E is for English language

Will English continue to be the lingua franca, or will it be supplanted?

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 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 the 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 phenomenon 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 regional nomenclature for carbonated beverages, 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 report suggests, but it also 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.

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.

Pretty much off-topic: Broken English by Marianne Faithfull, “live” performance, and the original video.

ABC Wednesday – Round 7


Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

54 thoughts on “E is for English language”

  1. In the U.S. you might also eat a sub, hoagie, grinder, or torpedo although they’re all made the same way.

  2. Great post as always! And I always learn something and that’s always good! We do have an interesting language. Hope your week is off to a good start, Roger!


  3. Yes, definitely the English language is tricky.
    When my Hubby and I lived with a Nicaraguan family that only spoke Spanish and I only remembered a few high school Spanish words, a lot of funny, strange conversations followed. I didn’t realize how much slang has become common place in every day language.

  4. This was a great post. It is interesting how English has evolved and I think the variations make it better. I am definitely not with the English only crowd. I don’t understand that kind of insular thinking. I could so more but I’ll stop as I teetering on an old soap box.

  5. You have broached a theme that has produced many a thick book and hefty report. However, in can’t be denied that English does have a large influence on other languages, but so had French and German and no doubt many others in their time.

  6. oh yeah Roger, it is difficult for people who aren’t native to English to learn it.. I’ve tried teaching to some of those people, and that ain’t no Easy task either..

    My ABC W E

  7. In the UK the English dialect changes about every 70 miles or so – never mind the various Scots dialects or Welsh, so also have Cockney, Yorkshire (3 different dialects at least), Geordie, Brummie, Scouse and dozens more.

  8. Roger this is the best post ever! My native country is Philippines and we are taught to read, write, speak English since day care. When I came here in the US I noticed that some of the words that I taught from school is not used here much. Like softdrink, referring to soda or pop; toilet for rest room or commode and other more. Which my hubby finds it very appealing lol! I know many says that English language will be extinct, I don’t think so. Because in the Philippines many Koreans go to Philippines just to learned how to speak,read and write English because in Korea these kind of education is expensive. I just don’t like that people who came from another country don’t want to learn the language of the present country they live in, they even have the nerve to tell others to speak and understand them. “if you are in Rome do the Romans do”. ^_^ This is a lovely topic I so love it. Happy Tuesday!
    ABC Wednesday~E

  9. Fantastic post, Roger! I guess I lean towards my ancestral roots – British – because I knew Hugh Laurie’s words, but had not a clue to Ellen’s American slang. One of my best friends has gone to Russia several times to teach teachers English and one year she focused on all the slang and idiomatic expressions. What fun!

  10. One of my favourites is “ghoti”. If you take gh as in enough, o as in women and ti as in nation you get “fish”.

    Loved this post!

  11. Great post Roger, – I lurk around Facebook and Twitter but had no idea what the American slang meant, – right at home with Hugh Laurie though.

  12. This is the most interesting post that I have read on Languages.
    It is really very interesting and credit goes to non-English speakers who have adopted this language.
    We in India have so many languages to learn and most are well versed in at least 3 to 4 Indian languages and 2 to 3 foreign languages.
    Speaking to someone in their own language makes their day and I so love it.
    Always attempted to learn a few words at least from every country that I have visited. Thank you for a wonderful read Roger.

  13. A very interesting post Roger.
    Being in India, I have the knowledge of quite a few languages myself.
    I do love learning new languages. It helps you to connect with people all over the world so much better. It really does not matter how well you speak; it is the attempt to learn and talk that counts…
    Have a great week and Thank you for this enlightening write.

  14. I think English replaced French as the international Diplomatic language long ago. Not only that, but international air control traffic uses English and most countries in Europe, Asia and Africa learn English, many in Asia as their main language. Dialectic variations and pronunciations are interesting and should never be lost for they add to the richness of the language. English is a mongrel language, just as the English themselves are a mongrel race 🙂

  15. As you say there is such a difference between English and English. We learn British English in school, but see American English on television (most of it anyway). So we get a combined English. When we start talking to other non-English natives, it gets diluted even more. In one way it’s a shame, because there is a chance so many beautiful words and phrases get lost, on the other hand, a language is a living and changing thing and should evolve. Even if not everybody agrees with it!

