English-History Of—From http://www.reference.com/search?q=English%20Language

History of English

Today's English is the continuation of the language of the 5th-century Germanic invaders of Britain. No records exist of preinvasion forms of the language. The language most closely related to English is the West Germanic language Frisian. The history of English is an aspect of the history of the English people and their development. Thus in the 9th cent. the standard English was the dialect of dominant Wessex (see Anglo-Saxon literature). The Norman Conquest (11th cent.) brought in foreign rulers, whose native language was Norman French; and English was eclipsed by French as the official language. When English became again (14th cent.) the language of the upper class, the capital was London, and the new standard (continued in Modern Standard English) was a London dialect.

It is convenient to divide English into periods—Old English (or Anglo-Saxon; to c.1150), Middle English (to c.1500; see Middle English literature), and Modern English; this division implies no discontinuity, for even the hegemony of French affected only a small percentage of the population. The English-speaking areas have expanded at all periods. Before the Normans the language was spoken in England and S Scotland, but not in Cornwall, Wales, or, at first, in Strathclyde. English has not completely ousted the Celtic languages from the British Isles, but it has spread vastly overseas.

A Changed and Changing Language

Like other languages, English has changed greatly, albeit imperceptibly, so that an English speaker of 1300 would not have understood the English of 500 nor the English of today. Changes of every sort have taken place concomitantly in the sounds (phonetics), in their distribution (phonemics), and in the grammar (morphology and syntax). The following familiar words show changes of 1,000 years:The changes are more radical than they appear, for Modern English ō and ā are diphthongs. The words home, stones, and name exemplify the fate of unaccented vowels, which became ə, then ə disappeared. In Old English important inflectional contrasts depended upon the difference between unaccented vowels; so, as these vowels coalesced into ə and this disappeared, much of the case system disappeared too. In Modern English a different technique, word order (subject + predicate + object), is used to show what a case contrast once did, namely, which is the actor and which the goal of the action.

Although the pronunciation of English has changed greatly since the 15th cent., the spelling of English words has altered very little over the same period. As a result, English spelling is not a reliable guide to the pronunciation of the language.

The vocabulary of English has naturally expanded, but many common modern words are derived from the lexicon of the earliest English; e.g., bread, good, and shower. From words acquired with Latin Christianity come priest, bishop, and others; and from words adopted from Scandinavian settlers come root, egg, take, window, and many more. French words, such as castle, began to come into English shortly before the Norman Conquest. After the Conquest, Norman French became the language of the court and of official life, and it remained so until the end of the 14th cent.

During these 300 or more years English remained the language of the common people, but an increasingly large number of French words found their way into the language, so that when the 14th-century vernacular revival, dominated by Chaucer and Wyclif, restored English to its old place as the speech of all classes, the French element in the English vocabulary was very considerable. To this phase of French influence belong most legal terms (such as judge, jury, tort, and assault) and words denoting social ranks and institutions (such as duke, baron, peer, countess, and parliament), together with a great number of other words that cannot be classified readily—e.g., honor, courage, season, manner, study, feeble, and poor. Since nearly all of these French words are ultimately derived from Late Latin, they may be regarded as an indirect influence of the classical languages upon the English vocabulary.

The direct influence of the classical languages began with the Renaissance and has continued ever since; even today Latin and Greek roots are the chief source for English words in science and technology (e.g., conifer, cyclotron, intravenous, isotope, polymeric, and telephone). During the last 300 years the borrowing of words from foreign languages has continued unchecked, so that now most of the languages of the world are represented to some extent in the vocabulary. English vocabulary has also been greatly expanded by the blending of existing words (e.g., smog from smoke and fog) and by back-formations (e.g., burgle from burglar), whereby a segment of an existing word is treated as an affix and dropped, resulting in a new word, usually with a related meaning.


See H. L. Mencken, The American Language (rev. 4th ed. 1963); G. W. Turner, The English Language in Australia and New Zealand (1966);M. Pei, The Story of the English Language (new ed. 1968); P. Roberts, Modern Grammar (1968); M. M. Orkin, Speaking Canadian English (1971); T. Pyles and J. Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language (3d ed. 1982); W. F. Bolton, A Living Language (1982); B. Kachru, ed., The Other Tongue (1982); R. Hudson, Invitation to Linguistics (1984); J. Baugh, Black Street Speech (1985); The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed. 1987).


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English language

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English is a West Germanic language developed in England, and the first language for most people in Australia, Canada, the Commonwealth Caribbean, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is used extensively as a second language and as an official language throughout the world, especially in Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and South Africa, and in many international organisations.

Modern English is sometimes described as the world's lingua franca. English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment and diplomacy. The influence of the British Empire is the primary reason for the initial spread of the language far beyond the British Isles. Following World War II, the growing economic and cultural influence of the United States has significantly accelerated the spread of the language.

Because a working knowledge of English is required in certain fields, professions, and occupations, English is studied and spoken by up to a billion people around the world, to at least a basic level (see English language learning and teaching). English is one of six official working languages of the United Nations.


English is an Anglo-Frisian language. Germanic-speaking peoples from northwest Germany (Saxons and Angles) and Jutland (Jutes) invaded what is now known as Eastern England around the fifth century AD. It is a matter of debate whether the Anglo-Saxon language spread by displacement of the original population, or the native Celts gradually adopted the language and culture of a new ruling class (see Sub-Roman Britain), or a combination of both of these processes. There is also debate as to whether there were substantial numbers of Saxons already in Britain in late Roman times.

Whatever their origin, these Germanic dialects eventually coalesced to a degree and formed what is today called the Old English language, which resembled some coastal dialects in what are now north-west Germany and the Netherlands (i.e., Frisia). Throughout the history of written Old English, it retained a synthetic structure closer to that of Proto-Indo-European, being based on a single literary standard, while spoken Old English became increasingly analytic in nature, losing the more complex noun case system, relying more heavily on prepositions and fixed word-order to convey meaning. This is evident in the Middle English period, when literature was first recorded in the spoken dialects of English, after written Old English lost its status as the literary language of the nobility. It has been postulated that the early development of the language may have been influenced by a Celtic substratum. Later, it was influenced by the related North Germanic language Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings who settled mainly in the north and the east coast down to London, the area known as the Danelaw.

Then came the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. For about 300 years after this, the Norman kings and the high nobility spoke only Anglo-Norman, which was close to Old French. A large number of Norman words found their way into Old English, particularly those in the legal and administrative fields. Later, many words were borrowed directly from Latin and Greek, leaving a parallel vocabulary that persists into modern times. The Norman influence strongly affected the evolution of the language over the following centuries, resulting in what is now referred to as Middle English.

During the 15th century, Middle English was transformed by the Great Vowel Shift, the spread of a standardised London-based dialect in government and administration, and the standardising effect of printing. Early Modern English can be traced back to around the time of William Shakespeare.

Classification and related languages

The English language belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch, which is itself a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

The question as to which is the nearest living relative of English is a matter of discussion. Apart from such English-lexified creole languages such as Tok Pisin, Scots (spoken primarily in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland) is the Germanic variety most closely associated with English. Like English, Scots ultimately descends from Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. The closest relative to English after Scots is Frisian, which is spoken in the Northern Netherlands and Northwest Germany. Other less closely related living West Germanic languages include German, Low Saxon, Dutch, and Afrikaans. The North Germanic languages of Scandinavia are less closely related to English than the West Germanic languages.

Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker (though pronunciations are often quite different) because English absorbed a large vocabulary from Norman and French, via Anglo-Norman after the Norman Conquest and directly from French in subsequent centuries. As a result, a substantial fraction of English vocabulary is quite close to French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional divergences in meaning, in so-called "faux amis", or false friends.

Geographical distribution

Over 380 million people speak English as their first language. English today is variously estimated as the second, third, or fourth largest language by number of native speakers. All estimates have it trailing Mandarin Chinese, and other estimates are mixed as to whether it outranks Hindi, Spanish, and a combination of the various Arabic dialects. However, when combining native and non-native speakers it ranks, along with a combination of the Chinese languages, first or second of the most commonly spoken language in the world. Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly from 470 million to over a billion depending on how literacy or mastery is defined. There are some who claim that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1.

