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English Language

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Overview: English is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world. While it has fewer native speakers than other languages such as Mandarin Chinese, it has spread far and wide due to British colonization and American global influence, becoming something of an international tongue. English is often accepted as a go-between language, or lingua franca, for international commerce and politics, as it is very likely the most commonly acquired second or third language on the planet. Exact numbers are impossible to come by, but according to many estimates, English comes close to being the best-known language on Earth when native and secondary speakers are counted together.

English is regarded as being remarkably quick to “borrow” words from other languages, and what historical knowledge we have shows that it has been doing this since its inception. The very fact that English arose from a hodgepodge of different dialects as various conquerors and barbarian tribes arrived on the British Isles, mixing in and transforming the cultures of the previous inhabitants, is what gives it its trademark flexibility. What English lacks in neatness, it tends to make up for in expressive versatility.

Roots of the language: Many centuries ago, tribes of Anglo-Saxons from present-day Germany and Denmark began to settle in what would later be known as the British Isles, which were already populated with native Celts and their Roman conquerors. Their Germanic language mixed with the Celtic languages, the Latin of the Romans, and the Scandinavian languages of Viking invaders to form “Old English.” This new tongue evolved rapidly, and it is rather likely that the language spoken by the elite was somewhat distinct from the local dialects that the villagers used.

The transition to what is known as “Middle English” was precipitated by the Norman Invasion of the eleventh century, in which members of the Norman tribe from what is now France took over the British Isles, adding to the eclectic mix of people who already lived there. This led to many of the Romantic influences in English, as the Normans spoke a Latin-based Romance language that, on the continent, would evolve into French.

So-called “Modern English” emerged over the course of a few centuries with what has been termed the Great Vowel Shift, a change in the pronunciation of vowels that took place more or less before the onset of the sixteenth century. English began to borrow even more words from modern French, which at the time was considered to be the language of intellectuals and other educated people. Then, as colonialism brought English to other continents and cultures, it picked up borrowed words and terms from a diverse range of other languages.

Language characteristics: English is a multifaceted language with vast differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar between its different dialects. Even within “Standard English,” grammar and spelling rules are quite inconsistent, making it one of the more difficult languages to become literate in. Much of the basic grammar of English shows its Germanic origins, although it no longer possesses gendered nouns in the way that German does. The stress placed on syllables within a word, or on words within a sentence, is of great importance in English, as it can have a major impact on the meaning. For instance, the word desert (emphasis on the first syllable) has a completely different meaning from the similar word dessert (emphasis on the last syllable).

Written form: The Anglo-Saxons originally used a runic alphabet, but this was slowly replaced with the Latin alphabet before disappearing entirely by the end of the Norman Invasion. Christianity was both the dominant religion and the main focus of reading and writing in Old England, and Latin was its official language. The modern 26-letter English alphabet is therefore a direct adaptation of the Latin alphabet, which was fully adopted in the 9th century. Because of the diverse roots of English, however, it is somewhat notorious for having inconsistent spelling rules. Roughly three-quarters of English words are reasonably phonetic, but the list of exceptions is so vast that it takes a longer time for most people to become fluent readers than in many other languages.

Poll: Should English be the official language of the World? View Facts & Infographic

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Last Updated : March 25, 2017


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