The English Language

Given that the English language has recently been branded as the first emerging global lingua franca (a language used widely beyond the population of its native speakers), it is virtually impossible nowadays not to know a few basic English phrases. With over a billion people speaking it, a working knowledge of the English language is an essential requirement in many professions, with English being the prominent language in communications, tourism, science, business, aviation, entertainment and diplomacy. Half of all the world’s business deals are conducted in English, two thirds of scientific papers are written in English, and over 70% of all post is written and addressed in English. Although the French, Spanish and Arabic languages may disagree profusely as a matter of cultural pride, it is unsurprising that English is destined to become the unofficial international language in future times. According to recent figures, there are now more English speaking people in China than there are in America.

The English language can been characterised as ‘borrowed,’ ‘flexible,’ ‘ever-expanding’ and ‘riddled with imperfections.’ The origins of the English language date back to the 5th Century AD in which it was brought to Britain by Germanic settlers from Northwest Germany and the Northern Netherlands. Originally, old English was diverse but as time passed, the Late West Saxon dialect emerged as the dominant tongue. What started off as many individual dialects gradually evolved over time and during different invasions to form what we now know as the English language. It has often been conceded that English is challenging to learn as a second language, and it is probable that this is due to the many different influences which have fought for recognition over time. For example, the Normans sought to inject their old French into England, whereas the Saxons spoke a complex form of Old English. The fact that speakers of many different languages all lived fairly proximately inevitably led to a hybrid tongue being developed, which is the language we now call English.

Linguists will know that most modern languages contain two forms of the word you , one being formal and one informal. Native English speakers often struggle with this, as in the English language there is only one way to say you. This fact has often led to the assumption that the English language is much less formal than its European counterparts, but it is interesting to note that in old English the word thou is used as a second version of you. The word thou seems archaic and stuffy to English speakers nowadays, but actually it was much less formal to say thou than you. The language therefore has evolved over time to make the informal tongue redundant, and preserve the more polite version of the pronoun. This is in marked contrast with other languages such as French or Spanish, where both forms of you have been preserved, although the more formal versions are used less and less as time goes on.

The fact that in English, nouns are not given genders means that a lot less time has to be spent learning what article to place in front of word upon word, and so at first glance a prospective learner of English could be forgiven for thinking that it is an easy language to grasp. However, it is widely acknowledged that English is in fact a relatively hard language to learn if you are not a native speaker, and this is perhaps a reflection of the old frictions between different languages fighting for a place of prominence in England. Whereas most modern languages follow very formulaic grammatical rules, with verb patterns and sentence structures which can effectively be used to master the fundamentals of the language, almost everything about English is irregular. There are rules, but they are broken so often that an English learner will learn most effectively by speaking the language, making mistakes, and then trying again.

The Americanisation of the English language is a confusing subject for native and non-native English speakers alike. Words which are spelt one way in Great Britain are sometimes slightly altered in American English, with the result being that correct spelling sometimes depends on geographical location. For example, Americans often use the letter z instead of s, and shorten a lot of words ending in our to end in or. One thing that has always remained the same however, is the fact that the general language is called English, whether or not it is the American version. However, if Illinois State Law is scrutinised closely, one would find that the official language is defined as “American,” and not English. The American influence on the English language has often been resented by the British people, but it cannot be denied that Americanisms have been injected into many aspects of life, from literature to television. The American film and television industry has been highly influential in affecting the way English is spoken today. For example, the sitcom Friends led to the repeated use of the word like in almost every English sentence. Equally however, some words which are thought of as very American rather than English, such as faucet, diaper and crib, are actually remnants of Old English which have not survived in Britain itself, but which are still used in America. There are a great many different types of English and American accents, which is something English learners need to bear in mind. English is always widely understood, but regional accents can be very thick and sometimes it takes a while to tune your ear into an accent which is different from the one to which a person is accustomed.

In order to demonstrate the ways in which the English language continues to evolve, the following list, taken from the 11th edition of the Oxford English dictionary provides an idea of the sorts of words which have recently been officially recognised:

aerobicized or aerobicised
adj. (of a person's body) toned by aerobic exercise: aerobicized Hollywood women.

n. terrorist acts intended to disrupt or damage a country's agriculture.
– DERIVATIVES agroterrorist n.

n. a type of hip-hop or rap music characterized by repeated shouted catchphrases and elements typical of electronic dance music, such as prominent bass.
adj. US, chiefly black slang (of a person) very excited or full of energy.
– ORIGIN 1990s: perh. an alt. past part. of CRANK1 or a blend of CRAZY and DRUNK.

n. Brit. informal a stupid or foolish person.
– ORIGIN 1980s: perh. a blend of TWIT1 and PLONKER.

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