Language and Linguistics







Overview of the English Language

General Features

English is a Germanic language. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages; it is very closely related to Dutch, Flemish, Luxemburgian, Frisian, as well as German, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.

The history of English spans a period of about 1,500 years, from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain around A.D. 449 to the present

English is the official or co-official language of about 94 countries and territories around the world

English has around 400 million native speakers, another 400 million speak it as a second language, and about 700 million speak it in other capacities. The total of speakers around the world is then approximately 1.5 billion

English is effectively the unofficial international language (lingua franca) of the world.

Large vocabulary: about 300,000 headwords in an unabridged dictionary (e.g. Oxford English Dictionary) (Second Edition) 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 reaches over a million words.

The vocabulary of an average American speaker numbers 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 (these figures are disputed by some who claim they underestimate the linguistic abilities of the English speaking public)

English has borrowed large numbers of words from other languages

    English is composed of words coming from Latin (30 %), French (30 %), Germanic languages (25 %), Greek (5 %), and other languages (10 %).

    Overall, English contains words borrowed from about 250-350 other languages. Examples:

    • Celtic: Britain, London, Thames, whiskey

    • Scandinavian: sky, skin, ski, skill, they/them/their/, egg, give

    • French: people, justice, beauty, art, religion, table, sport, beef, action, adventure, dinner, supper, soup, boil, sautee

    • German: hamburger, hefeweizen, kindergarten, lager, noodle, sauerkraut, schnapps, seltzer, spritzer, wiener, bratwurst, Volkswagen, gesundheit, poltergeist, Oktoberfest, zeppelin

    • African: chimpanzee, safari, tilapia, zebra, zombie, voodoo, banana, yam, gorilla, jazz, banjo, gumbo, mamba, mumbo jumbo, ubuntu

    • Native American: sasquatch, chipmunk, moose, raccoon, Iowa, Omaha, winnebago, Massachusetts

    • Dutch: brandy, gin, landscape, measles, uproar, wagon

    • Italian: spaghetti, pizza, piano, umbrella, volcano

    • Spanish: taco, tequila, tortilla, mesa, canyon, ranch, rodeo, cocoa, Colorado, California, salsa, cigar/cigarette, cockroach, savvy, embargo, armadillo, alligator, mosquito, tornado, marijuana, Florida, Montana, Nevada

    • Persian: paradise, chess, check, lemon, spinach

    • Chinese: ketchup, silk, tea

Like other languages, English changes over time. It is estimated that about 15 new words are introduced into the language every day. Some characteristic types of changes:

  • tendency increase in the number of words by borrowing from other languages

  • spontaneous creation of new terms by combining, blending, or modifying existing words, e.g. bodalicious < bodacious + delicious, bodacious < bold + audacious

  • 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")

  • analogy, e.g. tendency to abandon unusual or irregular forms and adopt new ones which may seem to fit a regular pattern: burnt (irregular) vs. burned (regular)

  • 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 449- AD 1066

  • Middle English 1066-1509

  • Early Modern English 1509-1755

  • Present Day English 1755-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

  • Piracy and Colonialism (16th-18th centuries)

  • Imperialism and Industrial Revolution (19th century)

  • Modern industry, commerce, technology, digital/electronic communications (20th and 21st centuries)

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Last updated: September 4, 2018 23:42


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