Encyclopedia > English language

  Article Content

English language

English is the language that originally developed in England. From there, it spread to the rest of the British Isles and to Britain's overseas colonies. English is probably the third or fourth most popular world language in numbers of native speakers (322,000,000 in 1999), but the most popular second and learning language in the world. The cultural, economic, military, political and scientific importance of the United States of America and the United Kingdom for the last two centuries has given English pre-eminent status as a language of international communication. It belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

English's closest living undoubted relative is Frisian, still 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. Some people regard Scots as a closely related separate language from English, while others consider it an English dialect. Scots has a tradition as a separate language, as well as somewhat different grammar and vocabulary. (Some would even say that Ebonics is a separate language, but this is extremely debatable.) After 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 (see below).

Table of contents


English descends from the language spoken by the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain during late antiquity and the Dark Ages (it is arguable that the Danish contribution occurred as late as the early Middle Ages), although it received outside influences until much later.

The principal invading Germanic tribes were Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Their Anglo-Saxon dialects developed into Old English. Although the most commonly used words today derive from those early Anglo-Saxon roots, its vocabulary was greatly influenced over time firstly by Danish invaders who spoke Old Norse, and then, to an even greater extent, by Norman invaders who spoke French.

For over two hundred years, the Norman French rulers governed and ran the church, educational and court systems in French, and French was the language of the aristocracy. As a result, English changed from its roots to such an extent that Modern English speakers cannot understand Old English. It lost most of its word inflections and gained a great deal of French vocabulary.

By about the time of the Renaissance, the language had evolved into what is known as Middle English, which Modern English speakers can understand with a little difficulty. From the late 1400s, the language changed further into what is described as Modern English. English has continued to assimilate foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, even to the present time. As a result of this history of assimilation, English today is commonly believed to have the largest vocabulary of any language in the world.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson published the first significant English dictionary.

Historic English text samples

Old English

From Beowulf, approximately 900 CE
    HwŠt! We Gardena         in geardagum,
    ■eodcyninga,         ■rym gefrunon,
    hu ­a Š■elingas         ellen fremedon.
    Oft Scyld Scefing         scea■ena ■reatum,

    monegum mŠg■um,         meodosetla ofteah,
    egsode eorlas.         Sy­­an Šrest wear­
    feasceaft funden,         he ■Šs frofre gebad,
    weox under wolcnum,         weor­myndum ■ah,
    o­■Št him Šghwylc         ■ara ymbsittendra 

Middle English

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffry Chaucer, 14th century
  Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

       Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
       The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
       And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
       Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
       Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
       Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
       The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
       Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
       And smale foweles maken melodye,
       That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
       (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
       Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Early modern English

From Othello by William Shakespeare, 1603
  Iago: Though in the trade of Warre I haue slaine men,
 Yet do I hold it very stuffe o'th' conscience 
 To do no contriu'd Murder: I lacke Iniquitie 
 Sometime to do me seruice. Nine, or ten times
 I had thought t'haue yerk'd him here vnder the Ribbes.
 Othello: 'Tis better as it is.

Modern English

From the United States Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Thomas Jefferson
 IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

 The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

 When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to
 dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to 
 assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which
 the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the
 opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel
 them to the separation.

English in the world

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

Also, English is one of the primary languages of Belize (with Spanish), Canada (with French), Dominica, St. Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (with French), 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, Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands Samoa, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Also, English is the language most often studied as a foreign language in Europe (32.6%) or Japan, followed by French, German and Spanish.

Major Dialects of English

These varieties may, in most cases, contain several subvarieties, such as Cockney within English English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) (aka Ebonics, spoken among some African-Americans).

Due to its wide use as a second language, English is spoken with many different accents, which may identify the speaker's native language. For some distinctive characteristics of certain accents, see how to tell the origin of an accent.


English orthography is historical, not phonological orthography and diverges considerably from the spoken language. This is English's Consonantal System (including dialect sounds):

Labial Labio-dental (Inter)Dental Alveolar Alveo-palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p b     t d   k g  
Fricative   f v T D s z S Z h
Affricate         tS dZ    
Approximant       l r    
Semi-vowel w W²       j    
Nasal m     n   N  
  1. This is a velar fricative and is found only in Scots in Gaelic loanwords such as loch (`lax)
  2. Voiceless w (/W/) is found in Scots and upper-class British.

See also List of Archaic English Words and Their Modern Equivalents, List of words commonly mispronounced, rhotic, singular they, Received Pronunciation, General American pronunciation, Standard Midwestern pronunciation, non-sexist language


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. All in all English is a much less inflected language than the bulk of Indo-European languages, placing more of the information in the word order. English is a slightly inflected language, retaining features like:

  • Possessive (which has developed into a clitic)
    1. He is Alfredo's best friend. -'s

  • 3rd person singular present
    1. Alfredo works. -s

  • past tense
    1. Alfredo worked. -ed

  • present participle/ progressive
    1. Alfredo is working. -ing

  • past participle
    1. The car was stolen. -en
    2. Alfredo has talked to the police. -ed

  • plural
    1. All your sigs are mine. -s

  • comparative
    1. Alfredo is smarter than Ricky. -er

  • superlative
    1. Alfredo has the bluest eyes. -est


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 from formal and correct forms of English and contemporary usage. See also sociolinguistics.


From African languages
banana(via Portuguese or Spanish )
dengue(from Swahili via Spanish )

From Afrikaans


From Native American languages

alpaca(from Aymara via Spanish)
cannibal(from Caribbean, via Spanish)
canoe(from Caribbean, via Spanish)
chocolate(from Nahuatl, via Spanish)
cocaine(from Quechua, via Spanish)
coyote(from Nahuatl, via Spanish)
Eskimo(from Cree)
hurricane(from Caribbean, via Spanish)
igloo(from Innuktitut)
jaguar(from Tupi, via Portuguese)
kayak(from Innuktitut)
moccasin(from Algonquian languages)
moose(from Algonquian languages)
ocelot(from Nahuatl, via Spanish)
potato(via Spanish)
racoon(from Algonquian languages)
squaw (archaic, pejorative)(from Cree iskwe)
tomato(from Nahuatl, via Spanish)
wigwam(from Algonquian languages)

From Arabic

alcove (via Spanish alcoba)
alcohol (via Spanish alcohol)
algebra (via Spanish ßlgebra)

From French Thousands of English words came from French.

From German

pretzela traditionally salted and often hard bread snack.
steina German style beer glass.
wanderlusta nomadic urge.
sauerkrauta mixture of cabbage in brine.
frankfurtera hot dog.
hamburgera sandwich featuring a ground beef patty or often simply ground beef.

From Greek Thousands of English words came from Greek. Examples include philosophy and philology. 'tele' as in telecommunications also came from Greek.

From Japanese

judoA wrestling sport derived from juijitsu[?]; literally "gentle way"
kamikazesuicide attack. Japanese for "divine wind"
karateA martial arts style; literally "empty hand"
origamipaper crafts
sakea Japanese liquor
tycoonwealthy and powerful businessperson. Japanese for big monarch
tsunamitidal wave

From Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch)

dunkto dip

From Spanish

alligator(from el lagarto, "the lizard")
canyon(from ca˝on)
mulatto(from mulato)

From Portuguese

tank(from tanque)

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 (http://www.manythings.org/voa/voa.htm) is a simplied version of English used by the Voice of America. It uses a vocabulary of 1500 words.

External links

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Sanskrit language

... the sandhi. Morphology and Syntax Sanskrit is a highly inflected language with three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and three number ...

This page was created in 34 ms