English: the world's language
is the world's leading international
language. It is the principal language spoken in Britain, the
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some other countries such as Uganda
and Botswana. Almost 400
in the world speak English as their first language (estimates of the
exact number vary considerably) - about the same number as
but less than Mandarin Chinese or Hindi.
In addition, over 1,000 million (1
billion) people worldwide speak English as a second language.
Many more can get by in English
English is the main second
language in India, South Africa and many parts of Africa and Asia. But
- more and more -
it is also the language of international commerce, of business, of
diplomacy and of tourism.
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The short history of English
English reach the special position in which it finds itself today?
Mostly, the rise of English to its position as the world's main
international language was a result of chance. Britain was the world's
most active colonial nation in the 19th
century, and British explorers and colonists took their language with
them wherever they went.
English became the
official language of most
In the 20th century, America has been the world's most powerful nation
- and Americans have brought the English language to other countries of
The importance of American
international corporations has made sure that English has remained the
international language of
business; and Hollywood and the music industry have made sure that it
has become the principal language for the media and showbiz.
The success story of English
has been due partly to the nature of the language, but more to the fact
that it had developed into a mature national language just
when the countries of Europe were beginning to expand their influence
their culture all over the world.
Over a thousand years ago,
when the roots of modern Europe were being formed, western Europe was
three sections: in the East there were people who spoke Slavonic
in the middle there were people speaking Germanic languages (including
and in the south and west there were people speaking "Romance"
languages, derived from Latin. In the far west of Europe, there were
also people speaking Celtic languages, such as Gaelic.
In those days, England was a
its people spoke a variety of Germanic languages including forms of
Danish and Anglo Saxon, as well as some Celtic languages.
In 1066, England was conquered
by the Normans, from France, who brought with them their own langage -
Norman French -
a Romance language.
In the years that followed,
the nobility of England spoke French and read Latin, while
the ordinary people spoke varieties of old English; but since they
existed side by side, the two languages immediately began to influence
each other. Norman French became Anglo-Norman, and Old English, picking
up lots of vocabulary from Anglo-Normans, evolved into Middle English.
Middle English was thus rather different from other European languages.
It was partly Germanic (particularly the vocabulary
of everyday life, the grammar
and partly Romance (a lot of the more litterary vocabulary).
It was even influenced to a small degree by the Celtic
languages which remained alive in Cornwall and other parts of the
Eventually, since Middle English was spoken by
largest part of the population, it became the dominant language in
England; and by the 14th century, it was well on the way to becoming
the national language, not just for everyday life, but for
administration and literature too.
English also replaced Latin as the language of the church. The Bible
had been translated into English in the 14th century; but it was not
until the Protestant reformation of the 16th century, the age
English became the language of church services. From then on,
position as the national language of Britain, was firmly established.
And it was just at the right moment.
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became the established national language just at the point in history
when colonial expansion was beginning. It was the spoken and written
language of the first men and women from Britain to settle in
Americas; and it was a language that went round the world with
England's early traders, commercial adventurers and missionaries.
By the year 1700, England had become the world's leading
in terms of international trade, ensuring that the English
language was taken all over the world as the principal language of
Since English is at
the dividing line of the two principal families of language used in
today, most people from Spain to Scandinavia can recognise something of
their own language in English.
For example, if you speak a
(German, Dutch, or a Scandinavian language), you do not need to have
much (or even any) English to understand this sentence:
water his garden last night
Anyone who speaks French or Spanish or Italian, should be able to
this English sentence without too much difficulty:
if you have
a difficult problem.
As English is half way between two different
language groups, speakers of other languages have often found it easy
communicate in English, even without paying attention to grammar!
Nevertheless, grammar is
important; for without
grammar, no language can survive. Grammar is the cement with which the
bricks of language are held together. Without it, even messages in
English can be quite impossible to understand.
Just look at the importance of
in these simple examples, which are entirely different in
The man the woman
saw was hungry.
The man saw the woman
Or look at
the radical difference in meaning
between these two sentences:
This is a story
forgotten by Charles Dickens.
This is a forgotten
story by Charles Dickens.
In recent times, as English has become a global
language, used in different places all over the world, it has become a
much richer language than in the past. It has picked up new words from
other cultures, other languages, such as bungalow
(from India), détente
(from French), kebab
(from Turkey), potato
(from American Indian) - plus a lot of modern slang
Today, both grammar and
vocabulary are still
changing. There is no such thing as "official English";
Britain nor the USA has anything official like the "Académie
to decide what is acceptable and what is not. The most accepted sources
of reference are the famous English dictionaries - Websters for the USA
and the Oxford English Dictionary for British English. Like other
however, they are descriptive not prescriptive - i.e. they describe
as it is used, they do not tell people what they can or should say or
Today's English is different
from the English
of 100 years ago; it is pronounced differently too - and no doubt, it
be even more different in 100 years' time.
► List of terms - a glossary of grammar terms
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