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English language

The English language is a West Germanic language, originating from England. It is the third most common "first" language (native speakers), with around 402 million people in 2002. English has lingua franca status in many parts of the world, due to the military, economic, scientific, political and cultural influence of the United Kingdom and later the United States. Where possible, virtually all students in higher education worldwide are required to learn some English, and knowledge of English is virtually a prerequisite for working in many fields and occupations. Most higher academic institutions, for example, require a working command of English.


English is descended from the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around 449 AD, Vortigern, King of the British Isles, issued an invitation to the "Angle kin" (Angles, led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him against the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). The Chronicle documents the subsequent influx of "settlers" who eventually established seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.

These Germanic invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, the languages of whom survived largely in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The dialects spoken by these invaders formed what would be called Old English, which was also strongly influenced by yet another Germanic dialect, Old Norse, spoken by Viking invaders who settled mainly in the North-East (see Jorvik). English, England, and East Anglia are derived from words referring to the Angles: Englisc, Angelcynn, and Englaland.

For the 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Kings of England spoke only French. A large number of French words were assimilated into Old English, which also lost most of its inflections, the result being Middle English. Around the year 1500, the Great Vowel Shift transformed Middle English to Modern English.

The most famous surviving work from Old and Middle English are Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Modern English, the language described by this article, began its rise around the time of William Shakespeare. Some scholars divide early Modern English and late Modern English at around 1800, in concert with British conquest of much of the rest of the world, as the influence of native languages affected English enormously.

Classification and related languages

English belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest undoubted living relatives of English are Scots and Frisian. Frisian is a language spoken by approximately half a million people in the Dutch province of Friesland (Fryslân), in nearby areas of Germany, and on a few islands in the North Sea.

After Scots and Frisian, the next closest relative is the modern Low Saxon language of the eastern Netherlands and northern Germany. Other less closely related living languages include Dutch, Afrikaans, German and the Scandinavian languages. Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker, as English absorbed a tremendous amount of vocabulary from the Norman language after the Norman conquest and from French in further centuries; as a result, a substantial share of English vocabulary is quite close to the French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional differences in meaning.

Geographic distribution
Canadian. Roughly 6% speak a different variety.

English is the first language in Australia (Australian English), the Bahamas, Barbados (Caribbean English), Bermuda, Dominica, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica (Jamaican English), New Zealand (New Zealand English), Antigua, St. Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom (British English) and the United States of America (American English).

English is also one of the primary languages of Belize (with Spanish), Canada (with French), India (Hindi and English in addition to 21 other state languages), Ireland (with Irish), Singapore (with Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and other Asian languages) and South Africa (along with Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and Northern Sotho). It is the most commonly used unofficial language of Israel.

In Hong Kong it is an official language and is widely used in business activities. It is taught from kindergarten level, and is the medium of instruction for a few primary schools, many secondary schools and all universities. Substantial number of students acquire native-speaker level. It is so widely used and spoken, that it is inadequate to say it is merely a second or foreign language.

It is an official language, but not native, in Cameroon, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Ghana, Gambia, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Argentina, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

English is the most widely used "second" and "learning" language in the world, and as such, many linguists believe, it is no longer the exclusive cultural emblem of "native English speakers", but rather a language that is absorbing aspects of cultures worldwide as it grows in use. Others theorise that there are limits to how far English can go in suiting everyone for communication purposes. It is the language most often studied as a foreign language in Europe (32.6 percent) and Japan, followed by French, German and Spanish.

Dialects and regional variants

The expansiveness of the British and the Americans has spread English throughout the globe. It is now the second-most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese. As such, it has bred a variety of regional Englishes (generally referred to as English dialects) and English-based creoles and pidgins.

The major varieties of English may, and in most cases do, contain several subvarieties, such as Cockney within British English, Newfoundland English within Canadian English, and African American Vernacular English("Ebonics") within American English.

Some people dispute the status of Scots as a closely related separate language from English and consider it a group of English dialects. Scots has a long tradition as a separate written and spoken language. Pronunciation, grammar and lexis differ, sometimes substantially, from other varieties of English.