  16. Very great post, Roger! Yes, as an English teacher I had to do my best to explain to the students that English is not a phonetic language. I need a special book for the pronunciation. You know of course the riddle G.B. Shaw once wrote. He asked some people what the word “ghoti”means. Nobody knew. He said:”It’s “fish”. “gh”= “f”in enough; “o”= “i”in women; “ti”= “sh”in station. One of the students even left my course because of the pronunciation. He said that he didn’t understand the fact that you write “one” and you say “wan” like in “waft”.In Dutch a letter has only one way to pronounce it. Every “a”is always pronounced as “a”in waft or long “a”as in father. Your “oo”is our “oe”. Your “book” has the same pronunciation in Dutch but is spelled “boek”.

  17. I suppose I should mention that my wife is a teacher of English as a Second Language, though I did not consult (or even discuss) the topic of this post.

  18. I see we both came up with the same topic; yours was excellent. By the way, the River Thames IS in the U S: check out a map of New London, Connecticut — it’s on the Thames River.

  19. I remember being in a tea shop (english) or cafe (french), take your pick, we only ever have hot tea here, when the cake trolley arrived for two Dutch ladies to take their choice. They knew what they wanted, and there was a pause, as they converted the name of the delicacy into English and asked for two lightening. This puzzled the waitress. She asked them to point, and in response went, Ah the eclairs. Oh you call them that well they said. English and Dutch taking on the international language of French patisserie.

  20. I love the whole tea example but it doesn’t go quite far enough. In the US south, iced tea is always sweet. In the US north, you have to ask for exactly what you want.

    Nicely done, Roger. So many more example come to mind of the variations across the US, not unlike the different dialects across regions in other English and non-English speaking countries.

  21. Nearly all me English, I’ve learned inside an Irish Pub, which made it much easier, after a few pints of Guinness. Over here in Greece, children are to learn English from Kindergarten age on, at about 12,13,14 years of age start to obtain their first language diploma. And yes, many times it helped me much, that it is a world language. Please have a good Wednesday.

  22. In college, my Spanish professor, Carlos Del Rey was his name, was very angry when talking about the English language, he was especially upset about English words sneaking into the beautiful language of his native Spain.

  23. Many would agree that English is a difficult language to master and quirky to learn. I’m envious of those that speak more than one language. P.S. I’ll give your sis a shout out next time I drive by Lemon Grove 🙂

  24. Interesting topic this. One of my favourite books on the subject is A History of the English Language by Albert C. Baugh. The other is The Story of English by Robert McCrum, which I think was a series tie-in with a TV history. I have read The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg but found it, like a lot of his stuff, a rehash of others work. And of course love any of the language histories done by Bill Bryson. As to the future of the language, I suspect it will become like Latin, the foundation of a family of languages but until it fades it will act as the international language for the elites. Thanks for dropping by as I’m new in town. My E is in a 50 word story called The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman

  25. I come at it from a different angle. I’m passionate about Simplified Spelling. I taught my own version of it to kindergarten classes, and, not only could they write pages of story by year’s end, but their spelling reults were good too! Yet they had years of spelling ahead of them! I blog about the subject now and again but I don’t get much support!!!

  26. I was just skimming the Story of English before i wrote the post. I’m sure I watched the show, on PBS, I think.

  27. Dear Roger,
    What an excellent post you have written for E! This post is sure to be one of my favourites. I have also read all of the comments that you have received before my comment. I am not the only one to praise this post!
    Very well done!
    Of course! It’s so obvious! ‘E is for the English language’, is the perfect choice of E-word! I am glad that you chose it, who can write so well, and always have interesting ideas of your own. I may not always agree with you… but you write with a special slant and come with sound arguments and intriguing examples.

