English Language



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English is a West Germanic language that developed in England during the Anglo-Saxon era. As a result of the military, economic, scientific, political, and cultural influence of the British Empire during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries and of the United States since the mid 20th century, it has become the lingua franca in many parts of the world.  It is used extensively as a second language and as an official language in Commonwealth countries and many international organizations.


Historically, English originated from several dialects, now collectively termed Old English, which were brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers beginning in the 5th century. The language was influenced by the Old Norse language of Viking invaders. After the Norman Conquest, Old English developed into Middle English, borrowing heavily from the Norman (Anglo-French) vocabulary and spelling conventions. The etymology of the word "English" is a derivation from 12th century Old English: englisc or Engle, and plural form Angles; definition of, relating to, or characteristic of England.  Modern English developed with the Great Vowel Shift that began in 15th-century England, and continues to adopt foreign words from a variety of languages, as well as coining new words. A significant number of English words, especially technical words, have been constructed based on roots from Latin and ancient Greek.





Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca, is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy.  Its spread beyond the British Isles began with the growth of the British Empire, and by the late nineteenth century its reach was truly global.  Following British colonization in North America, it is the dominant language in the United States, whose growing economic and cultural influence and status as a global superpower since World War II have significantly accelerated the language's adoption across the planet.


A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing; as a consequence over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level (see English language learning and teaching). It is also one of six official languages of the United Nations.


Linguists such as David Crystal recognize that one impact of this massive growth of English, in common with other global languages, has been to reduce native linguistic diversity in many parts of the world, most particularly in Australasia and North America, and its huge influence continues to play an important role in language attrition.  Similarly, historical linguists, aware of the complex and fluid dynamics of language change, are always aware of the potential English contains through the vast size and spread of the communities that use it and its natural internal variety, such as in its creoles and pidgins, to produce a new family of distinct languages over time.





English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian and Lower Saxon dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers and Roman auxiliary troops from various parts of what are now northwest Germany and the northern Netherlands in the 5th century. One of these Germanic tribes was the Angles, who may have come from Angeln, and Bede wrote that their whole nation came to Britain, leaving their former land empty. The names 'England' (from Engla land "Land of the Angles") and English (Old English Englisc) are derived from the name of this tribe.


The Anglo-Saxons began invading around 449 AD from the regions of Denmark and Jutland.  Before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in England the native population spoke Brythonic, a Celtic language.  Although the most significant changes in dialect occurred after the Norman invasion of 1066, the language retained its name and the pre-Norman invasion dialect is now known as Old English.


Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Great Britain.  One of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate. One of the most prevalent forces in the evolution of the English language was the Roman Catholic Church. Beginning with the Rule of St Benedict in 530 and continuing until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, the Roman Catholic Church instructed monasteries and Catholic officials like Augustine of Canterbury to preserve intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria, and libraries. During the middle Ages, the Catholic Church had a monopoly on intellectual property in British society; in which they used to exert great influence on the English language. Catholic monks mainly wrote or copied text in Latin, the prevalent medieval lingua franca of Europe.  When monks occasionally wrote in the vernacular, it was common to substitute or derive English-like words from Latin to describe or refer to things in which there was no English word. Extensive vocabulary, a derivative of Latin vocabularium, in the English language is largely comprised from Latin word derivatives. It is believed that the intellectual elite in British society over the years perpetuated vocabulary that Catholic monks contributed to English; furthermore, they continued the custom of deriving new words from Latin long after the waning of Catholic Church.  Old English vernacular was also influenced by two waves of invasion. The first was by language speakers of the North Germanic branch of the Germanic family; they conquered and colonized parts of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th centuries. The second was the Normans in the 11th century, who spoke Old Norman and developed an English variety of this called Anglo-Norman. (Over the centuries, this lost the specifically Norman element under the influence of Parisian French and, later, of English, eventually turning into a distinctive dialect of Anglo-French.) These two invasions caused English to become "mixed" to some degree (though it was never a truly mixed language in the strict linguistic sense of the word; mixed languages arise from the cohabitation of speakers of different languages, who develop a hybrid tongue for basic communication).


Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a lexical supplementation of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility and a huge vocabulary.


With the emergence and spread of the British Empire, the English language was adopted in regions around the world, such as North America, India, Africa, and Australia. The emergence of the United States as a superpower has also helped the spread of English.



Classification and related languages


The English language belongs to the Anglo-Frisian sub-group of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic Family of Indo-European languages. The closest living relatives of English are Scots, spoken primarily in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland, and Frisian. As Scots is viewed by some linguists to be a group of English dialects rather than a separate language, Frisian is often considered to be the closest living relative. After Scots and Frisian come those Germanic languages which are more distantly related, namely the non-Anglo-Frisian West Germanic languages (Low German, Dutch, Afrikaans, High German), and the North Germanic languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese). With the exception of Scots, and on an extremely basic level, Frisian, none of the other languages is mutually intelligible with English, due in part to the divergences in lexis, syntax, semantics, and phonology, and to the isolation afforded to the English language by the British Isles, although some such as Dutch do show strong affinities with English. This isolation has allowed English and Scots to develop independently of the Continental Germanic languages and their influences over time.


Lexical differences with the other Germanic languages can arise from several causes, such as natural semantic drift caused by isolation, and heavy usage in English of words taken from Latin (for example, "exit", vs. Dutch uitgang) (literally "out-gang" with "gang" as in "gangway") and French "change" vs. German Änderung, "movement" vs. German Bewegung (literally "othering" and "be-way-ing" ("proceeding along the way")). Preference of one synonym over another can also cause a differentiation in lexis, even where both words are Germanic (for instance, both English care and German Sorge descend from Proto-Germanic *karo and *surgo respectively, but *karo became the dominant word in English for "care" while in German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages, the *surgo root prevailed. *Surgo still survives in English as sorrow). Although the syntax of German is significantly different from that of English and other Germanic languages, with different rules for setting up sentences (for example, German Ich habe noch nie etwas auf dem Platz gesehen, vs. English "I have still never seen anything in the square"), English syntax remains extremely similar to that of the North Germanic languages, which are believed to have influenced English syntax during the Middle English Period (eg., Norwegian Jeg har likevel aldri sett noe i torget; Swedish Jag har ännu aldrig sett något på torget). Dutch syntax is intermediate between English and German (eg. Ik heb nog nooit iets gezien op het plein). In spite of this difference, there are more similarities between English and other Germanic languages than differences (eg. English bring/brought/brought, Dutch brengen/bracht/gebracht, Norwegian bringe/brakte/brakt; English eat/ate/eaten, Dutch eten/at/gegeten, Norwegian ete/åt/ett), with the most similarities occurring between English and the languages of the Low Countries (Dutch and Low German) and Scandinavia. Semantic differences cause a number of false friends between English and its relatives (eg. English time "time" vs. Norwegian time "hour"), and differences in Phonology can obscure words which actually are genetically related ("enough" vs. German genug, Danish nok). Sometimes both semantics and phonology are different (German Zeit, "time", is related to English "tide", but the English word, through a transitional phase of meaning "period"/"interval", has come to mean gravitational effects on the ocean by the moon, the original meaning preserved only in combined forms like Yuletide and betide).  These differences, though minor, proclude mutual intelligibility, yet English is still infinitely closer to other Germanic languages than to languages of any other family.


Finally, English has been forming compound words and affixing existing words separately from the other Germanic languages for over 1500 years and has different habits in that regard. For instance, abstract nouns in English may be formed from native words by the suffixes "‑hood", "-ship", "-dom" and "-ness". All of these have cognate suffixes in most or all other Germanic languages, but their usage patterns have diverged, as German "Freiheit" vs. English "freedom" (the suffix "-heit" being cognate of English "-hood", while English "-dom" is cognate with German "-tum"). Icelandic and Faroese are other Germanic languages which follow English in this respect, since, like English; they developed independent of German influences.


