01 - The World's Language
02 - The Dawn of Language
03 - Global Language
04 - The First Thousand Years
05 - Where Words Come From
06 - Pronunication
07 - Varieties of English
08 - Spelling
09 - Good English and Bad
10 - Order Out of Chaos
11 - Old World, New World
12 - English as a World Language


More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.

The complexities of the English language are such that even native speakers cannot communicate effectively, as almost every Briton learns on his first day in America.

English has become the most global of languages, the lingua franca of business, science, education, politics and pop music.

When companies from 4 different European countries - France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland - formed a joint truck-making venture called Iveco in 1977, they choose English as their working language because as one of the founders wryly observed, 'It puts us all at an equal disadvantage.'

The richness of the English vocabulary, and the wealth of available synonyms, means that English speakers can often draw shades of distinction unavailable to non-English speakers. No other language has or needs books of synonyms like 'Roget's Thesaurus'. Most speakers of other languages do not even know that such books exist.

Of course, every language has areas in which it needs, for practical purposes, to be more expressive than others.  Even among speakers of the same language, regional and national differences abound. A Londoner has a less comprehensive view of extremes of weather than someone from the Middle West of America.

The endless versatility of English is wht makes our rules of grammar so perplexing. The reason for this is that the rules of English grammar were originally modelled on those of Latin, which in the 17th century was considered the purest and most admirable of languages.

In Latin, it is not possible to split an infinitive. So in English, the early authorities decided, it should not be possible to split an infinitive either. But there is no reason why we shouldn't, anymore than we should forsake air travel because it wasn't available to the Romans.

Irish Gaelic is a language in which spelling and pronunciation give the impression of having been devised by separate committees, meeting in separate romms, while implacably divided over seme deep semantic issue.

In all languages pronunication is of course largely a matter of familiarity mingled with prejudice.

Most books on English imply in one way or another that our language is superior to all others - yet there is no reliable way of measuring the quality of efficiency of any language.

That is jargon, the practice of never calling a spade a spade when you might instead call it a manual earth-restructuring implement, and it is one of the great curses of modern English.

In addition to mangling words in amusing ways, something else we can do in English that they cannot always do in other languages is construct intentionally ambiguous sentences that can be taken in either of two ways, as in the famous, if no doubt apocryphal,  notice in a restaurant saying: 'Customers who think our waiters are rude should see the manager.' There is a technical term for this (isn't there always?). It's called amphibology.
An admirable example of this neglected art was Benjamin Disraeli's airy note to an aspiring author: 'Thank you so much for the book. I shall lose no time in reading it.'

Nothing in English is ever quite what it seems. Take the simple word 'what'. We use it every day - indeed, every few sentences. But imagine trying to explain to a foreigner what 'what' means. It takes the 'Oxford English Dictionary' five pages and almost 15,000 words to manage the task.

Every day we use countless words and expressions without thinking about them. What, for instance, is the hem in hem and haw, the shrift in short shrift, the fell in one fell swoop? When you are overwhelmed, where is the whelm that you are over?


Speakers from the Mediterranean region like to put their faces very close, relatively speaking, to those they are addressing. A common scene when people from southern Europe and northern Europe are conversing, as at a cocktail party, is for the latter to spend the entire conversation stealthily retreating, to try to gain some space, and for the former to keep advancing to close the gap. Neither speaker may even be aware of it.

English speakers dread silence. Studies have shown that when a pause reaches four seconds, one or more of the conversationalists blurt something out - rather than let the silence extend to a fifth second.

Almost all languages change. A rare exception is written Icelandic, which has changed so little that modern Icelanders can read sagas written a thousand years ago.

Italy would appear on a map based on languages not as one entity but as a whole variety of broadly related but often mutually incomprehensible dialects. Italian, such as it is, is not a national language, but really only the dialect of Florence and Tuscany.

Some languages are not so distinct as we are sometimes led to believe. Spanish and Portuguese are closely enough related that the two can read each other's newspapers and books, though they have difficulty understanding speech. Finns and Estonians can freely understand each other. Danes, Swedes and Norwegians often insist their languages are quite distinct and yet there are greater differences between Italian dialects such as Sicilian and Piedmontese than there are between any of the three main Scandinavian languages. Romanian and Moldavian are essentially the same language with different names. So are Serbian and Croatian, the only real difference being that Serbian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and Croatian uses Western characters.

All the evidence suggests that minority languages shrink or thrive at their own ineluctable rate. It seems not to matter greatly whether governments suppress them brutally or support them lavishly. Despite all the encouragement and subsidization given to Gaelic in Ireland, it is spoken by twice as many people in Scotland, where there has been negligible government assistance. Indeed, Scottish Gaelic is one of the few minority languages in the world to be growing. But almost everywhere else the process is one of slow, steady and all too often terminal decline. The last speaker of Cornish as a mother tongue died 200 years ago. A similar fate befell Manx, a Celtic language spoken on the Isle of Man, whose last native speaker died in the 1960s.

We naturally lament the decline of these languages, but it is not an altogether undiluted tragedy. Consider the loss to English literature if Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Synge, Behan and Ireland's other literary masters had written in what is inescapably a fringe language. Their works would be as little known as those of the poets of Iceland or Norway, and that would be a tragedy indeed. No country has given the world more incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland.


'This she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman.'
Not perhaps the most profound of statments, but it is the earliest suviving example of Anglo-Saxon writing in Britain. It is, in other words, the first recorded sentence in English.

In the country inns of a small corner of northern Germany, in the spur of land connecting Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, you can sometimes hear people talking in what sounds eerily like a lost dialect of English. Occasional snatches of it make sense. According to Professor Hubertus Menke, the language is 'very close to the way people in Britain spoke more than 1,000 years ago'. This shouldn't entirely surprise us. This area of Germany, called Angeln, was once the seat of the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that crossed the North Sea to Britain, where they displaced the native Celts and gave the world what would one day become its most prominent language.

Not far away, in the marshy headlands of northern Holland and western Germany, and on the long chain of wind-battered islands strung out along their coasts, live a group of people whose dialect is even more closely related to English. These are the 300,000 Frisians, whose Germanic tongue has been so little altered by time that many of them can, according to the linguistic historian Charles Laird, still read the medieval epic Beowulf 'almost at sight'.

Not only were the Anglo-Saxons relatively uncultured, they were also pagan, a fact quaintly preserved in the names of four of our weekdays, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, which respectively commemorate the gods Tiw, Woden, and Thor, and Woden's wife, Frig. Saturday, Sunday and Monday, to complete the picture, take their names from Saturn, the sun, and the moon.

Today only about 4,500 words in English, about one percent of the total number of words in the
language are of Old English origin, however, they include many of the most fundamental terms in the language: eat, drink, man, wife, child, house, heaven, and God among others, as well as most of the basic function words of the language: a, am, the, to, for, and 'and'. As a result in any list of the hundred most common words in English, 98 or even 99 will be of Old English origin.

Norman society had two tiers: the French-speaking aristocracy and the English-speaking peasantry. Not surpisingly, the linguistic influence of the Normans tended to focus on matters of court, government, fashion and high living. Meanwhile, the English peasant continued to eat, drink, work, sleep and play in English. The breakdown can be illustrated as follows: Animals in the field usually were called by English names (sheep, cow, ox), but once cooked and brought to the table, they were generally given French names (beef, mutton, veal, bacon).

Today we have two demonstrative pronouns, this and that, but in Shakespeare's day there was a third, yon, which denoted a further distance than that. You could talk about this hat, that hat, and yon hat.

Originally thou was to you as in French tu is to vous. Thou signified either close familiarity or social inferiority, while you was the more impersonal and general term. In European languages to this day choosing between the two forms can present a very real social agony. As Otto Jespersen, a Dane who appreciated these things, put it: 'English has thus attained the only manner of address worthy of a nation that respects the elementary rights of each individual'.

William Shakespeare created expressions that could not grammatically have existed previously - such as 'breathing one's last' and 'backing a horse'. No one in any tongue has ever made greater play of his language. He coined some 2,000 words (barefaced, critical, monumental, majestic, obscene, radiate, excellent, hurry, lonely), an astonishing number, and gave us countless phrases. As a phrasemaker there has never been anyone to match him. Among his inventions: one fell swoop, in my mind's eye, more in sorrow than in anger, vanish into thin air, budge an inch, remembrance of things past, flesh and blood, foul play, to be cruel to be kind - and so on and on and on. He was so wildly prolific he could put two in one sentence, as in Hamlet's observation: 'Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.'


