nds:Ingelsch simple:English

The English language is a West-Germanic language which originated in England from several local languages brought by 6th century invaders and has since spread throughout the British Isles and into various regions where Britain held overseas colonies. English is the second most popular world language, as measured by the number of native speakers, which was around 402 million in 2002. It is also the most popular second and learning language in the world, as 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. Knowledge of English is virtually a prerequisite for working in academia, for instance.

Total speakers: 402 Million
Language codes
ISO 639-1: en
ISO 639-2: eng

Table of contents
1 History
2 Classification and related languages
3 Geographic distribution
4 Dialects and regional variants
5 Sounds
6 Grammar
7 Vocabulary
8 Writing system
9 See also
10 External links
11 Further reading


Main article: History of the English Language

English is descended from the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, that began populating the British Isles around 500 AD. These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The various dialects spoken by these Germanic invaders formed what would eventually be called Old English. Old English lasted until 1100, shortly after the Norman conquest.

Middle English was the result of the heavy French influence of the Normans, and lasted from 1100-1500. The most famous surviving work from the Middle English period is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Great Vowel Shift occurred during this period, and English after that major sound change became Modern English.

Modern English, the language described by this article, began its rise around the time of William Shakespeare and its grammar and pronunciation has been essentially the same since that time, with the most important changes being in the large increase of vocabulary. Some scholars divide early modern English and late Modern English at around 1800, in concert with British conquest of much of the rest of the world, as the influence of native languages affected English enormously.

Classification and related languages

English belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest undoubted living relatives of English are Scots and Frisian. Frisian is a language 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.

After Scots and 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.

Geographic distribution

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

English is also one of the primary languages of Belize (with Spanish), Canada (with French), Cameroon (with French and African languages), Dominica, St. Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (with French Creole), the 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, the Marshall Islands, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is the most commonly used unofficial language of Israel and an increasing number of other countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Germany.

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

Dialects and regional variants

The expansiveness of the Brits and the Americans has spread English throughout the globe. It is now the second-most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese. As such, it has bred a variety of regional Englishes (generally refered to as English dialects) and English-based creoles and pidgins.

Some of the major regional variations are:


The Americas




These varieties may, in most cases, contain several subvarieties, such as Cockney within British English, Newfoundland English within Canadian English and African American Vernacular English with American English.

Some people dispute the staus of Scots as a closely related separate language from English and consider it a group of English dialects. Scots has a long tradition as a separate written and spoken language. Pronunciation, grammar and lexis differ, sometimes substantially, from other varieties of English.

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.

Many countries around the world have blended English words and phrases into their everyday speech and refer to the result by a colloquial name that implies its bilingual origins. Similarly, English speaking countries have aggressively blended in foreign words. Named examples of these ad-hoc constructions include: Franglais, Germish, Spanglish, Yinglish, Engrish, Chinglish, Finglish, Konglish, Taglish, Vinish and Wenglish.

Constructed variants 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.


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 used only by Scottish or Welsh speakers of English for Scots/Gaelic or German loanwords such as loch (`lax) and reich (raix) or words of Greek origin such as technology or arachnid.
  2. Unvoiced w (/W/) is found in Scottish, upper-class British, some eastern United States, and New Zealand accents.
  3. /N/ is a non-phonemic allophone of /n/ in some British accents, appearing only before /g/.
  4. Some AAVE speakers do not contrast /d/ and /D/.


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. English is a much less inflected language than most Indo-European languages, placing much grammatical information in auxiliary words and 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

  • gerund
    1. Working is good for the soul. -ing

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

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

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


Almost without exception, Germanic words (which include all the basics such as pronouns and conjunctions) are shorter, and more informal. Latinate words are often regarded as more elegant or educated. However, the excessive use of Latinate words is often a sign of either pretentiousness (as in the stereotypical policeman's talk of "apprehending the suspect") or obfuscation (as in a military document which says "neutralize" when it means "kill").

An English-speaker is often able to choose between Germanic and Latinate synonyms: "come" or "arrive"; "sight" or "vision"; "freedom" or "liberty". The richness of the language is that such synonyms have sightly different meanings, enabling the language to be used in a very flexible way to express fine variations or shades of thought.

In everyday speech the majority of words will normally be Germanic. If one wishes to make a forceful point in an argument in a very blunt way, Germanic words will invariably be chosen. A majority of Latinate words (or at least a majority of content words) will normally be used in more serious speech and writing, such as a courtroom or an encyclopedia article.

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 between formal forms of English and contemporary usage. See also sociolinguistics.

Word origins

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 Anglo-Saxon), and those which are "Latinate" (Latin-derived, mostly from Norman French but some borrowed directly from Latin).

A computerized survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973) which estimated the origin of English words as follows:

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle 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%

James D. Nicoll made the oft-quoted observation: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." [1]

Example loanwords

Note: This section is only a representative sample and is not intended to be complete.

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

From Dutch See Dutch words borrowed into English

From French Many thousands of English words came from French after the Norman conquest.

From Gaelic

barda combination musician/poet/singer who tells stories.
bansheeA wailing spirit found in folklore. Literally 'fairy woman'.
bogA swamp.
bratA disagreeable or spoiled child.

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.
kindergartenan educational institution for pre-school children.
rucksacka synonym for backpack

From Greek

Thousands of English words came from Greek. Examples include philosophy, philology, psychology, bicycle, type and drama. 'tele' as in telecommunications also came from Greek. There are also hybrids coined from Greek and Latin patched together, such as automobile, television.

From Italian

Most musical terms used in English (and other languages) are Italian, e.g. forte, piano, etc.

influenzaMeaning "influence", as the disease was formerly believed to be caused by unfavorable astrological influences.
umbrellafrom ombrello
volcanofrom vulcano

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; Japanese for "folded paper"
sakea Japanese liquor
tsunamitidal wave
tycoonwealthy and powerful businessperson. Japanese for big monarch

From Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch)
dunkto dip

From Scots

From Spanish
alligator(from el lagarto, "the lizard")
canyon(from cañon)
mulatto(from mulato)

From Swedish


From Portuguese
tank(from tanque)
veranda(h)(from varanda)

Writing system

English is written using the Latin alphabet. English orthography is historical, not phonological, orthography and diverges considerably from the spoken language.

Written accents

English includes some words which can be written with accent marks. These words have been imported from other languages. But it is increasingly rare for writers of English to actually use the accent marks for common words, even in very formal writing, to the point where actually writing the accent may be interpreted as a sign of pretension.

Some examples: à la carte, ångström, appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, café, cliché, crème, crêpe, derrière, éclair, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, führer, maté, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, piñón, protégé, raison d'être, résumé, risqué, sauté, séance, vis-à-vis, voilà.

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 most of the time by today, but Time Magazine still uses it.

It is also possible to use a diaeresis to indicate a syllable break, but again this is often left out. Examples: coöperate, daïs, naïve, noël, reëlect.

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 meter 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: i.e. "cursèd".

In certain older texts (typically in British English), the use of ligatures is common in words such as archæology, œsophagus, and encyclopædia.

See also

External links

Further reading

  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. Tom McArthur
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal