English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria. Following the extensive influence of Great Britain and the United Kingdom from the 18th century, via the British Empire, and of the United States since the mid-20th century, it has been widely dispersed around the world, becoming the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions. It is widely learned as a second language and used as an official language of the European Union and many Commonwealth countries, as well as in many world organizations. It is the third most natively spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It is the most widely spoken language across the world.
Historically, English originated from the fusion of languages and dialects, now collectively termed Old English, which were brought to the eastern coast of Great Britain by Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) settlers by the 5th century – with the word English being derived from the name of the Angles, and ultimately from their ancestral region of Angeln (in what is now Schleswig-Holstein). A significant number of English words are constructed based on roots from Latin, because Latin in some form was the lingua franca of the Christian Church and of European intellectual life. The language was further influenced by the Old Norse language due to Viking invasions in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman-French, and vocabulary and spelling conventions began to give the superficial appearance of a close relationship with Romance languages to what had now become Middle English. The Great Vowel Shift that began in the south of England in the 15th century is one of the historical events that mark the emergence of Modern English from Middle English.
Owing to the assimilation of various European languages throughout
history, modern English contains a very large vocabulary. Contemporary
English has also assimilated words from other parts of the world, for
instance of Hindi and African origin. The Oxford English Dictionary lists over 250,000 distinct words, not including many technical, scientific, or slang terms, or words that belong to multiple word classes.
- 1 Significance
- 2 History
- 3 Classification and related languages
- 4 Geographical distribution
- 4.1 Countries in order of total speakers
- 4.2 Countries where English is a major language
- 4.3 English as a global language
- 4.4 Dialects and regional varieties
- 4.5 Constructed varieties of English
- 5 Phonology
- 5.1 Vowels
- 5.2 Consonants
- 5.2.1 Notes for consonants
- 5.2.2 Voicing and aspiration
- 5.3 Supra-segmental features
- 5.3.1 Tone groups
- 5.3.2 Characteristics of intonation—stress
- 6 Grammar
- 7 Vocabulary
- 7.1 Number of words in English
- 7.2 Word origins
- 7.2.1 French origins
- 7.2.2 Old Norse origins
- 7.2.3 Dutch and Low German origins
- 8 Writing system
- 8.1 Basic consonant sound-letter correspondence
- 8.2 Written accents
- 9 Formal written English
- 10 Basic and simplified versions
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
See also: English-speaking world and Anglosphere
Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca, is the dominant language or in some instances even the required international language of communications, science, information technology, business, seafaring, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy. Its spread beyond the British Isles began with the growth of the British Empire, and by the late 19th century its reach was truly global . Following British colonisation
from the 16th to 19th centuries, it became the dominant language in the
United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The growing economic
and cultural influence of the US and its status as a global superpower since World War II have significantly accelerated the language's spread across the planet. English replaced German as the dominant language of science Nobel Prize laureates during the second half of the 20th century (compare the Evolution of Nobel Prizes by country). English equalled and may have surpassed French as the dominant language of diplomacy during the last half of the 19th century.
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 one of six official languages of the United Nations.
One impact of the growth of English is the reduction of native linguistic diversity in many parts of the world. Its influence continues to play an important role in language attrition. Conversely, the natural internal variety of English along with creoles and pidgins have the potential to produce new distinct languages from English over time.
Main article: History of the English language
English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian and Old Saxon dialects brought to Britain by Germanic settlers from various parts of what is now northwest Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. Up to that point, in Roman Britain the native population is assumed to have spoken the Celtic language Brythonic alongside the acrolectal influence of Latin, from the 400-year Roman occupation.
One of these incoming Germanic tribes was the Angles, whom Bede believed to have relocated entirely to Britain. The names 'England' (from Engla land "Land of the Angles") and English (Old English Englisc) are derived from the name of this tribe—but Saxons, Jutes and a range of Germanic peoples from the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden also moved to Britain in this era.
Initially, Old English was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Great Britain but one of these dialects, Late West Saxon, eventually came to dominate, and it is in this that the poem Beowulf is written.