If you have a morbid fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth, there is a word for it: arachibutyrophobia. There is a word to describe the state of being a woman: muliebrity. And there's a word for describing a sudden breaking off of thought: aposiopesis. If you harbour an urge to look through the windows of the homes you pass, there is a word for the condition: cryptoscopophilia. When you are just dropping off to sleep and you experience that sudden sensation of falling, there is a word for it: it's a myoclonic jerk. If you want to say that a word has a circumflex on its penultimate syllable, without saying flat out that it has a circumflex there, there is a for it: properispomenon. There is even a word for a figure of speech in which two connotative words linked by a conjunction express a complex notion that would normally be conveyed by an adjective and a substantive working together. It is a hendiadys. (But of course.) In English, in short, there are words for almost everything.
Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. Doesn't that seem a useful term. Or how about ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting? Our dictionaries are full of such words - words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcance of distinctions.

And yet there are odd gaps. We are strangely lacking in middling terms - words to describe with some precision the middle ground between hard and soft, near and far, big and little.
Ruthless was once accompanied by ruth, meaning compassion. But, as with many such words, one form died and another lived. Why this should be is beyond explanation.

Despite these gaps and casualties, English retains probably the richest vocabulary, and most diverse shading of meanings, of any language. For almost every word we have a multiplicity of synonyms. Something is not just big, it is large, immense, vast, capacious, bulky, massive, whopping. No other language has so many words all saying the same thing.

And yet a critic could argue that English an untidy and acquisitive language, cluttered with a plethora of needless words. Jules Feiffer once drew a strip cartoon in which the down-at-heel character observed that first he was called poor, then needy, then deprived, then underprivileged, and then disadvantaged, and concluded that although he still didn't have a dime he sure had acquired a rich vocabulary.
There is something in that. A rich vocabulary carries with it a concomitant danger of verbosity, as evidenced by our peculiar affection for redundant phrases, expressions that say the same thing twice: beck and call, law and order, null and void, safe and sound, peace and quiet.

Despite this bounty of terms, we have a strange - and to foreigners it must seem maddening - tendency to load a single word with a whole galaxy of meanings. Fine, for instance, has 14 definitions as an adjective, 6 as a noun, and 2 as an adverb. In the Oxford English Dictionary it fills two pages and takes 5,000 words of description.
But the ploysemic champion must be set. It has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participal adjective. Its meanings are so various that it takes the OED 60,000 words - the length of a short novel - to discuss them all. A foreigner could be excused for thinking that to know set is to know English.

Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym. Sanction, for example, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean cut in half or stick together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off. If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch you start it. To ravish means to rape -- or to enrapture. Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years. Trying one's best is a good thing, but trying one's patience is a bad thing. A blunt instrument is dull, but a blunt remark is pointed.

One of our more inexplicable habits is the tendency to keep the Anglo-Saxon noun but to adopt a foreign form for the adjectival form. Thus fingers are not fingerish; they are digital. Among other such pairs are mouth/oral, book/literary, water/aquatic, moon/lunar, town/urban, house/domestic, sun, solar, town/urban. This is yet another perennial source of puzzlement for anyone learning English. Sometimes, a Latinate adjective was adopted but the native one kept as well, so that we can choose between earthly and terrestrial, motherly and maternal, timely and temporal.

