The English language reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
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English language

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Spoken in: United Kingdom, United States of America, and 103 other countries
Region: -
First language speakers: 402 Million
Second language speakers possibly 800-2,500 million
Official status
Official language of: see below
Regulated by: OED is important
Language codes
ISO 639-1: en
ISO 639-2: eng

The English language is a West Germanic language, originating from England, built from several local languages of 6th century Norse conquerors, with a strong French influence added following the Norman Conquest of 1066. English spread worldwide with the rise of British colonialism, from the British Isles to Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the United States and elsewhere.

Linguistically, English is divided into three broad stages: Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon), the language spoken by the Germanic tribes in England prior to the Norman Conquest; Middle English, generally, the language of the commoners in England after the Norman Conquest and before the development of the printing press; and Modern English, the language from the 16th century onwards. Modern English native speakers can usually understand Middle English with some difficulty, but Old English is much closer to Icelandic than to Modern English.

English is the second most popular "first" language (native speakers), with around 402 million people in 2002. It 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.

English has lingua franca status, due to the military, economic, scientific, political and cultural influence of the United Kingdom and later the United States. Where possible, virtually all students worldwide are required to learn some English, and knowledge of English is virtually a prerequisite for working in many fields and occupations. Higher academic institutions, for example, require a working command of English.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Classification and related languages
3 Geographic distribution
4 Dialects and regional variants
5 Sounds
6 Grammar
7 Vocabulary
8 Writing system
9 See also
10 External links
11 Further reading


Main article: History of the English Language

English is descended from the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, that began populating the British Isles around 500 AD. These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The various dialects spoken by these Germanic invaders formed what would eventually be called Old English. Old English lasted until 1100, shortly after the Norman conquest.

Middle English was the result of the heavy French influence of the Normans, and lasted from 1100-1500. The most famous surviving work from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Great Vowel Shift occurred during this period, and English after that major sound change became Modern English.

Modern English, the language described by this article, began its rise around the time of William Shakespeare and its grammar and pronunciation has been essentially the same since that time, with the most important changes being in the large increase of vocabulary. 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, 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, and German. Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker, as English absorbed a tremendous amount of vocabulary from French after the Norman conquest and in further centuries; as a result, a substantial share of English vocabulary is very close to the French, with some slight spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings...) and some occasional lapses in meaning.

Geographic distribution

English is the first language in Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, Antigua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

English is also one of the primary languages of Belize (with Spanish), Canada (with French), Cameroon (with French and African languages), Dominica, St. Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (with French Creole), the Federated States of Micronesia, Ireland (with Irish), Liberia (with African languages), Singapore and South Africa (with Afrikaans and other African languages).

It is an official language, but not native, in Fiji, Ghana, Gambia, India, Kiribati, Lesotho, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is the most commonly used unofficial language of Israel and an increasing number of other countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Germany.

English is also the language most often studied as a foreign language in Europe (32.6%) 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. (See also: North American English, Commonwealth English)

Some of the major regional variations are:


The Americas




These varieties may, in most cases, contain several subvarieties, such as Cockney within British English, Newfoundland English within Canadian English and African American Vernacular English 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 its wide use as a second language, English is spoken with many different accentss, which may identify the speaker's native language. For some distinctive characteristics of certain accents, see Distinguishing accents in English.

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. This parallels English's own addiction to loan words and borrowings. Similarly, English speaking countries have aggressively blended in foreign words. Named examples of these ad-hoc constructions, distinct from pidgin and creole languages, include: Chinglish, Engrish, Finglish, Franglais, Germish, Hinglish, Konglish, Singlish, Spanglish, Taglish, Vinish and Wenglish and Yinglish. Europanto combines many languages but has an English core. Greeklish might appear to be similar but is in fact a transliteration method.

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 are based on restricted vocabularies designed by Edward Johnson in the 1980s to aid international co-operation and communication in specific areas.



