English language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Pronunciation: IPA: /ˈɪŋglɪʃ/
Spoken in: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States and many other countries
Total speakers: First language: 354 million
Second language: 150 million–1.5 billion 
Ranking: 4 as a native language;
1 or 2 in overall speakers (depending on counting method)
Language family: Indo-European
   West Germanic
Writing system: Latin alphabet 
Official status
Official language of: De jure, exclusive: Liberia, several Commonwealth countries
De jure, non-exclusive: Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, South Africa, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Israel, Kosovo, European Union, Zimbabwe
De facto, exclusive: Australia
De facto, non-exclusive: New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States
Regulated by: no official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1: en
ISO 639-2: eng
ISO/FDIS 639-3: eng 
World countries, states, and provinces where English is the de facto official language are dark blue; countries, states, and provinces where it is an official, but not a primary language are light blue.

English is a widely distributed language originating in England that is currently the primary language of several countries. It is extensively used as a second language and as an official language in many other countries. English is the most widely taught and understood language in the world, and sometimes is described as a lingua franca. Although Modern Standard Chinese has more mother-tongue speakers (approximately 700 million) English is used by more people as a second or foreign language, putting the total number of English-speakers worldwide at well over one billion.

An estimated 354 million people speak English as their first language. Estimates about second language speakers of English vary greatly between 150 million and 1.5 billion. English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, diplomacy and the Internet. It has been one of the official languages of the United Nations since its founding in 1945.

English is a West Germanic language that developed from Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. English, having its major roots in Germanic languages, derives most of its grammar from Old English. As a result of the Norman Conquest, it has been heavily influenced, more than any other Germanic language, by French and Latin. From England it spread to the rest of the British Isles, then to the colonies and territories of the British Empire (outside and inside the current Commonwealth of Nations) such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others, particularly those in the Anglophone Caribbean. As a result of these historical developments English is the official language (sometimes one of several) in many countries formerly under British or American rule, such as Pakistan, Ghana, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and the Philippines.

Mandarin Chinese and Hindi have more native speakers than does English; however, the geographic distribution of Mandarin and Hindi, as both first and second languages, is more limited than that of English. English also is the most widely spoken Germanic language. English spread to many parts of the world through the expansion of the British Empire, but did not acquire lingua franca status in the world until the late 20th century, when American culture began to overpower that of others on the global scale. Following World War II, the economic and cultural influence of the United States increased and English permeated other cultures, chiefly through development of telecommunications technology. Because a working knowledge of English is required in many fields, professions, and occupations, education ministries throughout the world mandate the teaching of English to, at least, a basic level (see English as an additional language).


English is an Anglo-Frisian language brought to southeastern Great Britain in the 5th century AD and earlier by Germanic settlers and Germanic auxiliary troops from various parts of northwest Germany ( Saxons, Angles) as well as Jutland ( Jutes).

The extent of Germanic immigration to Britain during Roman supremacy there is unknown, but substantial, as Germanic auxiliary troops were continually recruited outside and settled within the borders of the Empire, Britain being no exception to this rule. Thus, the Germanic roots of English in Britain may go back to the 2nd Century A.D. or even earlier.

The original Old English language was subsequently influenced by two successive waves of invasion. The first was by speakers of languages in the Scandinavian branch of the Germanic family, who colonised parts of the British Isles in the eighth and ninth centuries. The second wave was of the Normans in the eleventh century, who spoke Norman French (an oïl language closely related to Modern French).

While modern scholarship considers most of the story to be legendary and politically motivated, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that around the year 449, Vortigern, a legendary king of the Brythons, invited the Angles to help him against the Picts (of modern-day Scotland). In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast and far north of England. Further aid was sought, and in response came Saxons, Angles, and Jutes. The Chronicle talks of a subsequent influx of settlers who eventually established seven kingdoms.

These Germanic invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants, whose languages survived in areas not under Germanic domination: Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and Ireland. The dialects spoken by the invaders dominated almost all of what is now called England and formed what is today called the Old English language, which resembled some coastal dialects in what are now northwest Germany and the Netherlands (i.e. Frisia). 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 following, the Norman kings and the high nobility spoke only Anglo-Norman, which was very close to Old French. A large number of Norman words found their way into Old English, 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. 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 some discussion. Apart from such English-lexified creole languages such as Tok Pisin, Scots — which is 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 itself, Low German, 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 French, via the Norman after the Norman Conquest and directly from French in further centuries. As a result, a substantial share 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.