Many written 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 large portion of English vocabulary is derived from French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional divergences in meaning of so-called false friends. The pronunciation of most French loanwords in English (with exceptions such as mirage or phrases like coup d’état) has become completely anglicized and follows a typically English pattern of stress.  Some North Germanic words also entered English because of the Danish invasion shortly before then; these include words such as "sky", "window", "egg", and even "they" (and its forms) and "are" (the present plural form of "to be").



Geographical distribution


Approximately 375 million people speak English as their first language.  English today is probably the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.  However, when combining native and non-native speakers it is probably the most commonly spoken language in the world, though possibly second to a combination of the Chinese languages (depending on whether or not distinctions in the latter are classified as "languages" or "dialects").  Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly from 470 million to over a billion depending on how literacy or mastery is defined and measured.  Linguistics professor David Crystal calculates that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1.


english dialects

Pie chart showing the relative numbers of native English speakers in the major English-speaking countries of the world


The countries with the highest populations of native English speakers are, in descending order: United States (215 million), United Kingdom (61 million), Canada (18.2 million), Australia (15.5 million), Ireland (3.8 million), and South Africa (3.7 million).  No figure is given for the number of native speakers, but it would be somewhere between the number of people who spoke English only (3,008,058) and the total number of English speakers (3,673,623), if one ignores the 197,187 people who did not provide a usable answer. Countries such as Jamaica and Nigeria also have millions of native speakers of dialect continua 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'). 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 is the People's Republic of China.


Countries in order of total speakers





Percent of


First Language

As an Additional Language




United States






Source: US Census 2000: Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000, Table 1. Figure for second language speakers are respondents who reported they do not speak English at home but know how it “very well” or “well”.  Note: figures are for population age 5 and older.






65,000,000 second language speakers.  25,000,000 third language speakers


Figures include both those who speak English as a second language and those who speak it as a third language.  1991 figures.  The figures include English speakers, but not English users.








Figures are for speakers of Nigerian Pidgin, an English-based pidgin or Creole.  Ihemere gives a range of roughly 3 to 5 million native speakers; the midpoint of the range is used in the table.  Ihemere, Kelechukwu, Uchechukwu.  2006.  A Basic Description and Analytic Treatment of Noun Clauses in Nigerian Pidgin.”  Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(3): 296-313.


United Kingdom






Source: Crystal (2005), p. 109.








Total speakers: Census 2000, text above Figure 7.  63.71% of the 66.7 million people aged 5 years or more could speak English.  Native speakers: Census 1995, as quoted by Andrew Gonzalez in The Language Planning Situation in the Philippines.  Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 19 (5&6), 487-525.  (1998). Ethnologue lists 3.4 million native speakers with 52% of the population speaking it as an additional language.








Source: 2001 Census – Knowledge of Official Languages and Mother Tongue.  The native speakers figure comprises 122,660 people with both French and English as a mother tongue, plus 17,572,170 people with English and not French as a mother tongue.








Source: 2006 Census.  The figure shown in the first language English speakers column is actually the number of Australian residents who speak only English at home.  The additional language column shows the number of other residents who claim to speak English “well” or “very well”.  Another 5% of residents did not state their home language or English proficiency.

Note: Total = First language – Other language; Percentage = Total / Population


Countries where English is a major language


English is the primary language in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia (Australian English), the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize (Belizean Kriol), Bermuda, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, Canada (Canadian English), the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guam, Guernsey (Channel Island English), Guyana, Ireland (Hiberno-English), Isle of Man (Manx English), Jamaica (Jamaican English), Jersey, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand (New Zealand English), Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, 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, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the United States.


