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English Language Facts

You can’t avoid it. Some 380 million people speak it as their first language and as much as 300 million as their second. A billion are learning it. By 2050, it is predicted half the world will be more or less proficient in it. Only surpassed by Mandarin on native speakers, English is the language of international business, politics and diplomacy. It is still number one in computers and the internet.

You will see it sticking out in Shanghai’s neons, you’ll hear it in pop songs in Moscow, you’ll read it in official documents in Phnom Penh. Deutsche Welle broadcasts in it. Abba sang in it. French business schools teach in it. It is the medium of expression in cabinet meetings in Bolivia. Few could predict the tongue spoken back in the 1300s only by “the rabble” of England would have come a long way. It is now the global language.

But despite the fact that American, British, Australian and even Canadian English are generally mutually intelligible, there are strong enough differences to cause embarrassing misunderstandings or a complete failure to communicate. Therefore, English language services are vital in helping people communicate in a proper manner.

Most importantly, these differences aren’t limited to the syntax (e.g. “color” and “colour”, “program” and “programme”). While some British words like “naff”, “semi” or “busk” will render incomprehensible to an American citizen, many Britons will be grappling to grasp the meaning of “rutabaga”, “eggplant” or even “stool pigeon”. And caution should be used in the US when asking to be “knocked up”: in UK it means to be awakened with a knock on the door but in the US it means to be impregnated.

Because we at Today Translations reckon that the English heard in Times Square won’t always match the one spoken in Trafalgar Square, we only work with professionals who understand the culture and ‘look-and-feel’ of the countries where English is spoken.

Indo-European and Germanic Influences

English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:

* Latin and the modern Romance languages;
* The Germanic languages;
* The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
* The Slavic languages;
* The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
* The Celtic languages;
* and Greek

The influence of the original Indo-European language, designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for “father”, for example, is “vater” in German, “pater” in Latin, and “pitr” in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates (similar words in different languages that share the same root).

Of these branches of the Indo-European family, two of them are of paramount importance: the Germanic and the Romance (called that because the Romance languages derive from Latin, the language of ancient Rome). English is in the Germanic group of languages. This group began as a common language in the Elbe river region about 3,000 years ago. Around the second century B.C., this Common Germanic language split into three distinct sub-groups: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

Old English (500-1100 A.D.)

In the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., West Germanic invaders like the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles. They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian – the language of north-eastern region of the Netherlands – that is called Old English. Four major dialects of Old English emerged: Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast.

These invaders pushed the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland, leaving behind a few Celtic words. These Celtic languages survive today in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish is now a dead language.

Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions, beginning around 850, brought many North Germanic words into the language, particularly in the north of England. Some examples are “dream”, which had meant “joy” until the Vikings borrowed its current meaning from the Scandinavian “draumr”, and “skirt”, which continues to live alongside its native English cognate “shirt”. Words like “be”, “water”, and “strong”, for example, also derive from Old English roots.

The Norman Conquest and Middle English (1100-1500)

William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066. New overlords spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of Germanic stock (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) and Anglo-Norman was a French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the basic Latin roots.

In 1204, King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France. This began a process where the Norman nobles of England became increasingly estranged from their French cousins. About 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed about one third of the English population. In the following years, the labouring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance and outpaced the Anglo-Norman population. This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English.

By 1362, the linguistic division between the nobility and the commoners was largely over. In that year, the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts and it began to be used in Parliament.

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

The next wave of innovation in English came with the Renaissance. The revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. Two other major factors influenced the language and served to separate Middle and Modern English. The first was the Great Vowel Shift (a change in pronunciation that began around 1400) and the second the advent of the printing press.

William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476. Books became cheaper and as a result, literacy became more common. Publishing for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and works in English, as opposed to Latin, became more common. Finally, the printing press brought standardisation to English. The dialect of London, where most publishing houses were located, became the standard. Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the first English dictionary was published in 1604.

Late Modern English (1800-Present)

The main distinction between early and late-modern English is vocabulary. Pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are largely the same, but Late-Modern English has many more words. These words are the result of two historical factors. The first is the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the technological society. This fostered the creation of new words for things and ideas that had not previously existed (“oxygen”, “atmosphere”, “radiation”, “nuclear”, etc).

The second was the British Empire. At its height, Britain ruled one quarter of the earth’s surface, and English adopted many foreign words and made them its own. Finally, the 20th century saw two world wars, and the military influence on the language during the latter half of this century has been considerable (e.g. the infamous “blockbuster”).

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