The countries with the highest populations of native English speakers are, in descending order: United States (215 million), United Kingdom (58 million), Canada (17.7 million), Australia (15 million), Ireland (3.8 million), South Africa (3.7 million), and New Zealand (3.0-3.7 million). Countries such as Jamaica, Nigeria and Singapore also have millions of native speakers of dialect continuums ranging from an English-based creole to a more standard version of English. Of those nations where English is spoken as a second language, India has the most such speakers ('Indian English') and linguistics professor David Crystal claims that, combining native and non-native speakers, India now has more people who speak or understand English than any other country in the world. Following India are the People's Republic of China, the Philippines, and Germany.




Native speakers







European Union














4,000,000 (Approx)


Republic of Ireland



South Africa



New Zealand

3,500,000+ (Approx)





Trinidad and Tobago












Sierra Leone


English is the primary language in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia (Australian English), the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Belize, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, Canada (Canadian English), the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guernsey, Guyana, Ireland (Hiberno-English), Isle of Man, Jamaica (Jamaican English), Jersey, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand (New Zealand English), Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the United Kingdom (various forms of British English), the U.S. Virgin Islands, the United States (various forms of American English), and Zimbabwe.

In many other countries, where English is not a first language, it is an official language; these countries include Cameroon, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Ghana, Gambia, India, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It is also one of the 11 official languages that are given equal status in South Africa ("South African English"). English is also an important language in several former colonies or current dependent territories of the United Kingdom and the United States, such as in Hong Kong and Mauritius.

It is worth noting that English is not an official language in either the United States or the United Kingdom. Although the U.S. federal government has no official languages, English has been given official status by 25 of the 50 state governments.

English as a global language

Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as a "global language", the lingua franca of the modern era. While English is not an official language in many countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a second language around the world. Some linguists believe that it is no longer the exclusive cultural sign of "native English speakers", but is rather a language that is absorbing aspects of cultures worldwide as it continues to grow. It is, by international treaty, the official language for aerial and maritime communications, as well as one of the official languages of the European Union, the United Nations, and most international athletic organisations, including the International Olympic Committee.

English is the language most often studied as a foreign language in the European Union (by 89% of schoolchildren), followed by French (32%), German (18%), and Spanish (8%). It is also the most studied in the People's Republic of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Books, magazines, and newspapers written in English are available in many countries around the world. English is also the most commonly used language in the sciences. In 1997, the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its articles were written in English, even though only half of them came from authors in English-speaking countries.

Dialects and regional varieties

The expansion of the British Empire and—since WWII—the primacy of the United States have spread English throughout the globe. Because of that global spread, English has developed a host of English dialects and English-based creole languages and pidgins.

The major varieties of English include, in most cases, several subvarieties, such as Cockney slang within British English; Newfoundland English, and the English spoken by Anglo-Québecers within Canadian English; and African American Vernacular English ("Ebonics") and Southern American English within American English. English is a pluricentric language, without a central language authority like France's Académie française; and, although no variety is clearly considered the only standard, there are a number of accents considered to be more prestigious, such as Received Pronunciation in Britain.

Scots developed — largely independently — from the same origins, but following the Acts of Union 1707 a process of language attrition began, whereby successive generations adopted more and more features from English causing dialectalisation. Whether it is now a separate language or a dialect of English better described as Scottish English is in dispute. The pronunciation, grammar and lexis of the traditional forms differ, sometimes substantially, from other varieties of English.

Because of the wide use of English as a second language, English speakers have many different accents, which often signal the speaker's native dialect or language. For the more distinctive characteristics of regional accents, see Regional accents of English speakers, and for the more distinctive characteristics of regional dialects, see List of dialects of the English language.

