I don’t know about you, but I think that English is a bit of a tricky language to learn. Not so much for me as a native speaker, but for others first learning the language in countries where English is not primary, especially as one gets older. The example above from an early Dr. Seuss book is a perfect reflection of what I mean; the “ough” sounds like uff, off, ow (rhymes with cow), and a long o, respectively.

Yet, English is on its way to becoming the world’s unofficial international language. “Mandarin (Chinese) is spoken by more people, but English is now the most widespread of the world’s languages.”

How the heck did THAT happen? Here’s a a short history of the origins and development of English.

What IS English, anyway? As this article states: it belongs “to the Germanic languages branch of the Indo-European language family, widely spoken on six continents… The primary language of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific island nations, it is also an official language of India, the Philippines, and many sub-Saharan African countries. It is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world (approximately 1.5 billion speakers), the mother tongue of more than 350 million people, and the most widely taught foreign language… Written in the Latin alphabet, it is most closely related to Frisian, German, and Dutch.”

I have been long fascinated by the differences in the English language from country to country. It’s not just the extra (or missing, depending on your POV) U in color/colour, or the extra/missing syllable in aluminum/aluminium. It is a whole different way of thinking. One of my favorite places to read about this phenomenom is Separated By A Common Language by an American expat in Britain named Lynneguist, who is a linguist (get it?) Recently she asked, Why is it the Mississippi River in the US, but the River Thames in the UK?

And there are even regional variations within the United States. In the North, you ask for tea, you get hot tea, unless you ask for iced tea; in the South, you ask for tea, you get iced tea unless you ask for hot tea. Then there is the the regional nomenclature for carbonated beverage, which, as the map here describes, might be soda, pop or coke.

So, frankly, I found it hysterically funny to read about whether an Academy of English is necessary. Or put another way: does the English language need protecting? This Academy would be along the same lines as what the Académie Française tries to do for French: protect the language from “impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation”.

But the great strength of English IS that it’s a mongrel language. Look at the etymology of some English words here, or at least skim this PDF article.

So, I have some trouble with the English-only crowd in the US. Not only may it be detrimental in the learning process of immigrants, as this reports suggests, it cuts off the wonderful flavor of a vital language.

This video asks: What is the Future of the English language? Will it continue to be the lingua franca, or will it be supplanted? Interesting questions, these.
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A conversation between Ellen DeGeneres and Hugh Laurie; she’s an American TV host, he’s a British actor best known for playing the title character in the American TV show House. And while I knew little of what he was talking about, I was even more flummoxed by HER examples.
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Pretty much off topic: Broken English by Marianne Faithfull, a “live” performance and the original video.

ABC Wednesday – Round 7

54 Responses to “E is for English language”

  • chrisj says:

    I’ve lived in Canada and the States for50 years and still hit words that mean different things or have never been heard of.The latest was the difference between game and match. I still don’t know the difference between sports and athletics.

  • Forgive me if I am repeating anything already said or shown elsewhere in this post (I don’t have the patience to view all the links) BUT here goes:

    I have heard that there is a new and growing lingua franca in China called Chinglish (not derogatory, a descriptive label), that it is spoken by hundreds of millions of Chinese, and that they think it is English but it is actually an ever-evolving hybrid of Chinese and English. More people speak this language than are native speakers of American English, so it’s no small thing. I believe it took root mainly on the Internet, which is itself the primary reason (probably) that English has replaced French as the universal language for academic, business, and political communication. I also have heard that this language would be incomprehensible to a native speaker of Enlish, due to its Chinese intonations (the Internet doesn’t usually help much with pronunciation).

    Like commenter Gattina, I am multi-lingual and have lived internationally, so I have observed first-hand the use of English by non-native speakers with diverse mother tongues to speak with each other (including within mixed-nation families). This is the real point in my mind of a lingua franca: it is not about the power of the culture that speaks the mother tongue (though, clearly, this is the origin of the current dominance of English, via both the British Empire and the American one); rather, it is about the usefulness of a language to connect the most people.

    No question, for the current century, that language is English, whether British or American. But it will be interesting to see what may replace it, and how soon. If the whole “Chinglish” thing is for real, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to emerge as a major contender. And I wouldn’t wast my kids’ time on learning Mandarin – it won’t be useful to talk to very many non-Chinese people, but English will. Spanish might be a better choice for the second language of an English-speaking North American: Apart from the Quebeckers, that covers the vast majority of the non-English speaking places in the Western hemisphere except Brazil (and a lot of Brazilians speak Spanish, too). Should be pretty darn useful.

    And don’t forget about French: I have used it to communicate with the aforementioned Quebeckers (though with difficulty understanding their accent), and with people from France, Switzerland, Belgium, various African nations, various Caribbean nations, and even one Czech water engineer who had learned it in a formerly Communist country in Western Africa where he worked during the Soviet era. My American-tinged Parisian accent and his Czech-tinged African accent were a nutty match, but we understood each other. Lingua Franca indeed! Then again, that was nearly 20 years ago. Doubtless, the same encounter today would take place in English.

  • Jean-Philippe says:

    I believe that you are incorect aboot how hard it is to learn english, my native language is french and I live in canada and the only difficulties I have in english is how simple and unexpressive it is! You have so much word to name thing yet, almost none to describe them! But it is true that the flexibility of the spealing is life saviour. The english language is good for comunications between non-anglophone, but it have limitation: People have it as native language! As example: When I speak with anglophone, I strangly can’t understand half of what they say, but with german in english(and in german too) I seem to understand every single words! Yet chinese is an unprobably replacement since it is very hard and subtile. I believe that we are going to see more regional language, for example: English for north americsn comunications, French and german for europe, french for africa, english for Oceania, chinese for most of asia and finaly, Hindi from Afganstan to Bangladesh. It is probable that trade will be more regional with less cheap energy and with the divertification of emerging enconomies like china, india or Bresil.

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