Facts Sheets of Major World Languages English

About the major world language English, history, number and location of speaker, samples, trivia and more.



How Many Speakers: 365 million

Where Spoken: Principal language of U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana. Official language of over a dozen African countries, as well as British dependencies such as Belize, Hong Kong, and Gibraltar, and numerous islands in the Caribbean, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. "Associate official language" of India.

History: "The sun never sets on the English language. "Observe a German tourist talking to a Japanese shopkeeper in Tokyo, or an African diplomat to his counterpart from Asia, and the medium of communication will almost certainly be English. It is the unofficial international language.

There are three recognized periods in the history of English: Old English, from earliest times until 1150 A.D.; Middle English, 1150-1500; and Modern English, 1500 to the present. The story began in the 5th century A.D. with the arrival in Britain of three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who quickly displaced the indigenous Celtic tongues. Over the following centuries, four dialects emerged: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. Only West Saxon survived the Viking invasion, and by the 10th century had become the country's official language. Old English words and their Norse counterparts competed vigorously for supremacy. Sometimes both survived, as in the synonyms ill-sick, craft-skill, and rear-raise. In 1066 the Norman invasion brought the tremendous impact of the French language to England. For two centuries, French was the language of the English nobility, while English remained the speech of the peasants. This is reflected in such English-French word pairs as cow-beef, calf-veal, and sheep-mutton.

In the late 14th century, English finally reigned in England, with the London dialect as standard. As late as 1700, there were only 8 1/2 million English speakers. As a result of vast colonial expansion, the number shot up to 123 million by 1900, and has since tripled. The two main dialects, British and American, exhibit many differences in pronunciation and usage, although these differences are diminishing somewhat.

Despite the infusion of words from innumerable other languages, the heart of the language has remained the Old English of Anglo-Saxon times. While fewer than 5,000 Old English words exist unchanged and in common use, these constitute the basic building blocks of the language. English has also revealed, in the course of history, astounding capacities for growth and creativity, to the point where its vocabulary is the richest on earth.

Oddities: English is structurally closer to Chinese than to any of its European cousins. Parts of speech are often fuzzy; up can be an adverb, preposition, verb, noun, or adjective. Word order is stereotyped; there is a big difference in meaning between look over and overlook or stand with and withstand. Seven different meanings can be put into the following sentence by successively inserting the modifier only before each of the words: She told me that she loved me. Run has more than 250 meanings.

The absence of a plural you has given rise to slang forms like you-all, youse, and you-uns. There is no pronoun for "he or she." Cleave means both "adhere" and "split."

The complete English vocabulary consists of almost 1 million words, yet 3,000 words make up 95% of all utterances. English accounts for 3/4 of the world's mail, 1/2 of the newspapers, and 3/5 of all radio stations.

English is the only language that capitalizes "I," the first person singular. English spelling is so bizarre that ghoti could conceivably spell "fish," from the sounds of gh in enough, o in women, and ti in action.

Orchid is derived from "testicle" and pencil from "penis." Shakespeare used Oh boy, beat it, and not so hot. A good-looking woman was already a broad in the 16th century, and had been a piece since the 14th.

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