Just as English itself has borrowed words from many different languages over its history, English loanwords now appear in a great many languages around the world, indicative of the technological and cultural influence of its speakers. Several pidgins and creole languages have formed using an English base, such as Jamaican Creole, Nigerian Pidgin, and Tok Pisin. There are many words in English coined to describe forms of particular non-English languages that contain a very high proportion of English words. Franglais, for example, is used to describe French with a very high English word content; it is found on the Channel Islands. Another variant, spoken in the border bilingual regions of Québec in Canada, is called FrEnglish.

Constructed varieties of English

  • Basic English is simplified for easy international use. It is used by manufacturers and other international businesses to write manuals and communicate. Some English schools in Asia teach it as an practical subset of English for use by beginners.
  • Special English is a simplified version of English used by the Voice of America. It uses a vocabulary of only 1500 words.
  • English reform is an attempt to improve collectively upon the English language.
  • 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. There is also a tunnelspeak for use in the Channel Tunnel.
  • English as a lingua franca for Europe and Euro-English are concepts of standardising English for use as a second language in continental Europe.
  • Manually Coded English — a variety of systems have been developed to represent the English language with hand signals, designed primarily for use in deaf education. These should not be confused with true sign languages such as British Sign Language and American Sign Language used in Anglophone countries, which are independent and not based on English.
  • E-Prime excludes forms of the verb "to be."

Euro-English (also EuroEnglish or Euro-English) terms are English translations of European concepts that are not native to English-speaking countries. Due to the United Kingdom's (and even the Republic of Ireland's) involvement in the European Union, the usage focuses on non-British concepts. Examples are the concept of spatial planning , the description of something being “degressive”, and the prefix "Euro-".

It also refers to dialects of English spoken by Europeans for whom English is not their first language, especially since English is frequently used by two Europeans to communicate even when neither of them know English as the first language.








Close front unrounded vowel



Near-close near-front unrounded vowel



Open-mid front unrounded vowel



Near-open front unrounded vowel



Open back rounded vowel



Open-mid back rounded vowel



Open back unrounded vowel



Near-close near-back rounded vowel



Close back rounded vowel



Open-mid back unrounded vowel, Near-open central vowel



Open-mid central unrounded vowel






Close central unrounded vowel




Close-mid front unrounded vowel
Close front unrounded vowel



Close-mid back rounded vowel
Near-close near-back rounded vowel



Open front unrounded vowel
Near-close near-front unrounded vowel



Open front unrounded vowel
Near-close near-back rounded vowel



Open-mid back rounded vowel
Close front unrounded vowel



Near-close near-back rounded vowel



Open-mid front unrounded vowel



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

Where symbols appear in pairs, the first corresponds to American English, General American accent; the second corresponds to British English, Received Pronunciation.

1.      American English lacks this sound; words with this sound are pronounced with or .

2.      Many dialects of North American English do not have this vowel. See Cot-caught merger.

3.      The North American variation of this sound is a rhotic vowel.

4.      Many speakers of North American English do not distinguish between these two unstressed vowels. For them, roses and Rosa's are pronounced the same, and the symbol usually used is schwa .

5.      This sound is often transcribed with or with .

6.      The diphthongs and are monophthongal for many General American speakers, as and .

7.      The letter <U> can represent either /u/ or the iotated vowel /ju/.

8.      Vowel length plays a phonetic role in the majority of English dialects, and is said to be phonemic in a few dialects, such as Australian English and New Zealand English. In certain dialects of the modern English language, for instance General American, there is allophonic vowel length: vowel phonemes are realized as long vowel allophones before voiced consonant phonemes in the coda of a syllable. Before the Great Vowel Shift, vowel length was phonemically contrastive.

9.      This sound only occurs in non-rhotic accents. In some accents, this sound may be, instead of /ʊə/, /ɔ:/. See pour-poor merger.

10.  This sound only occurs in non-rhotic accents. In some accents, the schwa offglide of /ɛə/ may be dropped, monophthising and lengthening the sound to /ɛ:/.

See also


This is the English Consonantal System using symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
































































lateral approximant














1.      The velar nasal is a non-phonemic allophone of /n/ in some northerly British accents, appearing only before /g/. In all other dialects it is a separate phoneme, although it only occurs in syllable codas.

