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Overview of the English Language

  • General Features

    official or co-official language of 45 countries

    most spoken language in the world (spoken by about a third of the world population). About 380 million native speakers, 350 million second language speakers -- the total number of people speaking English in the world is likely in the order of 1.5 - 2 billion.

    English is effectively the unofficial international language of the world.

    English is a Germanic language. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages; West Germanic branch; Low German sub-branch (very closely related to Dutch, Flemish, Luxemburgian, Frisian) (also has close ties to German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian).

    largest vocabulary of any language: estimates of the number of words vary; the Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) numbers about 171, 476 current words, 47, 156 obsolete terms and an additional 9, 500 derived words. So, the total number of distinct words is about 228,132. That number grows to over 600,000 when all senses of all words are considered. Finally, if all jargon, technical and scientific vocabularies are added, the number approaches nearly 1.5 million words

    the vocabulary of an average American speaker includes about 10,000 words, though s/he uses only 10% of those on a regular basis; a college graduate has a vocabulary of about 20,000-30,000 words

    English is a stressed language (a specific syllable in each word is pronounced more loudly than the others); tendency to stress the first syllable of a word, e.g. cóm-mon, év-i-dent

    English is an analytic language: uses function words (prepositions, articles, auxiliaries, conjunctions) and depends on word order to signify grammatical relationships. English was a synthetic language (i.e. employing inflections to signify grammatical ) earlier in its history but it has greatly simplified or eliminated its inflections.

    35 basic sounds (11 vowels and 24 consonants) (actual number of sounds used by speakers of the languge ranges between 35-45)

    26 graphemes used in writing (the letters of the alphabet)

    English is characterized by its adaptability, creativity, innovation, flexibility, and openness to the influence of other languages:

    • an English word can play many different roles: "A fast car" ("fast" is an adjective) "the car moves fast" ("fast" is an adverb); "a very long fast" ("fast" is a noun); "I fast every Thursday" ("fast" is a verb).

    • new uses for existing words (e.g. go, like, all): "Then he goes, 'You think you’re real smart, don’t you?'” "I’m like, 'No, I don’t!' and she’s all, 'You do, too!'” (Bartleby.com)

    • new expressions constantly coming into being by modifying, adapting, and combining existing elements of the language, e.g. combining a verb with an adverb: "pick up" "buzz off" "freak out"; attaching prefixes to existing verbs: "offset" "deep-freeze" "babysit"

    • extensive borrowings from other languages:

      • English is composed of words coming from Latin (20-30 %), French (20-30 %), Germanic languages (20-25 %), Greek (5 %), and other languages (15-20 %). Overall, English contains words borrowed from about 250-350 other languages. Some examples:

        • Celtic: Britain, London, Thames
        • Scandinavian: sky, skin, skill, they/them/their/, egg, give
        • French: people, justice, beauty, art, religion, table, sport, beef, action, adventure
        • African: voodoo, banana, yam, gorilla, jazz, banjo, gumbo
        • Native American: chipmunk, hominy, moose, raccoon
        • Dutch: brandy, landscape, measles, uproar, wagon
        • Italian: piano, umbrella, volcano,
        • Spanish: alligator, mosquito, tornado
        • Persian: paradise, chess, check, lemon, spinach
        • Chinese: ketchup, silk, tea

    Like other languages, English changes over time. Some characteristic types of changes:

    • tendency increase in the number of words by borrowing from other languages and creating new terms

    • tendency to efficiency and simplification (shortening, contraction, abbreviation, etc.) of words and grammatical forms -- influence of "principle of least effort" (e.g. "Robert" > "Bob"; "Hypertext Markup Language" > "HTML"; "can not" > "can't")

      • changes in grammatical forms due to influence of analogy (e.g. tendency to regularize verbs and abandon irregular verb forms: burned/burnt, speeded/sped); loss of inflections; increased reliance on words order and prepositions

    • changes in meaning (e.g. the word "nice" meant "foolish" in earlier periods)

    • changes in spelling, e.g. Old English "eage," Middle English "eie," Modern English "eye"

    • changes in pronunciation, e.g. Old English "eage" [εɑyε], Middle English "eie" [εyε], Modern English "eye" [ɑɪ]; in the days of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) the word "tea" rhymed with "away," [] and [əwé] respectively

      • historical tendency to articulate sounds higher up in the vocal tract (i.e. away from laryngeal/guttural/velar sounds and toward palatal and high/frontal and even nasally articulated sounds (e.g. notice the evolution of the pronunciation of the word for "I" from ancient Germanic to modern times: eg [εg], ek [εk] > ig [ig], ik [ik] > ich [ih] > ic [] > I [i] > I [ɑɪ]

    • lengthening/diphthongization of stressed vowels and reduction or loss of unstressed vowels:
       Old English  Middle English  Present Day English
       nama  name  name
       mete  mete  meat
       nosu  nose  nose
       wicu  weke  week
       duru  dore  door

    Some peculiarities of the English language:

      • incompatibility of spelling and pronunciation:
        • According to George Bernard Shaw "ghoti" is a perfectly fine way of spelling the word "fish" (you'll find the reason by looking at words like "enough" "women" and "nation")

      • extensive use of idioms (makes it colorful but difficult to learn), e.g. "spill the beans" "throw the towel" "call it a day" "make up one's mind"

    Major historical Periods of the English Language

    • Old English AD 450- AD 1100

    • Middle English 1100-1500

    • Early Modern English 1500-1800

    • Present Day English 1800-present

    Some external historical factors influencing formation and change of the English language:

      • Celtic (750-55 BC) and Roman (55 BC-410 AD) settlements in Britain
      • Germanic invasions and Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain (449-1066 AD)
      • Christianization of England (starting 597 AD), influence of Church's Latin
      • Scandinavian/Viking invasions (since late 8th century) and Danish rule of England (1016-1042 AD)
      • French Norman conquest and rule of England (1066-1350)
      • Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)
      • Rise of the middle class (beginning in the High Middle Ages, 1050-1250, and continuing into the Renaissance and the Modern Age)
      • Renaissance, c. 1500-1650
      • Colonialism (16th-18th centuries)
      • Imperialism and Industrial Revolution (19th century)
      • Modern industry, commerce, technology, digital/electronic communications (20th and 21st centuries)

    Links and References:


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last updated: 10/24/2008


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