Old English was later transformed by two waves of invasion. The first was by speakers of the North Germanic language branch when Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless started the conquering and colonisation of northern parts of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th centuries (see Danelaw). The second was by speakers of the Romance language Old Norman in the 11th century with the Norman conquest of England. Norman developed into Anglo-Norman, and then Anglo-French
– and introduced a layer of words especially via the courts and
government. As well as extending the lexicon with Scandinavian and
Norman words these two events also simplified the grammar and
transformed English into a borrowing language—more than normally open to
accept new words from other languages.
The linguistic shifts in English following the Norman invasion produced what is now referred to as Middle English, with Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales being the best known work.
Throughout all this period Latin in some form was the lingua franca of European intellectual life, first the Medieval Latin of the Christian Church, but later the humanist Renaissance Latin, and those that wrote or copied texts in Latin commonly coined new terms from Latin to refer to things or concepts for which there was no existing native English word.
Modern English, which includes the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible,
is generally dated from about 1550, and when the United Kingdom became a
colonial power, English served as the lingua franca of the colonies of
the British Empire. In the post-colonial period, some of the newly created nations which had multiple indigenous languages
opted to continue using English as the lingua franca to avoid the
political difficulties inherent in promoting any one indigenous language
above the others. As a result of the growth of the British Empire,
English was adopted in North America, India, Africa, Australia and many
other regions, a trend extended with the emergence of the United States
as a superpower in the mid-20th century.
The English language belongs to the Anglo-Frisian sub-group of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic family, a member of the Indo-European languages. Modern English is the direct descendant of Middle English, itself a direct descendant of Old English, a descendant of Proto-Germanic. Typical of most Germanic languages, English is characterised by the use of modal verbs, the division of verbs into strong and weak classes, and common sound shifts from Proto-Indo-European known as Grimm's Law. The closest living relatives of English are the Scots language (spoken primarily in Scotland and parts of Ireland) and Frisian (spoken on the southern fringes of the North Sea in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany).
After Scots and Frisian come those Germanic languages that are more distantly related: the non-Anglo-Frisian West Germanic languages (Dutch, Afrikaans, Low German, High German), and the North Germanic languages (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese).
With the (partial) exception of Scots, none of the other languages is
mutually intelligible with English, owing 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, especially to earlier stages of the language. Isolation has
allowed English and Scots (as well as Icelandic and Faroese) to develop
independently of the Continental Germanic languages and their influences
In addition to isolation, lexical differences between English and
other Germanic languages exist due to heavy borrowing in English of
words from Latin and French. For example, compare "exit" (Latin), vs.
Dutch uitgang, literally "out-going" (though outgang survives dialectally in restricted usage) and "change" (French) vs. German Änderung (literally "alteration, othering"); "movement" (French) vs. German Bewegung
("be-way-ing", i.e. "proceeding along the way"); etc. Preference of one
synonym over another also causes differentiation in lexis, even where
both words are Germanic, as in English care vs. German Sorge. Both words descend from Proto-Germanic *karō and *surgō respectively, but *karō has become the dominant word in English for "care" while in German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages, the *surgō root prevailed. *Surgō still survives in English, however, as sorrow.
Despite lexical borrowing, English retains its classification as a
Germanic language due to its structure and grammar. Non-native words are
incorporated into a Germanic system of conjugation, declension, and
syntax (For example, the word reduce is borrowed from Latin redūcere; however, in English we say "I reduce - I reduced - I will reduce" rather than "redūcō - redūxī - redūcam"; likewise, we say: "John's life insurance company" rather than "the company of insurance life of John", cf. the French: la compagnie d'assurance-vie de John).
Furthermore, in English, all basic grammatical particles added to
nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are Germanic. For nouns, these
include the normal plural marker -s/-es, and the possessive markers -'s and -s' . For verbs, these include the third person present ending -s/-es (e.g. he stands/he reaches ), the present participle ending -ing, the simple past tense and past participle ending -ed, and the formation of the English infinitive using to (e.g. "to drive"; cf. Old English tō drīfenne). Adverbs generally receive an -ly ending, and adjectives and adverbs are inflected for the comparative and superlative using -er and -est (e.g. fast/faster/fastest), or through a combination with more and most. These particles append freely to all English words regardless of origin (tsunamis; communicates; to buccaneer; during; calmer; bizarrely) and all derive from Old English. Even the lack or absence of affixes, known as zero or null (-Ø) affixes, derive from endings which previously existed in Old English (usually -e, -a, -u, -o, -an, etc.), that later weakened to -e, and have since ceased to be pronounced and spelt (e.g. Modern English "I sing" = I sing-Ø < I singe < Old English ic singe; "we thought" = we thought-Ø < we thoughte(n) < Old English wē þōhton).