So where do all these words come from? Words are created. Often they spring seemingly from nowhere. TAke dog. For centuries the word in English was hound. Then suddenly in the Late Middle Ages, dog - a word etymologically unrelated to any other known word - displaced it. No one has any idea why. Recent examples of this phenomenon are yuppie and sound bites. Many words are made up by writers. Sir Thomas More came up with acceptance, exact, explain and exaggerate. Jeremy Bentham produced international. Thomas Carlyle gave us environment. George Bernard Shaw thought up superman.
The new words of today represent an explosion of technology - words like lunar module - rather than of poetry of feeling.
Some words are made up for a specific purpose. The military vehicle the tank got its name because during its secretive experimental phase people wre encouraged to thjnk it was a storage receptacle - hence a tank. The curiously nautical terminology for its various features - hatch, turret, hull - arises from the fact that it was developed by the British Admiralty rather than the Army.
Words change by doing nothing. That is, the word stays the same but the meaning changes. Counterfeit once meant a legitimate copy. A girl in Chaucer's day was any young person, whether male or female. This drift of meaning, technically called catachresis, is as widespread as it is curious. More than half of all words adopted into English from Latin have meanings quite different from their original ones.
Nice is first recorded in 1290 with the meaning of stupid. 75 years later Chaucer was using it to mean lascivious. Then at various times over the next 400 years it came to mean extravagant, strange, modest, slight, shy - and by 1769 - pleasant and agreeable.

Words are created by error. One sort is called ghost words. The most famous of these perhaps is dord, which appeared in the 1934 Merriam-Webster International Dictionary as another word for density. In fact, it was a misreading of the scribbled 'D or d', meaning that 'density' could be abbreviated either to a capital or lower-case letter. The people at Merriam-Webster quickly removed it, but not before it found its way into other dictionaries. Such occurrences are more common than you might suppose. According to the First Supplement of the OED, there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that owe their existence to typographical errors or other misrenderings.


Nothing speaks more clearly for the absurdities of English pronunciation that the word for the study of pronunciation in English, orthoepy, can itself by pronounced two ways.

People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis.

As listeners we can distinguish between the most subtle gradations of emphasis. Most people, if they are reasonably attentive, can detect the difference between "that's tough" and "that stuff", and between "grey day" and "Grade A" even though the diction could hardly be more similar.
Sometimes, however, precise diction proves elusive, especially when there is no direct eye contact. It is remarkable the extent to which we read lips.

Spelling and pronounciation are very much like trains on parallel tracks, one sometimes racing ahead of the other before being caught up.


'It would be no great exaggeration to say that greater differences in pronounciation are discernible in the north of England between Trent and Tweed than in the whole of North America.'
 - Simeon Potter

Sometimes relatively obscure British dialect words have been carried overseas, where they have unexpectedly prospered. The usual American word for stealing a look, peek, was originally a dialect word in England, existing in only three pockets of East Anglia - but that was the area from which many of the first immigrants came. Three of the most pervasive Australianisms, fair dinkum, cobber and no worries, appear to have their roots in English dialectical expressions.

A sufficiently sophisticated computer could probably place with reasonable accuracy, sometimes to within a few miles, almost any English-speaking person in the world depending on how he pronounced the following ten words: cot, caught, cart, bomb, balm, oil, house, good and water. Just four of these words - bomb, balm, cot and caught - could serve as broad regional shibboleths for almost every American, according to dialectologist W. Nelson Francis.

"It is probably not too much to say, that there never was an instance in history when so many new names were needed, as when the British first colonized Australia."
 - Otto Jespersen


'An intelligent child who is bidden to spell debt, and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a b because Julius Caesar spelling it with a b.'
 - George Bernard Shaw

Before 1400, it was possible to tell with some precision where in Britain a letter or manuscript was written just from the spellings. By 1500, this had become all but impossible. The development that changed everything was the invention of the printing press. This brought a much-needed measure of uniformity to English spelling.

Unluckily for us, English spellings were becoming fixed just at the time when the language was undergoing one of those great phonetic seizures that periodically unsettle any tongue. The result is that we have today in English a body of spellings that, for the most part, faithfully relfect the pronunications of people living 400 years ago.
The silent letters of most words today are shadows of a former pronunciation.

When in the 17th century the English developed a passion for classical languages, certain well-meaning meddlers began fiddling with the spellings of many words in an effort to make them conform to a Latin ideal. This b's were inserted into debt and dount, out of deference to the Latin orginals. Island gained its s, anchor its h.

When looked at globally, most of our spellings cater to a wide variation of pronunciations. If we insisted on stricly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London and Sydney, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, gairull in Scotland. Written communications between nations, and even parts of nations, would become practically impossible.


"We need make no doubt but that the best forms of speech will, in time, establish themselves by their own superior excellence; and in all controversies, it is better to wait the decisions of time, which are slow and sure, than to take those of synods, which are often hasty and injudicious."
     - Joseph Priestley, 1761.