Vowels in American English

IPA chart of vowels

[i] [i] bead
[ɪ] [I] bid
[eɪ] [eI] bayed
[ɛ] [E] bed
[æ] [{] bad
[ɑ] [A] bod
[ɔ] [O] pawed 1
[oʊ] [oU] bode
[ʊ] [U] good
[u] [u] booed
[ʌ] [V] bud
[ɝ] [3`] bird
[aɪ] [aI] buy
[aʊ] [aU] bough
[ɔɪ] [OI] boy
[ə] [@] roses
[ɨ] [1] Rosa's 2


  1. Many dialects of American English don't have this vowel. See cot-caught merger.
  2. 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]). British English and other English dialects have a slightly different vowel system.


This is English's Consonantal System (including dialect sounds):

bilabial labiodental interdental alveolar palato-alveolar palatal velar glottal
plosive p b t d k g
nasal m n ŋ1
flap ɾ2
fricative f v θ ð 3 s z ʃ ʒ x4 h
affricate tʃ dʒ
approximant ʍ 5 w ɹ j
lateral approximant l

  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 Spanish.
  3. In some dialects, such as Cockney, the interdentals /θ/ and /ð/ are 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 channukah (xanuka), or in some dialects such as Scouse (Liverpool) where it is used instead of 'ck'. e.g. (doxa) for 'docker'.
  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/.


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:


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").

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.

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.

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:

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 rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." [1]

Example loanwords

Main article: Lists of English words of international origin

From Austalian Aboriginal languages

Examples: boomerang, kangaroo, koala

Main article: List of English words of Aboriginal origin

From African languages

Examples: banana (via Portuguese or Spanish), dengue (from Swahili), tote (from Bantu)

From Afrikaans

Example: trek

From Arabic

Examples: algebra, coffee, zero

Main article: List of English words of Arabic origin

From Chinese

Examples: feng shui, kumquat, silk

Main article: List of English words of Chinese origin

From Dutch

Examples: cookie, frolic, yacht

Main article: List of English words of Dutch origin

From Etruscan

Main article: List of English words of Etruscan origin

From French

Examples: amateur, cliché, restaurant

Main article: List of English words of French origin

From Gaelic

Examples: banshee, glen, leprechaun

Main article: List of English words of Gaelic origin

From German

Examples: wanderlust, kindergarten, zeitgeist

Main article: List of English words of German origin.

From Greek

Thousands of English words came from Greek. Examples include philosophy, philology, psychology, bicycle, type and drama. 'tele' as in telecommunications also came from Greek. There are also hybrids coined from Greek and Latin patched together, such as automobile, television.

From Hindi and Urdu

Examples: jungle, pajamas, shampoo

Main article: List of English words of German origin.

From Italian

Examples: graffiti, spaghetti, umbrella

Main article: List of English words of Italian origin.

Many musical terms used in English (and other languages) are Italian in origin, e.g. forte, piano, etc.

From Japanese

Examples: kamikaze, sushi, tycoon

Main article: List of English words of Japanese origin.

From Latin

Examples: aperture, senate, vernacular

Main article: List of English words of Latin origin

From Native American languages

Examples: potato, skunk, woodchuck

Main article: List of English words of Native American origin.

From Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch)

Example: dunk, meaning "to dip"

From Polish

Examples: kielbasa, mazurka, spruce

Main article: List of English words of Polish origin.

From Portuguese

Examples: albacore, maraca, samba

Main article: List of English words of Portuguese origin.

From Russian

Examples: babushka, tundra, vodka

Main article: List of English words of Russian origin.

From Scots

Examples: golf, rampage, pony

Main article: List of English words of Scots origin.

From Spanish

Examples: canyon, mosquito, plaza

Main article: List of English words of Spanish origin.

From Swedish

Examples: moped, ombudsman, smorgasbord

Main article: List of English words of Swedish origin.

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 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 rule.

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