Although the syntax of English is somewhat different from that of
other West Germanic languages with regards to the placement and order of
verbs (for example, "I have never seen anything in the square" = German Ich habe nie etwas auf dem Platz gesehen, and the Dutch Ik heb nooit iets op het plein gezien,
where the participle is placed at the end), English syntax continues to
adhere closely to that of the North Germanic languages, which are
believed to have influenced English syntax during the Middle English
Period (e.g., Danish Jeg har aldrig set noget på torvet; Icelandic Ég hef aldrei séð neitt á torginu).
As in most Germanic languages, English adjectives usually come before
the noun they modify, even when the adjective is of Latinate origin
(e.g. medical emergency, national treasure). Also, English continues to make extensive use of self-explaining compounds (e.g. streetcar, classroom), and nouns which serve as modifiers (e.g. lamp post, life insurance company), traits inherited from Old English (See also Kenning).
The kinship with other Germanic languages can also be seen in the tensing of English verbs (e.g. English fall/fell/fallen/will or shall fall, West Frisian fal/foel/fallen/sil falle, Dutch vallen/viel/gevallen/zullen vallen, German fallen/fiell/gefallen/werden fallen, Norwegian faller/falt/falt/vil or skal falle), the comparatives of adjectives and adverbs (e.g. English good/better/best, West Frisian goed/better/best, Dutch goed/beter/best, German gut/besser/best), the treatment of nouns (English shoemaker, shoemaker's, shoemakers, shoemakers'; Dutch schoenmaker, schoenmakers, schoenmakers, schoenmakeren; Swedish skomakare, skomakares, skomakare, skomakares), and the large amount of cognates (e.g. English wet, Scots weet, West Frisian wiet, Swedish våt; English send, Dutch zenden, German senden; English meaning, Swedish mening, Icelandic meining, etc.). It also gives rise to false friends (e.g. English time vs Norwegian time, meaning "hour"; English gift vs German Gift, meaning "poison"), while differences in phonology can obscure words that really are related (tooth vs. German Zahn; compare also Danish tand). 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 primarily to
mean gravitational effects on the ocean by the moon, though the
original meaning is preserved in forms like tidings and betide, and phrases such as to tide over).
Many North Germanic words entered English due to the settlement of Viking raiders and Danish invasions which began around the 9th century (see Danelaw).
Many of these words are common words, often mistaken for being native,
which shows how close-knit the relations between the English and the
Scandinavian settlers were (See below: Old Norse origins).
Dutch and Low German also had a considerable influence on English
vocabulary, contributing common everyday terms and many nautical and
trading terms (See below: Dutch and Low German origins).
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"). The Germanic languages Icelandic and
Faroese also follow English in this respect, since, like English, they
developed independent of German influences.
words are also intelligible to an English speaker, especially when they
are seen in writing (as 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 (e.g. inflectional
endings, use of old French spellings, lack of diacritics, etc.), as well as occasional divergences in meaning of so-called false friends: for example, compare "library" with the French librairie, which means bookstore; in French, the word for "library" is bibliothèque.
The pronunciation of most French loanwords in English (with the
exception of a handful of more recently borrowed words such as mirage, genre, café; or phrases like coup d’état, rendez-vous,
etc.) has become largely anglicised and follows a typically English
phonology and pattern of stress (compare English "nature" vs. French nature, "button" vs. bouton, "table" vs. table, "hour" vs. heure, "reside" vs. résider, etc.).
See also: List of countries by English-speaking population
Pie chart showing the relative numbers of native English speakers in the major English-speaking countries of the world
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.
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), Nigeria (4 million), Ireland (3.8 million), South Africa (3.7 million), and New Zealand (3.6 million) 2006 Census.
Countries such as the Philippines, 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.