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Ten things you might not have known about the English language

Mystery boxAlex Hammond writes for ESL – Language Travel. In this guest post, he reveals a few little-known facts about the origins of the English language.

Hey, English speaker! Congratulations. You speak a language that straddles the globe like nothing before. 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 that you may not have known about this wonderful language of ours:

1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

There are political reasons for this. The closest Britain ever came to having a language academy was at the start of the eighteenth century, when Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was lobbying hard for an academy because “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but died before a decision could be made, and the issue 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, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as president, but broke up after two years after receiving little political or public support.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this

According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.

3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic

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.

Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on. 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.

4. …but most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins

If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.

The shift away from the Germanic languages, however, had started much earlier, because…
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What’s your Word Bug?

Whats your Word Bug?“It’s fewer!! Fewer voters turned out, not less” (My 3 year old seemed relieved it was the radio getting a ticking off for a change!)  It bugs me – I don’t know why. Is it the result of being in TEFL for over 20 years and feeling rather superior that [some] broadcasters should have a better grasp of grammar? Possibly.

But there are words that irritate me too. ‘Lush’, for example. The only thing I feel should be described as ‘lush’ is grass or some kind of vegetation and I object to it being used as a generic adjective for everything from George Clooney to chocolate cake.

Perhaps this is less about the word itself and more to do with its use (or misuse), but it did start me thinking about personal bug-bears and annoyances when it comes to language and words.

In the nature of controlled scientific research, I Googled ‘most hated words’ and was surprised at the number of polls that have been taken on this and the range of people who have responded.

Literally’ was  deemed to be the most irritating word by Daily Telegraph readers and this was in response to a poll run by researchers at Oxford University where ‘At the end of the day’ came in as hot favourite, closely followed by ‘fairly unique’.

YouGov ran a poll among the internet community and surprisingly ‘blog’ came in third? Perhaps that was before we all started doing it. Babycenter.com contributors objected to ‘preggers‘.  Even ‘bun in the oven was preferable to this.

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‘Young’ words

Two teenage boys in hoodies

Kieran McGovern strikes out against youth culture and the decline of the English language with his Top 10 most annoying words in common use amongst today’s youths – with a word of warning to those… not-so-young.

Words are like clothes in that there are some that are only really suited to the young.

Here’s my top ten verbal equivalents of short skirts, low cut trousers and hoodies. These should be avoided by anyone over the age of… well, you decide.

  1. Dude – meaning: male person. Has become pretty universal amongst young Americans and increasingly in the UK, too. A great word with a long pedigree, like a baseball cap it does not suit greying hair.
  2. Awesome! – should only be used for that which truly inspires awe. This does not include the a new cover for your mobile phone.
  3. Banging (great) safe (excellent) ‘hood (neighbourhood) homie (friend) – this job lot of street slang is the private property of teenagers. Sounding like a wannabe gangster is inexcusable if you have a mortgage.
  4. Cool! – the exclamation mark is the line in the sand here. Describing something as ‘pretty cool’ is acceptable but not squealing c-o-ol!
  5. Wicked – (meaning great) Life is complex enough without calling bad things good and vice versa.
  6. Chillin – perhaps a controversial one but I think the world would be a better place without the phrase ‘chill out’.
  7. Skank – horrible word meaning someone of low class, sometimes also used to suggest sexual promiscuousness. Don’t use, ever!
  8. Gay – meaning rubbish, as in ‘that’s so gay!’ As used in the school playground it doesn’t generally have a sexual connotation, but best avoided.
  9. OMG, LOL etc – I know they’ve just entered the OED but there is something a little embarrassing about ageing fingers typing this kind of text short-hand.
  10. Whatever! – this is irritating enough coming from truculent teenagers, unacceptable from anyone old enough to vote.

What do you think? Am I being unfair? A language despot? Or are there more words you’d like to add?

Kieran McGovern blogs at English Language FAQ.

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The toughest verbs in English

Oriental man looking confusedKieran McGovern considers why some verbs in English are so difficult for language learners to grasp and how they have changed (and continue to change) over time.

Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.

There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use.

So how have these tricky customers evolved? And why are they so central to English?

The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an interesting theory. He says that irregular verbs are “fossils of an Indo-European pre-historic language.” This had a regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.

Over time pronunciation changed. The “rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.”

Irregular verbs are notoriously difficult for language learners – native speakers struggle with them, too. It takes children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not ‘speaked’. Some never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything (as opposed to ‘wrote’). In fact many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by native speakers – ‘we was’, ‘they done’ etc. – involve irregular verbs.

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World English at the well head

Oil pump by sunsetFollowing Peter Astley’s introduction to the oil and gas industry, Lewis Lansford, co-author of  Oil and Gas 1, considers the confusion British vs American English can cause in international industry, and whether this is countered by the emergence of ‘World English’.

When I began teaching in Barcelona in the late-80s, I was surprised by the intensity of the rivalry between students at the Institute of North American Studies and those at the British Council over the question of which variety of English was superior. Some teachers, too, expressed firmly held positions on the matter. But in today’s international workplace, Global English may have ended the debate by swallowing both the American and British varieties whole.

“I was the only native British English speaker on the team” says Peter Astley, remembering his stint as a project controls manager in the oil and gas industry in Kuwait. “I reported to a Texan project manager. We had an Anglo-Indian clerk and two Polish women – one setting up the computer system and the other a trainee scheduler. The engineering manager who was being transferred from another project was from Lebanon. Various high-ranking Kuwaitis floated in and out. The client I interfaced with was Indian.

“The Texan, of course, spoke English, but I often had to translate what he had said to the Indian clerk, who was also a native English speaker. The clerk disliked admitting he didn’t understand something, so I often had to decode instructions from the Texan even though I wasn’t present when the request was made. The world's top 10 oil producing countriesThe Texan didn’t allow the Polish girls to speak Polish in the office even though he couldn’t understand the Indian clerk’s English.”

More than 100 countries produce oil. Many of the largest producers in the industry – Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, and many others – employ a diverse workforce made up of both local and imported expertise. When people from all over the world work together, English is frequently the main language of communication. But this lingua franca, often called World English, is rarely identifiable as either British or American. It generally encompasses both – and a whole lot more.

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