Geographical distribution

Distribution of first-language native English speakers by country (Crystal 1997)
Distribution of first-language native English speakers by country (Crystal 1997)

According to the World Factbook, aided with Aneki, and the Guinness World Records English is currently the 2nd most commonly spoken language in the world. It has over 500 million speakers. It is behind only Mandarin, which has over 1 billion speakers. English is today the third most widely distributed language as a first spoken language in the world, after Mandarin and Hindi (see the ranking). Something around 600 million people use the various dialects of English regularly. About 377 million people use one of the versions of English as their mother tongue, and a similar number of people use one of them as their second or foreign language as well. English is used widely in either the public or private sphere in more than 100 countries all over the world. In addition, the language has occupied a prominent place in international academic and business communities. The current status of the English language at the start of the new millennium compares with that of Latin in most of Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. English is also the most widely used language for young backpackers who travel across continents, regardless of whether it is their mother tongue or a secondary language.

Although the language is named after England, the United States now has more first-language English speakers than the rest of the world combined. The United Kingdom comes second, with England indeed having as many English speakers as the rest of the world combined (aside from the USA). Canada is third, and Australia fourth, with those four comprising 95% of native English speakers. Of those nations where English is spoken as a second language, India has the most such speakers (' Indian English') and now has more people who speak or understand English than any other country. Following India are the People's Republic of China, the Philippines, Germany and the United States (by way of immigrant communities and other enclaves in which English is necessary for communication with their English-speaking countrymen).

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, Isle of Man, Jamaica ( Jamaican English), Jersey, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand ( New Zealand English), Ireland ( Hiberno-English), Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 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.

English is also an important minority language of South Africa ( South African English), and in several other former colonies or current dependent territories of the United Kingdom and the United States, for example Hong Kong, Singapore, Mauritius, and the Philippines.

In Asia, former British colonies like Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia use English as either an official language or a de facto common language, and it is taught in all private and public schools as a mandatory subject. There are a considerable number of native English speakers in urban areas in both countries. In Hong Kong, English is co-official with Chinese, and is widely used in business activities. It is taught from infant school and kindergarten, and is the medium of instruction for a few primary schools, many secondary schools and all universities. Substantial numbers of students reach native-speaker fluency. It is so widely used that it is inadequate to say that it is merely a second or foreign language, though there is still a percentage of people in Hong Kong with poor or little command of English.

The majority of English native speakers (67 to 70 per cent) live in the United States (Crystal, 1997). Although the U.S. Federal government has no official languages, English has been given official status by 27 of the 50 state governments, all but three of which (Hawaii, New Mexico and Louisiana) have declared English their sole official language.

In many other countries, where English is not a first language, it is an official language; these countries include Belize, 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, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

English is the most widely learned and used foreign language, and as such, 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. Others believe there are limits to how well English can go in suiting everyone for communication purposes. 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. English is also compulsory for most secondary school students in the PRC and Taiwan. See English as an additional language.

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. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aircraft/airport and maritime communication, as well as being one of the official languages of both the European Union and the United Nations, and of most international athletic organizations, including the Olympic Committee. 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 influence of the British Empire, and Commonwealth of Nations, as well as the primacy of the United States, especially since WWII, 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.

The major varieties of English each 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 as more formal, such as Received Pronunciation in Britain or the Bostonian dialect in the U.S.

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 English's wide use 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, for example Tok Pisin began as one. 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. Norwenglish is a form of English containing many words or expressions directly copied from Norwegian.

Constructed varieties 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.
  • 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 standardizing 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.



IPA Description word
i/iː Close front unrounded vowel b ead
ɪ Near-close near-front unrounded vowel b id
ɛ Open-mid front unrounded vowel b ed
æ Near-open front unrounded vowel b ad
ɒ Open back rounded vowel b od 1
ɔ Open-mid back rounded vowel p awed 2
ɑ/ɑː Open back unrounded vowel br a
ʊ Near-close near-back rounded vowel g ood
u/uː Close back rounded vowel b ooed
ʌ/ɐ Open-mid back unrounded vowel, Near-open central vowel b ud
ɝ/ɜː Open-mid central unrounded vowel b ird 3
ə Schwa Ros a's 4
ɨ Close central unrounded vowel ros es 5
e(ɪ)/eɪ Close-mid front unrounded vowel
Close front unrounded vowel
b ayed 6
o(ʊ)/əʊ Close-mid back rounded vowel
Near-close near-back rounded vowel
b ode 6
Open front unrounded vowel
Near-close near-front unrounded vowel
b uy
Open front unrounded vowel
Near-close near-back rounded vowel
b ough
ɔɪ Open-mid back rounded vowel
Close front unrounded vowel
b oy


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

Where symbols appear in pairs, the first corresponds to the sounds used in North American English; the second corresponds to English spoken elsewhere.