2.      The alveolar flap is an allophone of /t/ and /d/ in unstressed syllables in North American English and increasingly in Australian English. This is the sound of "tt" or "dd" in the words latter and ladder, which are homophones for many speakers of North American English. In some accents such as Scottish English and Indian English it replaces /ɹ/. This is the same sound represented by single "r" in most varieties of 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 dental /d/. In some Irish varieties, /θ/ and /ð/ become the corresponding dental plosives, which then contrast with the usual alveolar plosives.

4.      The sounds are labialised in some dialects. Labialisation is never contrastive in initial position and therefore is sometimes not transcribed. Most speakers of General American realize (always rhoticized) as the retroflex approximant /ɻ/, whereas the same is realized in Scottish English, etc. as the alveolar trill.

5.      The voiceless palatal fricative /ç/ is in most accents just an allophone of /h/ before /j/; for instance human /çjuːmən/. However, in some accents (see this), the /j/ is dropped, but the initial consonant is the same.

6.      The voiceless velar fricative /x/ is used only by Scottish or Welsh speakers of English for Scots/Gaelic words such as loch or by some speakers for loanwords from German and Hebrew like Bach /bax/ or Chanukah /xanuka/. In some dialects such as Scouse (Liverpool) either [x] or the affricate [kx] may be used as an allophone of /k/ in words such as docker . Most native speakers have a great deal of trouble pronouncing it correctly when learning a foreign language. Most speakers use the sounds [k] and [h] instead.

7.      Voiceless w is found in Scottish and Irish English, as well as in some varieties of American, New Zealand, and English English. In most other dialects it is merged with /w/, in some dialects of Scots it is merged with /f/.

Voicing and aspiration

Voicing and aspiration of stop consonants in English depend on dialect and context, but a few general rules can be given:

  • Voiceless plosives and affricates (//, //, //, and //) are aspirated when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable — compare pin and spin , crap and scrap .
    • In some dialects, aspiration extends to unstressed syllables as well.
    • In other dialects, such as Indo-Pakistani English, all voiceless stops remain unaspirated.
  • Word-initial voiced plosives may be devoiced in some dialects.
  • Word-terminal voiceless plosives may be unreleased or accompanied by a glottal stop in some dialects (e.g. many varieties of American English) — examples: tap [], sack [].
  • Word-terminal voiced plosives may be devoiced in some dialects (e.g. some varieties of American English) — examples: sad [], bag []. In other dialects they are fully voiced in final position, but only partially voiced in initial position.

See also

International Phonetic Alphabet for English

Supra-segmental features

Tone groups

English is an intonation language. This means that the pitch of the voice is used syntactically, for example, to convey surprise and irony, or to change a statement into a question.

In English, intonation patterns are on groups of words, which are called tone groups, tone units, intonation groups or sense groups. Tone groups are said on a single breath and, as a consequence, are of limited length, more often being on average five words long or lasting roughly two seconds. For example:

- Do you need anything?

- I don't, no

- I don't know (contracted to, for example, - or I dunno in fast or colloquial speech that de-emphasises the pause between don't and know even further)

Characteristics of intonation (stress accent)

English is a stress-timed language, i.e., certain syllables in each multi-syllabic word get a relative prominence/loudness during pronunciation while the others do not. The former kind of syllables are said to be accentuated/stressed and the latter are unaccentuated/unstressed. All good dictionaries of English mark the accentuated syllable(s) by either placing an apostrophe-like ( ) sign either before (as in IPA, Oxford English Dictionary, or Merriam-Webster dictionaries) or after (as in many other dictionaries) the syllable where the stress accent falls. In general, for a two-syllable word in English, it can be broadly said that if it is a noun or an adjective, the first syllable is accentuated; but if it is a verb, the second syllable is accentuated.

Hence in a sentence, each tone group can be subdivided into syllables, which can either be stressed (strong) or unstressed (weak). The stressed syllable is called the nuclear syllable. For example:

That | was | the | best | thing | you | could | have | done!