    My personal contribution to this discussion would be this: English is supposed to be my first language, but I have been living with another language for many, many years. I started blogging a little more than a year ago. I opened my Esty shop two years ago. So suddenly I had to write in Englísh to lots and lots of different people from all over the world. I started to notice changes in the English language I once learned in school. I feel that the English language is both very much the same as it always has been, but at the same time with new words and expessions that I did not learn in school. It’s the Internet-text-language that I needed time to get adjusted to. Sometimes I just asked people straight out what a word meant or even more often, what an abreviation stands for. Here are some examples of common abreviations that I could not figure out:

    Almost everyone writes ‘lol’ in their comments nowadays. What does it means? ‘Lord oh lordy!’ maybe? Or ‘Lots of luck!’ perhaps? Now I know that it means ‘laugh out loud’! How could I guess that?

    I could figure this one out after I learned how to write ‘laugh out loud’ in ‘twitter-ese’! But having gone to Sunday school in my childhood, I don’t really like it.

    Which means ‘For your information’. I could guess this one too, once I mastered ‘lol’.

    I am sure that the missuse of the word ‘awesome’ is the present younger generation’s equivalent of the phrase that their parents used: ‘Far out!’ It seems to mean about the same thing.

    I am not really prepared to write about this, Roger. I am just jotting things down as they come to mind. It was my cat that got me started. My cat, Sara and her blog. So I started communicating with other pet-bloggers where ‘awsome’ becames ‘pawsome’! Say what you will about the the English language – it allows for play!

    Since you, Roger, are First Commenter on my post, I am giving you an extra link.

    Hope you have a simply ‘awesome’ week!
    Best wishes,

    For the benefit of other readers:

    Anna’s E-words

  28. Here in the Philippines, English is the primary language in the school from nursery (3 yrs old.) to college. Our elementary students here can communicate with the English speakers as long as they understand how the Englishmen deliver the words, (pronunciation). To be honest, when i talked to my Aunt’s husband who is from NY, it’s hard for me to understand him. It seems like there are lots of missing letters when he talked. lol. I also have British family, some of their English spelling and pronunciation is different from what we learned in school. That’s why i ended up arguing with my uncle Briton haha i told him that we follow American English and not British English he he.

    Thanks for this wonderful posts.

  29. I loved this post and the example from Dr. Seuss. I’m thinking about home schooling my daughter and already I’m having nightmares about explaining spellings. My husband is American which just adds to the confusion because she already talks about the ‘trash can’ instead of the rubbish bin where ‘garbage’ is put. Oh boy!

  30. I heard about the Chinese mandarin being the world’s official language in the years to come, that’s why as of now ,while my boys are still young, I will enroll them in a language school to learn chinese. 🙂

    Thanks for visiting my ABC Wednesday

  31. I would think learning English as a second language would be a nightmare! We have so many words that sound the same but with different meanings and spellings. I marvel at people who know two, three and four different languages…which is most of the world outside of the US!

  32. What an interesting post!! It certainly is something to think about … I knew that English was the most widely spoken (though not by the most people) and I knew that it’s taught as a second language in many, many countries, but you gave such interesting links and snippets of information!

    Funnily enough, I watched a House this evening. I LOVE Hugh Laurie in that show! So it was even more fun to watch him playing guessing games with Ellen. LOL!

  33. Wonderful post…such a good read. I read so many Dr. Seuss books to my children when they were little. You are a good teacher…I’ve learned again from your post.

  34. Heck, I didn’t even think about English. The most obvious. On behalf of the ABC Team, thanks for participating.

  35. Speaking 4 and writing 3 languages (German, French, English, Italian) I can only say that English is the easiest one, to speak and to write. That’s why English became a sort of Esperanto in the whole world. Nearly everybody speaks English in the world, never thought of that ?
    German grammar contains only exceptions and has mile long words, and French is very complicated. When I write “Il parle or Ils parlent” (that’s the pluriel) it is pronounced exactly the same way, so you don’t know if it is one person or more you can only see it out of the whole sentence !

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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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