  1. North American English lacks this sound; words with this sound are pronounced with /ɑ/ or /ɔ/. According to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998), this sound is present in Standard Canadian English.
  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 /ə/.
  5. This sound is often transcribed with /i/ or with /ɪ/.
  6. The diphthongs /eɪ/ and /oʊ/ are monophthongal for many General American speakers, as /eː/ and /oː/.
  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.


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

  bilabial labio-
dental alveolar post-
palatal velar glottal
plosive p  b     t  d     k  g  
nasal m     n     ŋ 1  
flap       ɾ 2        
fricative   f  v θ  ð 3 s  z ʃ  ʒ 4   x 5 h
affricate         tʃ  dʒ 4      
approximant       ɹ 4   j    
lateral approximant       l        
approximant ʍ  w6
  1. The velar nasal [ŋ] 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 [ɾ] 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 /ʃ/, /ʒ/, and /ɹ/ are labialised in some dialects. Labialisation is never contrastive in initial position and therefore is sometimes not transcribed. Most speakers of General American realize <r> (always rhoticized) as the retroflex approximant /ɻ/, whereas the same is realized in Scottish English, etc. as the alveolar trill.
  5. The voiceless velar fricative /x/ is used only by Scottish or Welsh speakers of English for Scots/Gaelic words such as loch /lɒx/ 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 [dɒkxə]. 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.
  6. Voiceless w [ʍ] is found in Scottish and Irish English, as well as in some varieties of American, New Zealand, and English English. In all other dialects it is merged with /w/.

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 (/ p/, / t/, / k/, and / /) are aspirated when they are word-initial or begin a stressed syllable — compare pin [pʰɪn] and spin [spɪn], crap [kʰɹ̥æp] and scrap [skɹæp].
    • 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 [ tʰæp̚], sack [ sæk̚].
  • Word-terminal voiced plosives may be devoiced in some dialects (e.g. some varieties of American English) — examples: sad [ sæd̥], bag [ bæɡ̊]. In other dialects they are fully voiced in final position, but only partially voiced in initial position.

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. The structure of tone groups can have a crucial impact on the meaning of what is said. For example:

- /duː juː niːd ˈɛnɪˌθɪŋ/ Do you need anything?
- /aɪ dəʊnt | nəʊ/ I don't, no
- /aɪ dəʊnt nəʊ/ I don't know (contracted to, for example, - /aɪ dəʊnəʊ/ 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 ( ˈ ) 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.)
John hadn't stolen that money. (... He was given the money.)
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.)
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 louder than all 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. For example:

When do you want to be paid?
Nów? (Rising pitch. In this case, it denotes a question: can I be paid now?)
Nòw (Falling pitch. In this case, it denotes a statement: I choose to be paid now.)


English grammar displays 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 Germanic has declined in importance and the remnants of inflection (such as plural marking) have become more regular.

At the same time as inflection has declined in importance in English, the language has developed a greater reliance on features such as modal verbs and word order to convey grammatical information. Auxiliary verbs are used to mark constructions such as questions, negatives, the passive voice and progressive tenses.


Germanic words (which include all the basics such as pronouns and conjunctions) tend to be shorter than the Latinate words of English, and more common in ordinary speech. The longer Latinate words are regarded by many as more elegant or educated. However, the excessive use of Latinate words is 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" gives a thorough treatment of this feature of English.

An English speaker is often able to choose between Germanic and Latinate synonyms: "come" or "arrive"; "sight" or "vision"; "freedom" or "liberty." Often 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 have from each other, 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, 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

As the General Explanations at the beginning of the Oxford English Dictionary state:

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 difficulty of defining the number of words is compounded by the emergence of new versions of English, such as Indo-Pakistani English. The editors of Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (475,000 definitions) in their preface, estimate the number to be much higher.