Here, all syllables are unstressed, except the syllables/words "best" and "done", which are stressed. "Best" is stressed harder and, therefore, is the nuclear syllable.

The nuclear syllable carries the main point the speaker wishes to make. For example:

John hadn't stolen that money. (... Someone else had.)

John hadn't stolen that money. (... You said he had. or ... Not at that time, but later he did.)

John hadn't stolen that money. (... He acquired the money by some other means.)

John hadn't stolen that money. (... He had stolen some other money.)

John hadn't stolen that money. (... He stole something else.)


I didn't tell her that. (... Someone else told her.)

I didn't tell her that. (... You said I did. or ... But now I will!)

I didn't tell her that. (... I didn't say it; she could have inferred it, etc.)

I didn't tell her that. (... I told someone else.)

I didn't tell her that. (... I told her something else.)

The nuclear syllable is spoken more loudly than the others and has a characteristic change of pitch. The changes of pitch most commonly encountered in English are the rising pitch and the falling pitch, although the fall-rising pitch and/or the rise-falling pitch are sometimes used. In this opposition between falling and rising pitch, which plays a larger role in English than in most other languages, falling pitch conveys certainty and rising pitch uncertainty. This can have a crucial impact on meaning, specifically in relation to polarity, the positive/negative opposition; thus, falling pitch means 'polarity known', while rising pitch means 'polarity unknown'. This underlies the rising pitch of 'yes/no' questions. For example:

When do you want to be paid?

Now? (Rising pitch. In this case, it denotes a question: "can I be paid now?" or "do you desire to be paid now?")

Now. (Falling pitch. In this case, it denotes a statement: "I choose to be paid now.")

English is spoken in a succession of pulses with diminishing air pressure on each. Here, it contrasts with French, where not only does the pulse correspond to the syllable, but each pulse is characterised by increasing (not decreasing) air pressure.


English grammar has minimal inflection compared with most other Indo-European languages. For example, Modern English, unlike Modern German or Dutch and the Romance languages, lacks grammatical gender and adjectival agreement. Case marking has almost disappeared from the language and mainly survives in pronouns. The patterning of strong (e.g. speak/spoke/spoken) versus weak verbs inherited from its Germanic origins has declined in importance in modern English, and the remnants of inflection (such as plural marking) have become more regular.

At the same time, the language has become more analytic, and has developed features such as modal verbs and word order as rich resources for conveying meaning. Auxiliary verbs mark constructions such as questions, negative polarity, the passive voice and progressive tenses.


Germanic words (generally words of German or to a lesser extent Scandinavian origin) which include all the basics such as pronouns (I, my, you, it) and conjunctions (and, or, but) tend to be shorter than the Latinate words of English, and more common in ordinary speech. The longer Latinate words are often regarded as more elegant or educated. However, the excessive or superfluous use of Latinate words is, at times, considered by some to be either pretentious (as in the stereotypical policeman's talk of "apprehending the suspect") or an attempt to obfuscate an issue. George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" criticises this style of writing, among other perceived misuse of the language.

An English speaker is in many cases able to choose between Germanic and Latinate synonyms: come or "arrive"; "sight" or "vision"; "freedom" or "liberty." In some cases there is a choice between a Germanic word (oversee), a Latin word (supervise), and a French word derived from the same Latin word (survey). The richness of the language arises from the variety of different meanings and nuances such synonyms harbor, enabling the speaker to express fine variations or shades of thought. Familiarity with the etymology of groups of synonyms can give English speakers greater control over their linguistic register. See: List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents.

An exception to this and a peculiarity perhaps unique to English is that the nouns for meats are commonly different from, and unrelated to, those for the animals from which they are produced, the animal commonly having a Germanic name and the meat having a French-derived one. Examples include: deer and venison; cow and beef; or swine/pig and pork. This is assumed to be a result of the aftermath of the Norman invasion, where a French-speaking elite were the consumers of the meat, produced by English-speaking lower classes.