Due to English's wide use as a second language, English speakers can have many different accents, which may identify the speaker's native language. For more distinctive characteristics of regional accents, see Regional accents of English speakers. For more distinctive characteristics of regional dialects, see List of dialects of the English language.

Many countries around the world have blended English words and phrases into their everyday speech and refer to the result by a colloquial name that implies its bilingual origins, which parallels the English language's own addiction to loan words and borrowings. Named examples of these ad-hoc constructions, distinct from pidgin and creole languages, include Engrish, Franglais and Spanglish. (See List of dialects of the English language for a complete list.) Europanto combines many languages but has an English core.

Major regional variations


The Americas




Constructed variants of English

Basic English is simplified for easy international use. It is used by some aircraft manufacturers and other international businesses to write manuals and communicate. Some English schools in the Far East teach it as an initial practical subset of English.

Special English is a simplified version of English used by the Voice of America. It uses a vocabulary of 1500 words.

Seaspeak and the related Airspeak and Policespeak, all based on restricted vocabularies, were designed by Edward Johnson in the 1980s to aid international cooperation and communication in specific areas.


IPA chart of vowels


It is the vowels that differ most from region to region.

Symbols in round brackets represent some features that aren't used in all regions.

  1. In American English, the corresponding sound is [A] (in SAMPA).
  2. Many dialects of American English don't have this vowel. See cot-caught merger.
  3. In non-rhotic dialects, this sound is better represented with [ɜ:] (IPA)/[3:] (SAMPA)
  4. Many speakers of American English don't distinguish between these two unstressed vowels. For them, roses and Rosa's are pronounced the same, and the symbol usually used is schwa ([ə]).
  5. This sound is often transcribed with [i] or with [ɪ] (IPA)/[I] (SAMPA).


This is English's Consonantal System (including dialect sounds) using IPA symbols.

  1. Engma (/ŋ/) is a non-phonemic allophone of /n/ in some northerly British accents, appearing only before /g/.
  2. The alveolar flap (/ɾ/) is an allophone of /t/ and /d/ in unstressed syllables only in North American English. This is the sound of "tt" or "dd" in the words latter and ladder, which are homophones in American English. This is the same sound represented by single "r" in some words in Spanish.
  3. In some dialects, such as Cockney, the interdentals /θ/ and /ð/ are usually merged with /f/ and /v/, and in others, like African-American Vernacular English, /ð/ is merged with /d/. In some Irish varieties, /θ/ and /ð/ become the corresponding dental plosives, which then contrast with the usual alveolar plosives.
  4. The voiceless velar fricative (/x/) is used only by Scottish or Welsh speakers of English for Scots/Gaelic words such as loch (`lax) or by some speakers for loanwords from German and Hebrew like reich (raix) or Chanukah (xanuka), or in some dialects such as Scouse (Liverpool) where the affricate [kx] is used instead of /k/. e.g. (dokx@) for 'docker'. In most speakers, the sounds [k] and [h] are used instead.
  5. Voiceless w (/ʍ/) is found in Scottish, upper-class British, some eastern United States, and New Zealand accents. In all other dialects it is merged with /w/.

Basic letter-sound correspondence


English grammar is based on that of its Germanic roots, though some scholars during the 1700s and 1800s attempted to impose Latin grammar upon it, with little success. English is a much less inflected language than most Indo-European languages, placing much grammatical information in auxiliary words and word order. English is a slightly inflected language, retaining features like:

  • Possessive (which has developed into a clitic)
    1. He is Alfredo's best friend. -'s
  • 3rd person singular present
    1. Alfredo works. -s
  • past tense
    1. Alfredo worked. -ed
  • present participle/ progressive
    1. Alfredo is working. -ing
  • past participle
    1. The car was stolen. -en
    2. Alfredo has talked to the police. -ed
  • gerund
    1. Working is good for the soul. -ing
  • plural
    1. All your sigs are mine. -s
  • comparative
    1. Alfredo is smarter than Ricky. -er
  • superlative
    1. Alfredo has the bluest eyes. -est

It must be noted that, unlike other Germanic languages or the Romance languages, English nouns do not take gender and verbs can take the "ing" ending. However, despite this relative straightforwardness, as any native speaker (or those attempting to master it) knows, English has its own set of maddening idiosyncrasies. See American and British English differences. See also English plural.


