By discourse patterns, I mean the way spoken and written discourse is organised. In many fields of scholarship, the major international journals are now published entirely in English. . . .
    • "At present, English speakers from inner circle countries still hold a great deal of control in terms of assessing contributions and reviewing books in English."
      (Hugh Stretton, Australia Fair. UNSW Press, 2005)

    Problems With the World Englishes Model

    • "[W]ith regard to inner circle Englishes in particular, the model ignores the fact that although there is relatively little differentiation between written norms, this is not the case between spoken norms. The model, thus, in its broad categorisation of varieties according to large geographical areas, does not take into account the considerable spoken dialectal variation within each of the varieties identified (e.g., American English, British English, Australian English). . . .

      "Secondly, a problem exists with the World Englishes model because of its reliance on a fundamental distinction between native speakers of English (i.e., from the inner circle) and non-native speakers of English (i.e., from the outer and expanding circles). There is a problem with this distinction because attempts so far at precise definitions of the terms 'native speaker' (NS) and 'non-native speaker' (NNS) have proved highly controversial . . ..

      "Thirdly, Singh et al. (1995:284) believe that the labelling of inner circle (old) English and outer circle (new) English is overly value-laden since it suggests that older Englishes are more truly 'English' than those historically younger varieties in the outer circle. Such a distinction seems even more problematic because, . . . historically, all varieties of English other than 'English English' are transpalnted."
      (Robert M. McKenzie, The Social Psychology of English as a Global Language. Springer, 2010)