If you are an English speaker then congratulations, you are using a global language and the most popular language ever. Statistically, English is unlikely to be your first language and you are likely to be from an educated background. Again, congratulations.
Here are ten things you may not have known about this wonderful language:
L’Académie française (French Academy) in Paris is responsible for regulating the French language. One mission of this institute is to suggest alternatives for the English words introduced into French. For example, the word email becomes courriel (although you will still hear people use the word email in French).
In Spain, there is Real Academia Española ( Royal Spanish Academy) and Germany has Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung ( Council for German Orthography) , while in the UK there is no body that oversees the language. Among the 10 most spoken languages in the world, only English is not guiding by any academy.
There are political reasons for this. The last time the UK rekindled the idea of a language academy was in the early eighteenth century, when the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, lobbied vigorously for establishing a language institute because “that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no Means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; […]; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” The idea was supported by Queen Anne, but she died before a decision could be made and the matter was largely forgotten.
In the USA, a bill for the incorporation of a national academy was unsuccessfully introduced into congress in 1806. Fourteen years later, the American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as director, but closed after two years because of the lack of support from the political world and the public.
Today, the only English-speaking country with a language academy is South Africa. Since English has become so popular that it does not need any direction, the hopes of an academy being built soon seem bleak.
According to the British Council, in 2000, there are about 1 billion people learning English around the world. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.
Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.
Surprise? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, etc. Old English developed from various Germanic languages that came to the British Isles in the second half of the first millennium AD.
Whereas the language has changed almost unrecognisably since then, including the grammar, the basic words have remained.
If English is your native language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, rest assured, you are not alone. It may sound strange since English and German both belong to the same branch of the Indo-European language family.
The Renaissance, which began in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas or old ideas rediscovered began to flood out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. As a result, the language borrowed or adapted Latin words, causing the English vocabulary of the Renaissance to roughly double.
However, the trend to shift away from the German language started much earlier, because…
William the Conqueror tried to learn English at the age of 43 but gave up. He did not seem to love the land he conquered in 1066 when he spent half his reign in France and did not visit England st all in his five years in power. Naturally, the French-speaking barons were given the right to rule the land.
During the 20 years the Normans were in power in England, almost all local religious institutions spoke French. The aristocrats brought with them large retinues and were followed by French tradesmen, who almost certainly spoke both English and French. In return, Englishmen with ambitions to join the elite and mix with the rulers would learn French. In the century following the Norman invasion, about 10,000 French words entered the English language.
There is little to suggest that aristocrats spoke English. It is not until the end of the 12th century that we have evidence of children in aristocratic families using English as a first language. In 1204, the English nobility lost their French estates and adopted English partly as a matter of national pride!
Think about the difference between a house (Germanic) and a mansion (French), or between starting something and commencing, between calling something kingly or regal. English has a huge number of close synonyms, where the major difference is the level of formality or prestige. Latin is almost always considered prestigious form.
The names of animals and meats also reflect this phenomenon. The old story goes that, in English, the animals have Germanic names but the cooked meats have French ones. For example, swine is Germanic but pork is French, sheep is Germanic but mutton is French. The likely cause is that English-speakers work on farms while those consuming those produce are French-speakers.
There are many reasons why English spelling is so erratic including the lack of an academy, the contributions of Noah Webster (see below) and the introduction of William Caxton’s printing press just before major changes in pronunciation. But the idea of correct or incorrect spelling wasn’t really considered important until the 17th Century when the first dictionaries were published. Even then, it was largely a debate for academics and writers.
For example, Shakespeare was liberal in his spellings of words, often using multiple variants within a single text. His name itself has also been spelt in different ways over the centuries.
Noah Webster, whose name you still find on the front page of many American dictionaries, was a patriot. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, he believed that a great emerging nation like the United States needed a language of its own: American English.
Webster found the English in the textbooks of the time to be corrupted by the British aristocracy, with too much French and Classical influence. He wanted to write American books for Americans to learn, books that represent a young, proud and progressive nation.
Between 1783 and 1785, he completed three books on the English language for American schools. During his lifetime, 385 editions of his Speller were published. The American spelling of color was originally the British spelling of colour, but later editions changed this spelling. Other differences include the spelling of American center versus British center, and traveler instead of traveller. Webster wanted to make spelling more logical, befitting a nation founded on progressive principles. This is a rare example of a dictionary writer trying to lead the English language instead of describe it.
In the UK, the use of Americanisms will almost certainly make people uncomfortable. But not all Americanisms are what they seem. For example…
There is a popular belief that words such as popularise/ize, maximise/ize and digitise/ize have different spellings in British and American English.
Look at that z – isn’t that typical of American English?
Not according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which rejects the French s for a good old British z:
The only thing that is constant in a language is change. When a language stops changing, it becomes purely academic, like Latin or Ancient Greek.
New words are coined continuously. If you asked someone 20 years ago if they’ve googled the person they’ve just friended on Facebook, they’ll stare at you in confusion (the spell checker still underlines these words in red).
Vocabulary changes faster than grammar, but even English grammar is evolving. For example, who is increasingly being used to replace whom. For example, “Who can you blame?” Decades ago, this sentence was red-lined due to grammatical errors, but now it doesn’t look like a problem right?
Likewise, “Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift” is an example of a grammar that sounded very strange even 50 years ago but does it now?
One thing is for sure: with well over a billion people speaking English around the world and, for the first time, most of them speaking it as a second language, there are plenty of changes to come!