In everyday speech, the majority of words will normally be Germanic. If a speaker wishes to make a forceful point in an argument in a very blunt way, Germanic words will usually be chosen. A majority of Latinate words (or at least a majority of content words) will normally be used in more formal speech and writing, such as a courtroom or an encyclopedia article. However, there are other Latinate words that are used normally in everyday speech and do not sound formal; these are mainly words for concepts that no longer have Germanic words, and are generally assimilated better and in many cases do not appear Latinate. For instance, the words mountain, valley, river, aunt, uncle, push and stay are all Latinate.

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 and phrases that often come into common usage. Examples of this phenomenon include: [cookie|cookie], Internet and URL (technical terms), as well as genre, über, lingua franca and amigo (imported words/phrases, from French, German, modern Latin, and Spanish, respectively). In addition, slang often provides new meanings for old words and phrases. 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

English has an extraordinarily rich vocabulary and willingness to absorb new words. As the General Explanations at the beginning of the Oxford English Dictionary states:

The Vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits... there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.

The vocabulary of English is undoubtedly vast, but assigning a specific number to its size is more a matter of definition than of calculation. Unlike other languages, there is no Academy to define officially accepted words. Neologisms are coined regularly in medicine, science and technology and other fields, and new slang is constantly developed. Some of these new words enter wide usage; others remain restricted to small circles. Foreign words used in immigrant communities often make their way into wider English usage. Archaic, dialectal, and regional words might or might not be widely considered as "English".

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2) includes over 600,000 definitions, following a rather inclusive policy:

It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang (Supplement to the OED, 1933).

The editors of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (475,000 main headwords) in their preface, estimate the number to be much higher. Both numbers are much greater than the 185,000 terms in German, and the 100,000 in French. The Global Language Monitor, after combining definitions in the OED2 with those unique to other dictionaries, estimates that there are approximately 990,000 words in English. It is estimated that about 25,000 words are added to the language each year.

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 Old English) and those which are "Latinate" (Latin-derived, either directly from Norman French or other Romance languages).

Numerous sets of statistics have been proposed to demonstrate the various origins of English vocabulary. None, as yet, are considered definitive by a majority of linguists.

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

A survey by Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language of 10,000 words taken from several thousand business letters gave this set of statistics:

  • French (langue d'oïl), 41%
  • "Native" English, 33%
  • Latin, 15%
  • Danish, 2%
  • Dutch, 1%
  • Other, 10%

Other estimates have also been made:

  • French, 40%
  • Greek, 13%
  • Anglo-Saxon (Old English), 10%
  • Danish, 2%
  • Dutch, 1%
  • And, as about 50% of English is derived from Latin--directly or otherwise-- another 10 to 15% can be attributed to direct borrowings from that language.

However, 83% of the 1,000 most-common English words are Anglo-Saxon in origin.

Dutch origins

Words describing the navy, types of ships, and other objects or activities on the water are often from Dutch origin. Yacht (Jacht) and cruiser (kruiser) are examples.

French origins

There are many words of French origin in English, such as competition, art, table, publicity, police, role, routine, machine, force, and many others that have been and are being anglicised; they are now pronounced according to English rules of phonology, rather than French. A large portion of English vocabulary is of French or Oïl language origin, most derived from, or transmitted via, the Anglo-Norman spoken by the upper classes in England for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest.

Writing system

English has been written using the Latin alphabet since around the ninth century. (Before that, Old English had been written using the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc.) The spelling system, or orthography, is multilayered, with elements of French, Latin and Greek spelling on top of the native Germanic system; it has grown to vary significantly from the phonology of the language. 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.

