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English language

English is the dominant language of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries. It is extensively used as a second language and as an official language in many other countries, and is the most widely taught and understood language in the world.

An estimated 300-400 million people speak English as their first language. One recent estimate is that 1.9 billion people, nearly a third of the world's population, have a basic proficiency in English. English is the dominant international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, diplomacy and the internet. It has been one of the official languages of the United Nations since its founding in 1945.


English is a ember 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 (French etc.); the Germanic languages (English, German, Swedish etc.); the Indo-Iranian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit etc.); the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech etc.); the Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish Gaelic etc.); Greek.

More about:
English language history

Classification and related languages

The English language belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch which is itself a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

The question as to which is the nearest living relative of English is a matter of some discussion. Apart from such English-lexified creole languages such as Tok Pisin and Bislama, Scots, which is spoken primarily in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland, is the Germanic variety most closely associated with English. Like English, Scots ultimately descends from Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. The closest relative to English after Scots is Frisian, which is spoken in the Northern Netherlands and Northwest Germany. Other less closely related living West Germanic languages include German itself, Low German, Dutch and Afrikaans, which is descended from Dutch. The North Germanic languages and Gothic are less closely related to English than the West Germanic languages.

Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker (though pronunciations are often quite different) because English absorbed a large vocabulary from French, via the Norman after the Norman conquest and directly from French in further centuries. As a result, a substantial share of English vocabulary is quite close to French, with some minor spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.), as well as occasional divergences in meaning.

English as a global language

Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as a "global language", the lingua franca of the modern era. While English is not an official language in many countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a second language around the world. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aircraft/airport and maritime communication, as well as being one of the official languages of both the European Union and the United Nations, and of most international athletic organizations, including the Olympic Committee. Books, magazines, and newspapers written in English (such as Time and Newsweek) are available in many countries around the world. English is also the most commonly used language in the sciences. In 1997, the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its articles were written in English, even though only half of them came from authors in English-speaking countries.

Country Number of English speakers Population
United States 251,388,301 262,375,152
India 125,344,736 1,028,737,436
Nigeria 79,000,000 148,000,000
United Kingdom 59,600,000 60,000,000
Philippines 48,800,000 84,566,000
Canada 25,246,220 29,639,030
Australia 18,172,989 19,855,288

English Language Regulator

No official centralized regulator, but recognized standards include: UK: Oxford University dictionaries. Oxford University, located in the city of Oxford, England, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. US: Webster's Dictionary, is a common title given to English language dictionaries in the United States, deriving its name from American lexicographer Noah Webster. In America, the phrase Webster's has become a genericized trademark for dictionaries.


English grammar displays minimal inflection compared with most other Indo-European languages. For example, Modern English, unlike Modern German or Dutch and the Romance languages, lacks grammatical gender and adjectival agreement. Case marking has almost disappeared from the language and mainly survives in pronouns. The patterning of strong (eg. speak/spoke/spoken) versus weak verbs inherited from Germanic has declined in importance and the remnants of inflection (such as plural marking) have become more regular.

At the same time as inflection has declined in importance in English, the language has developed a greater reliance on features such as modal verbs and word order to convey grammatical information. Auxiliary verbs are used to mark constructions such as questions, negatives, the passive voice and progressive tenses.

Word origins

One of the consequences of the French influence is that the vocabulary of English is, to a certain extent, divided between those words which are Germanic (mostly Old English) and those which are "Latinate" (Latin-derived, either directly from Norman French or other Romance languages).

A computerised survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd ed.) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973) which estimated the origin of English words as follows:
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • Other Germanic languages (including Old English, Old Norse, and Dutch): 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%
James D. Nicoll made the oft-quoted observation: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle [sic] their pockets for new vocabulary."

Other estimates have also been made:
  • French, 40%
  • Greek, 13%
  • Anglo-Saxon (Old English), 10%
  • Danish, 2%
  • Dutch, 1%
  • And, as about 50% of English is derived from Latin, another 10 to 15% can be attributed to direct borrowings from that language.
However, it should also be noted that 83% of the 1,000 most-common English words are Anglo-Saxon in origin.
A survey by Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language of 10,000 words taken from several thousand business letters gave another set of statistics:
  • French, 41%
  • "Native" English, 33%
  • Latin, 15%
  • Danish, 2%
  • Dutch, 1%
  • Other, 10%