Almost without exception, Germanic words (which include all the basics such as pronouns and conjunctions) are shorter, and more informal. Latinate words are often regarded as more elegant or educated. However, the excessive use of Latinate words is often a sign of either pretentiousness (as in the stereotypical policeman's talk of "apprehending the suspect") or obfuscation (as in a military document which says "neutralize" when it means "kill"). George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language gives a thorough treatment of this feature of English.

An English-speaker is often able to choose between Germanic and Latinate synonyms: "come" or "arrive"; "sight" or "vision"; "freedom" or "liberty". The richness of the language is that such synonyms have slightly different meanings, enabling the language to be used in a very flexible way to express fine variations or shades of thought. List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents

In everyday speech the majority of words will normally be Germanic. If one wishes to make a forceful point in an argument in a very blunt way, Germanic words will invariably be chosen. A majority of Latinate words (or at least a majority of content words) will normally be used in more serious speech and writing, such as a courtroom or an encyclopedia article.

English is noted for the vast size of its active vocabulary and its fluidity. English easily accepts technical terms into common usage and imports new words which often come into common usage. In addition, slang provides new meanings for old words. In fact this fluidity is so pronounced that a distinction often needs to be made between formal forms of English and contemporary usage. See also sociolinguistics.

Number of Words in English

The Global Language Monitor has an up-to-the-minute estimate of the number of words in the English language, and the methodology to arrive at this estimation. To read the article by Paul JJ Payack and see the current estimate, go to Current Estimate of Number of Words in English.

Word origins

One of the consequences of the French influence is that the vocabulary of English is, to a certain extent, divided between those words which are Germanic (mostly Anglo-Saxon), and those which are "Latinate" (Latin-derived, mostly from Norman French but some borrowed directly from Latin).

A computerized survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973) which estimated the origin of English words as follows:

  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

James D. Nicoll made the oft-quoted observation: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Writing system

English is written using the Latin alphabet. The spelling system or orthography of English is historical, not phonological. The spelling of words often diverges considerably from how they are spoken, and English spelling is often considered to be one of the most difficult to learn of any language that uses an alphabet. See English orthography.

Written accents

English includes some words which can be written with accent marks. These words have mostly been imported from other languages, usually French. But it is increasingly rare for writers of English to actually use the accent marks for common words, even in very formal writing, to the point where actually writing the accent may be interpreted as a sign of pretension. The strongest tendency to retain the accent is in words that are atypical of English morphology and therefore still perceived as slightly foreign. For example, café has a pronounced final e, which would be silent by the normal English pronunciation rules.

Some examples: à la carte, ångström, appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, café, cliché, crème, crêpe, derrière, éclair, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, führer, maté, ménage à trois, naïve, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, piñón, protégé, raison d'être, résumé, risqué, sauté, séance, über-, vis-à-vis, voilà.

Some words such as rôle and hôtel were first seen with accents when they were borrowed into English, but now the accent is almost never used. The words were considered very French borrowings when first used in English, even accused by some of being foreign phrases used where English alternatives would suffice, but today their French origin is largely forgotten. The accent on "élite" has disappeared most of the time by today, but Time Magazine still uses it.

It is also possible to use a diaeresis to indicate a syllable break, but again this is often left out or a hyphen used instead. Examples: coöperate (or co-operate), daïs, naïve, noël, reëlect (or re-elect).

Written accents are also used occasionally in poetry and scripts for dramatic performances to indicate that a certain normally unstressed syllable in a word should be stressed for dramatic effect, or to keep with the meter of the poetry. This use is frequently seen in archaic and pseudoarchaic writings with the -ed suffix, to indicate that the "e" should be fully pronounced: i.e. cursèd.

In certain older texts (typically in British English), the use of ligatures is common in words such as archæology, œsophagus, and encyclopædia. Such words have Latin or Greek origin.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. Tom McArthur
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal
  • A History of the English Language by Albert Baugh and T. Cable (London, 2002)

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