Basic sound-letter correspondence

Only the consonant letters are pronounced in a relatively regular way:


Alphabetic representation









t, th (rarely) thyme, Thames

th thing (African-American, New York)



th that (African-American, New York)


c (+ a, o, u, consonants), k, ck, ch, qu (rarely) conquer, kh (in foreign words)



g, gh, gu (+ a, e, i), gue (final position)









n (before g or k), ng



f, ph, gh (final, infrequent) laugh, rough

th thing (many forms of English used in England)



th with (Cockney, Estuary English)


th thick, think, through



th that, this, the



s, c (+ e, i, y), sc (+ e, i, y)



z, s (finally or occasionally medially), ss (rarely) possess, dessert, word-initial x xylophone



sh, sch, ti (before vowel) portion, ci/ce (before vowel) suspicion, ocean; si/ssi (before vowel) tension, mission; ch (esp. in words of French origin); rarely s/ss before u sugar, issue; chsi in fuchsia only



medial si (before vowel) division, medial s (before "ur") pleasure, zh (in foreign words), z before u azure, g ''(in words of French origin) (+e, i, y) genre



kh, ch, h (in foreign words)

occasionally ch loch (Scottish English, Welsh English)


h (syllable-initially, otherwise silent)


ch, tch, t before u future, culture

t (+ u, ue, eu) tune, Tuesday, Teutonic (most dialects - see yod coalescence)

j, g (+ e, i, y), dg (+ e, i, consonant) badge, judg(e)ment

d (+ u, ue, ew) dune, due, dew (most dialects - another example of yod coalescence)


r, wr (initial) wrangle



y (initially or surrounded by vowels)









wh (pronounced hw)

Scottish and Irish English, as well as some varieties of American, New Zealand, and English English

Written accents

Unlike most other Germanic languages, English has almost no diacritics, except in foreign loanwords (like the acute accent in café) and in the uncommon use of a diaeresis mark (often in formal writing) to indicate that two vowels are pronounced separately, rather than as one sound (e.g. naïve, coördinate).

Formal written English

A version of the language almost universally agreed upon by educated English speakers around the world is called formal written English. It takes virtually the same form no matter where in the English-speaking world it is written. In spoken English, by contrast, there are a vast number of differences between dialects, accents, and varieties of slang, colloquial and regional expressions. In spite of this, local variations in the formal written version of the language are quite limited, being restricted largely to the spelling differences between British and American English.

Basic and simplified versions

To make English easier to read, there are some simplified versions of the language. One basic version is named Basic English, a constructed language with a small number of words created by Charles Kay Ogden and described in his book Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1930). The language is based on a simplified version of English. Ogden said that it would take seven years to learn English, seven months for Esperanto, and seven weeks for Basic English, comparable with Ido. Thus Basic English is used by companies who need to make complex books for international use, and by language schools that need to give people some knowledge of English in a short time.

Ogden did not put any words into Basic English that could be said with a few other words and he worked to make the words work for speakers of any other language. He put his set of words through a large number of tests and adjustments. He also made the grammar simpler, but tried to keep the grammar normal for English users.

The concept gained its greatest publicity just after the Second World War as a tool for world peace. Although it was not built into a program, similar simplifications were devised for various international uses.

Another version, Simplified English, exists, which is a controlled language originally developed for aerospace industry maintenance manuals. It offers a carefully limited and standardised subset of English. Simplified English has a lexicon of approved words and those words can only be used in certain ways. For example, the word close can be used in the phrase "Close the door" but not "do not go close to the landing gear".



  • Baugh, Albert C.; Thomas Cable (2002). A history of the English language. 5th ed., Routledge. ISBN 0-415-28099-0.
  • Bragg, Melvyn (2004). The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1-55970-710-0.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo (2006). The Classics of Style: The Fundamentals of Language Style from Our American Craftsmen. 1st ed., The American Academic Press. ISBN 0-9787282-0-3.
  • Crystal, David (1997). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-53032-6.
  • Crystal, David (2004). The Stories of English. Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9752-4.
  • Crystal, David (2003). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-53033-4.
  • Halliday, MAK (1994). An introduction to functional grammar. 2nd ed., London: Edward Arnold. ISBN 0-340-55782-6.
  • Hayford, Harrison; Howard P. Vincent (1954). Reader and Writer. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • McArthur, T. (ed.) (1992). The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214183-X.
  • Robinson, Orrin (1992). Old English and Its Closest Relatives. Stanford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-8047-2221-8.

External links



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