In some countries where English is not the most spoken language, it is an official language; these countries include Botswana, Cameroon, Dominica, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines (Philippine English), Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, 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 the official language in current dependent territories of Australia (Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cocos Island) and of the United States (Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico), the former British colony of Hong Kong, and Netherlands Antilles.


English is not an official language in either the United States or the United Kingdom.  Although the United States federal government has no official languages, English has been given official status by 30 of the 50 state governments.  Although falling short of official status, English is also an important language in several former colonies and protectorates of the United Kingdom, such as Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia, and United Arab Emirates. English is not a de jure official language of Israel; however, the country has maintained official language use a de facto role for English since the British mandate.


English as a global language


Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as a "world language", the lingua franca of the modern era.  While English is not an official language in most countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a second language around the world. Some linguists (such as David Graddol) believe that it is no longer the exclusive cultural property 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.  English is an official language of the United Nations and many other international organizations, 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%), Spanish (8%), and Russian; while the perception of the usefulness of foreign languages amongst Europeans is 68% English, 25% French, 22% German, and 16% Spanish.  Among non-English speaking EU countries, a large percentage of the population claimed to have been able to converse in English in the Netherlands (87%), Sweden (85%), Denmark (83%), Luxembourg (66%), Finland (60%), Slovenia (56%), Austria (53%), Belgium (52%), and Germany (51%).  Norway and Iceland also have a large majority of competent English-speakers.


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 World War II—the influence of the United States has 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.


Two educated native dialects of English have wide acceptance as standards in much of the world—one based on educated southern British and the other based on educated Midwestern American. The former is sometimes called BBC (or the Queen's) English, and it may be noticeable by its preference for "Received Pronunciation"; it typifies the Cambridge model, which is the standard for the teaching of English to speakers of other languages in Europe, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and other areas influenced either by the British Commonwealth or by a desire not to be identified with the United States. The latter dialect, General American, which is spread over most of the United States and much of Canada, is more typically the model for the American continents and areas (such as the Philippines) which have had either close association with the United States or desire to be so identified. Aside from those two major dialects are numerous other varieties of English, which include, in most cases, several sub varieties, such as Cockney, Scouse and Geordie within British English; Newfoundland English 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 therefore no one variety is considered "correct" or "incorrect" except in terms of the expectations of the particular audience to which the language is directed.


Scots has its origins in early Northern Middle English and developed and changed during its history with influence from other sources, but following the Acts of Union 1707 a process of language attrition began, whereby successive generations adopted more and more features from Standard English, causing dialectalization. Whether it is now a separate language or a dialect of English better described as Scottish English is in dispute, although the UK government now accepts Scots as a regional language and has recognized it as such under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.  There are a number of regional dialects of Scots, and 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, and for the more distinctive characteristics of regional dialects, see List of dialects of the English language. Within England, variation is now largely confined to pronunciation rather than grammar or vocabulary. At the time of the Survey of English Dialects, grammar and vocabulary differed across the country, but a process of lexical attrition has led most of this variation to die out.


Just as English it has borrowed words from many different languages over its history; English loanwords now appear in many languages around the world, indicative of the technological and cultural influence of its speakers. Several pidgins and Creole languages have been formed on an English base, such as Jamaican Patois, 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.


Constructed varieties of English

·        Basic English is simplified for easy international use. Manufacturers and other international businesses tend to write manuals and communicate in Basic English. Some English schools in Asia teach it as a practical subset of English for use by beginners.

·        E-Prime excludes forms of the verb to be.

·        English reform is an attempt to improve collectively upon the English language.

·        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.

·        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.

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







It is the vowels that differ most from region to region. Length is not distinctive in most varieties of North American English.







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 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 vowel



Open front unrounded vowel

Near-close near-front unrounded vowel



Open front unrounded vowel

Near-close near-back vowel



Open-mid back rounded vowel

Close front unrounded vowel



Near-close near-back vowel




Open-mid front unrounded vowel





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English Language


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