Word origins

Influences in English Vocabulary
Influences in English Vocabulary

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:

  • Langue d'oïl, including French and Old Norman: 28.3%
  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • Other Germanic languages (including Old English, Old Norse, and Dutch): 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

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 that have been made:

  • French (langue d'oïl), 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 (e.g. from French) — another 10 to 15% can be attributed to direct borrowings from those languages.

Some researchers assert that as much as 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. Approximately 40% 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 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.

Basic sound-letter correspondence

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

IPA Alphabetic representation Dialect-specific
p p
b b
t t, th (rarely) thyme, Thames th thing ( African-American, New York)
d d th that ( African-American, New York)
k c (+ a, o, u, consonants), k, ck, ch, qu (rarely) conquer, kh (in foreign words)
g g, gh, gu (+ a, e, i), gue (final position)
m m
n n
ŋ n (before g or k), ng
f f, ph, gh (final, infrequent) laugh, rough th thing (many forms of English used in England)
v v th with ( Cockney, Estuary English)
θ th thick, think, through
ð th that, this, the
s s, c (+ e, i, y), sc (+ e, i, y)
z z, s (finally or occasionally medially), ss (rarely) possess, dessert, word-initial x xylophone
ʃ sh, sch, ti portion, ci/ce suspicion, ocean; si/ssi tension, mission; ch (esp. in words of French origin); rarely s/ss sugar, issue; chsi fuchsia
ʒ si division, zh (in foreign words), z azure, su pleasure, g (in words of French origin) (+e, i, y) genre
x kh, ch, h (in foreign words) occasionally ch loch ( Scottish English, Welsh English)
h h (syllable-initially, otherwise silent)
ch, tch occasionally tu 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)
ɹ r, wr (initial) wrangle
j y (initially or surrounded by vowels)
l l
w w
ʍ wh Scottish and Irish English, as well as some varieties of American, New Zealand, and English English

Written accents

English includes some words that can be written with accent marks. These words have mostly 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. 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 and animé both have a pronounced final e, which would be "silent" by the normal English pronunciation rules.

Some examples: ångström, animé, appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, café, cliché, crème, crêpe, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, naïve, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, protégé, raison d'être, résumé, risqué, über-, vis-à-vis, voilà. For a more complete list, see List of English words with diacritics.

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 from most publications today, though Time magazine still uses it. For some words such as "soupçon" however, the only spelling found in English dictionaries (the OED and others) uses the diacritic.

Italics, with appropriate accents, are generally applied to foreign terms that are uncommonly used in or have not been assimilated into English: for example, adiós, coup d'état, crème brûlée, pièce de résistance, raison d'être, über ( übermensch), vis-à-vis.

It was formerly common in English to use a diaeresis to indicate a syllable break: for example, coöperate, daïs, reëlect. One publication that still uses a diaeresis for this function is the New Yorker magazine. However, this is increasingly rare in modern English. Nowadays the diaeresis is normally left out (cooperate), or a hyphen is used (co-operate). It is, however, still common in loanwords such as naïve and noël.

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 metre 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, as with cursèd.

In certain older texts (typically British), the use of ligatures is common in words such as archæology, œsophagus, and encyclopædia. Such words have Latin or Greek origin. Nowadays, the ligatures have been generally replaced in British English by the separated letters "ae" and "oe" ("archaeology", "oesophagus") and in American English by "ae" and "e" ("archaeology", "esophagus"), however, the spellings "oeconomy" and "oecology" are now generally replaced by "economy" and "ecology" outside the U.S. as well.

For further information on how one can type diacritics and ligatures, see British and American keyboards, keyboard layouts.

Formal written English

A version of the language, which is 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.

Learners of English are in danger of being misled by native speakers who refer to American English, Australian English, British English or other varieties of English. While it is true that many regional differences between the forms of spoken English can be documented, the learner can easily fall into the trap of believing that these are different languages. They are instead mostly regional variations of the spoken language and such variations occur within these countries as well as between them.

The differences in formal writing that occur in the various parts of the English-speaking world are so slight that many dozens of pages of formal English can be read without the reader coming across any clues as to the origin of the writer, far less any difficulties of comprehension.

A popular American website about errors in English, written by a professor at a west coast U.S. university guiding his students towards preferred constructions of written English, contains almost nothing among its hundreds of entries with which a counterpart thousands of miles away in Sydney or London would disagree. Certainly, disputes about pronunciation and colloquial expressions used in speech abound. But in the written language these are relatively few.

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 programme, 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".

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