English language

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Pronunciation /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/[1]
Native speakers 360 million  (2010)[2]
L2: 375 million and 750 million English as a foreign or second language[3]
Language family
Writing system Roman alphabet
Official status
Official language in 54 countries
27 non-sovereign entities
United Nations
European Union
Commonwealth of Nations
Council of Europe
Language codes
ISO 639-1 en
ISO 639-2 eng
ISO 639-3 eng
Linguasphere 52-ABA
     Countries where English is an official or de facto official language, or national language, and is spoken fluently by the majority of the population      Countries where it is an official but not primary language
EN language code (ISO 639-1)

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages. It is now the most widely used language in the world.[4]

It is spoken in many countries around the world. It is the first language of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of Caribbean nations. There are about 375 million native speakers (people with first language as English),[5] which is the largest after Mandarin and Spanish. About 220 million more people speak it as a second language and it is often used in work and in travel, and there are as many as a billion people who are learning it, which makes English the second most spoken language as well as the most international one in the world.

English has changed and has been changed by many different languages.[6] English grammar has become very different from other Germanic languages, without becoming much like Romance languages. Because nearly 60% of the vocabulary comes from Latin, English is sometimes called the most Latin of the Germanic languages, and is often mistaken for being a Romance language.[7]

History[change | change source]

As its name suggests, the English language began in England (today part of the United Kingdom). Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) came to Britain from around 449 AD. They made their home in the south and east of the island, pushing out the Celtic Britons who were there before them, or making them speak the English language instead of the old Celtic languages. Some people still speak Celtic languages today, in Wales (Welsh) and elsewhere. "Scots" is a dialect of English, although some call it a separate language.

The Germanic dialects of these different tribes became what we call today Old English. The word "English" comes from the name of the Angles: Englas. Old English did not sound or look much like the English we speak today. If English speakers today were to hear or read a passage in Old English, they would understand just a few words.

The closest language to English that is still used today is Frisian, spoken by about 500,000 people living in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Although it is a lot like English, speakers of the two languages would not be able to understand each other. That is why people suggest that the closest major language to English is Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands and nearby Belgium. Some German words (German is spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) are also a lot like English. All these languages belong to the same West Germanic family as English.

Many other people came to England later at different times, speaking different languages, and these languages added more words to make today's Modern English. For example, around 800 AD, many Danish and Norse pirates, also called Vikings, came to the country, established Danelaw, and English received many Norse loanwords. Their languages were Germanic languages, like Old English, but are different slightly. They are called the North Germanic languages.

After William the Conqueror took over England in 1066 AD with his armies and became king, he brought his nobles, who spoke Norman, a language closely related to French, to be the new government. They stopped English from being taught in schools for a long time, and the language changed greatly, because it was mostly being spoken instead of written for about 300 years. English borrowed so many words from Norman at that time that it could be called a different language, Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer is a well known writer of Middle English. After more sound changes, Middle English became Modern English.

English has continued to take new words from other languages, for example mainly from French (around 30% to 40% of its words), but also Chinese, Hindi and Urdu, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese. Because many scientists from different countries needed to talk to each other, they chose names for scientific things in the languages they all knew: Greek and Latin. Those words came to English also, for example, photography ("photo-" means "light" "and "-graph " means "picture" or "writing", in Greek. A photograph is a picture made using light), or telephone. So, English is made of Old English, Danish, Norse, and French, and has been changed by Latin, Greek, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, and Spanish, and more words from even more languages. English grammar has also changed, becoming simpler and less Germanic.

The history of the British Empire has added to the spread of English. English is an important language in many places today. In Australia, Canada, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States, among others (those in the Commonwealth), English is the main language. Because the United Kingdom (the country where England is) and the United States have historically been powerful in money-making and government, many people find it helpful to learn English to communicate in science, business, and diplomacy. This is called learning English as an additional language, English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

Many famous stories and plays are in English. William Shakespeare was a famous English writer of poems and plays. Although his English may seem old, it is actually considered to be Early Modern English. Later on, many short stories and novels also used English, and some of the most famous writers were Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie who is known today for her stories about crime and murders. Today, many famous songs and movies (cinema films) use the English language.

Spelling differences[change | change source]

English uses strange spelling when written. Different words can use the same letters and combinations for very different sounds. For example, "ough" is different in through (threw), rough (ruff), dough (doe) or cough (coff). This makes it a very hard language to learn.[8] Many English speaking countries spell words differently. In the United States, some words are spelled differently from the way they are spelled in the United Kingdom and many other countries (such as those of the British Commonwealth) where English is the main language. These different ways of spelling are sometimes called "American English" and "British English". For example, "colour" is spelled "color" in the USA, and "programme" is spelled "program" in the USA. Even the word "spelled" is different in British English, where it is "spelt". However, with greater globalization or globalisation (ideas spreading around the world), and the spread of US culture through television and US computer programmes, some British people now sometimes use American English terms.

Vocabulary[change | change source]

Influences on English vocabulary

Nearly 60% of the vocabulary in the English language comes from Latin and Neo-Latin languages (mainly French):

  • Langue d'oïl (French): 29.3%
  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.7%
  • Germanic languages: 24% (inherited from Old English/Anglo-Saxon, Proto-Germanic, Old Norse, etc. without including Germanic words borrowed from a Romance languages)
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • Italian, Spanish and Portuguese: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages: less than 1%

However, in the most common words, the proportion of Germanic origin words is much higher. Also, besides the simple vocabulary, there are expressions and typical short phrases, which are also often of Germanic origin.

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. English noun – Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary – Oxford University Press. ©2016.
  2. Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2010" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2010
  3. "Future of English". The British Council. http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-elt-future.pdf. Retrieved 24 August 2011. (page 10)
  4. Mydans, Seth (14 May 2007) "Across cultures, English is the word" New York Times. Retrieved 21 September 2011
  5. Curtis, Andy. Color, race, and English language teaching: shades of meaning. 2006, page 192.
  6. Baugh, Albert C. & Cable, Thomas 2012. A history of the English language. 6th ed, London: Routledge. ISBN 0-41-565596-X
  7. Comparison between English, German and Dutch (in Italian)
  8. Smith, Bridie 2009. "It's offishal - English iz darned hard to learn" (in English). The Age.

Other websites[change | change source]