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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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20 most commonly misspelt words in English

Example of poor spelling.Which words do you think are most commonly misspelt in English? Write down five words you expect to be on the list at the end of this post.

What makes some English words difficult to spell? One source of difficulty is inconsistent pronunciation; many sound out ‘definately’ when they mean definitely (2). And comparatively few outside the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly enunciate separate (1) – more typically the ‘A’ becomes an ‘E’. This problem is most glaring when (many) young people transcribe ‘could have’ as ‘could of’ or a lot (14) as ‘alot’.

In some cases it is an unexpected combination of letters containing few phonetic clues – bureaucracy (11) and manoeuvre (3) are examples here. In both these cases the spelling pattern is literally foreign; French, to be precise. Until comparatively recently a basic knowledge of French was assumed of every ‘educated’ English reader but most now would recognise the word entrepreneur (16) from business rather than the language from which it originates. The same applies to those other providers of hidden spelling rules: Latin and Greek.

An understandable uncertainty as to when ‘C’ rather than ‘S’ applies lies behind consensus (6) supersede (12) conscience (19) and unnecessary (7). There’s a similar confusion over what creates the ‘CK’ sound in liquefy (18), added to the confusion of an ‘E’ in place of the usual ‘I’.

By far the most difficult hurdle for any speller, however, is the dreaded ‘double letter’ dilemma. Two ‘N’s or one? Does two ‘C’s look right? Unnecessary causes double-trouble here to add to its ‘C’ or ‘S’ issues.

Spell-check/Spellcheck (?) will help, of course, which is why many young people delegate the job entirely to that marvellous (two ‘L’s in British English) programme (one ‘M’ and drop the ‘E’ in the US or amongst techies).

Sadly, technology has not yet produced a spell-checking pen for that handwritten application form.

1. Separate

2. Definitely

3. Manoeuvre

4. Embarrass

5. Occurrence

6. Consensus

7. Unnecessary

8. Acceptable

9. Broccoli

10. Referred

11. Bureaucracy

12. Supersede

13. Questionnaire

14. Connoisseur

15. A lot

16. Entrepreneur

17. Particularly

18. Liquefy

19. Conscience

20. Parallel

Source: poll from OnePoll quoted in Daily Telegraph 06 August 2010

Which words do you or your students have most trouble spelling?

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Based on recent research into the most commonly misspelt words in the English language, Kieran McGovern considers why some words are just difficult to spell correctly.