A split infinitive is one in which an adverb comes betwen to and a verb, as in to quickly look. I can think of a very good reason for not splitting an infinitive: Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago.

One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees. It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries. To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.
But at the same time there is a case for resisting change - at least slapdash change. As John Ciardi observed, resistance may in the end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.


How big is the English language? That's not an easy question. The unabridged Random House of 1987 had 315,000. The revised Oxford English Dictionary of 1989 has 615,000 entries. But in fact this only begins to hint at the total.

Estimates of the size of the average person's vocabulary are even more contentious. Stuart Berg Flexner, the noted American lexicographer, suggests that the average well-read person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words and probably used 1,500 to 2,000 in a normal week's conversation.

There are many words that we use every day and clearly know and yet might have difficulty proving. How would you define the or what or am or very? Imagine trying to explain to a Martian in a concise what just what 'is' is.

The longest word in the English language begins methianylglutaminyl and finishes 1,913 letters later as alynalalanylthreonilarginylserase. I don't know what it is used for, though I daresay it would take some rubbing to get it out of the carpet.

Although readers will appear to treat a dictionary with utmost respect, they will generally ignore anything in it that doesn't suit their tastes.

In early February 1884, the first volume of the most masterly and ambitious philological exercise undertaken, eventually redubbed the Oxford English dictionary, was published. The intention was to record every word used in English since 1150 and to trace it back through all its shifting meanings, spellings, and uses to its earliest recorded appearance. There was to be at least one citation for each century of its existence and at least one for each slight change of meaning. To achieve this, almost every significant piece of English literature from the last seven and a half centuries would have to be not so much read as scoured.
In 1928 the final volume was published. The completed dictionary contained 414,825 entries, supported by 1,827,306 citations (out of 6 million collected) described in 44 million words of text spread over 15,487 pages. It is perhaps the greatest work of scholarship ever produced.
No other language has anything even remotely approaching it in scope. Because of its existence, more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world.


"The English and Americans are two people separated by the same language."
 - George Bernard Shaw

People don't often appreciate just how much movies and television have smoothed the differences between British and American English, but half a century ago the gap was very much wider. In 1922, when Sinclair Lewis'  novel Babbitt was published in Britain it contained a glossary. The period up to the Second World War marked the age of the greatest divergence between the two main branches of English.

Consider that in Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, not the mail, while in America the Postal Service delivers the mail, not the post.


"France is engaged in a war with Anglo-Saxon."
 - French President Francois Mitterand, 1986.

More than one observer has suggested that what really rankles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them.

There is certainly a good case for adopting an international language, whether it be English, Malaysian or Thraco-Phrygian. Translating is an enormously costly and time-consuming business. An internal survey by the European Community in 1987 founf that it was costing $15 a word, $500 a page, to translate its documents.

A more compelling reason for an international language is the frequency and gravity of misunderstandings owing to difficulties of translation. The 1905 draft of a treaty between Russia and Japan, written both in French and English, treated the English 'control' and French 'controller' as synonyms when in fact the English form means to 'dominate or hold power' while the French simply means 'to inspect'. The treaty nearly fell apart as a result.

Often the names we know places by is nothing like thenames the locals use. In Italian its not Naples but Napoli, not Venice but Venezia, not Milan but Milano. The names of countries are even more at variance with their English versions - Japan is Nihon, Finland is Suomen Tasavalta, South Korea is Han Kook.

The suggestion that English will evolve into separate branches in the way that Latin evolved into French, Spanish and Italian seems to me to ignore the very obvious consideration that communications have advanced a trifle in the intervening period. Movies, television, books, record albums, business contacts, tourism - all these are powerfully binding influences. At the time of writing, a television viewer in Britain could in a single evening watch Neighbours, an Australian soap opera; Cheers, an American comedy set in Boston, and EastEnders, a British soap set among cockneys in London.
All of these bring into people's homes in one evening a variety of vocabulary, accents, and other linguistic influences that they would have been unlikely to experience in a single lifetime just two generations ago. If we should be worrying about anything to do with the future of English, it should be not that the various strands will dirft apart but that they will grow indistinguishable. And what a sad, sad loss that would be.

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