English language, Big Ben



English belongs to the Western group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is most closely related to Low German dialects and to Dutch. English descended from the language spoken in the English Isles by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who came to the British Isles around 450 AD and drove the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants to areas that are now Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland. The dialects spoken by these invaders formed the basis of Old English, which was also strongly influenced by Old Norse, spoken by the Viking invaders of the 8th-9th centuries.

For 300 years after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the kings of England spoke only French. During this time, a large number of French words were assimilated into Old English, which also lost most of its inflections. The resulting language is known as Middle English. The most famous surviving work from Old and Middle English are Beowulf and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

mapAround 1500, the Great Vowel Shift marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. It occurred in the 15th-18th centuries in a series of gradual steps and involved a sound change that affected the long vowels in English, known as the Great Vowel Shift.




  • Estimates of the number of native speakers of English vary. According to Ethnologue, English has 335 million native speakers, which makes it the third largest native language in the world after Mandarin Chinese (874 million) and Spanish (406 million).Estimates of the number of second-language speakers of English vary widely as well, from 500 million to well over 1 billion
  • English has a wider dispersion than any other language in the world, due to the political, economic, scientific, and cultural influence first of England, and later of the United States. Countries using English as either a first or a second language are located on all five continents, and the total population of these countries amounts to close to half of the world’s population. It is the official or national language of 52 countries, among them U.S. and its territories, U.K. and Commonwealth Countries. Click here for a complete list.
  • English has bred a large number of English-based creoles and pidgins. Most English-based creoles were formed in the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, they are spoken on the islands of the Caribbean Sea, in Africa, and on the islands of the Pacific Ocean.
  • English is one of the official languages of the United Nations (UN), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Organization of American States (OAS), and the European Union (EU).
  • As of 2013, English accounted for 55.5% of all Internet content (W3Tecs.com).
  • English is now the most widely studied second language in the world because a working knowledge of English is required in many fields and occupations as well as for international communication. English loanwords now appear in many languages, especially in the fields of science, technology, politics, and culture, and international terminology is dominated by English words.
  • More Nobel prizes in literature were awarded to writers using English than those using any other language.



English spread from Britain in the 17th-18th centuries to North America, the Caribbean, and northern Ireland; and in the 18th and 19th centuries to South Asia and Africa. With the settlers separated from England, the regional Englishes began to develop in their own unique ways. With the passage of time, they became increasingly more differentiated from each other and from their ancestral British English.

Today, there are several varieties of Standard English in the world, in addition to scores of non-standard varieties. Standard varieties are often divided into two groups differentiated mainly by pronunciation and vocabulary which are more noticeable in speaking than in writing:

  • British spoken by educated native speakers of English in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
  • North American spoken by educated native speakers of English in the U.S. and Canada. Each of the two varieties encompasses a large number of regional and social differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar. As a result, one can no longer think of English as one unitary language. Instead, the concept of world Englishes is much more appropriate.



Sound system

Historically, sound changes have affected English vowels considerably more than consonants which have remained relatively fixed since the 14th century. Old, Middle, and Modern English all exhibit considerable variation in their vowel systems from dialect to dialect. For instance, the Great Vowel Shift changed the pronunciation of every long vowel and turned two high vowels /i:/ and /u:/ into diphthongs /ai/ and /au/.

It is estimated that there are 14-16 vowel phonemes in different regional varieties of Standard English, including 3 diphthongs /ay/, /aw/, /oy/.



Below is a chart of English vowels normally found in modern General American English given in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) notation.

/i/ seat /a/ bar
/I/ sit /u/ boot
/e/ sate /U/ book
/ε/ set /o/ bone
/æ/ sat /ɔ/ law
/ə/ but



Below is a chart of English consonants with examples of words in which they occur. Not all are present in all varieties of English.

Stops voiceless
Fricatives voiceless
Affricates voiceless
  • /p, t, k/ are aspirated, i.e., produced with a strong puff of air, at the beginning of words and before stressed vowels.
  • /?/ = sound between vowels in uh-oh.
  • /θ/ = th in thin
  • /ð/ = th in those
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /ʒ/ = s in vision
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chat
  • /dʒ/ = j in jet
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /ɻ/ = r in red; retroflex consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue curled so that its underside touches the roof of the mouth.
  • /j/ = y in yet



English has stress-timed rhythm, i.e., stressed syllables are longer and louder, while unstressed syllables are shorter and less loud. English stress generally tends to fall on the first syllable of a word. Final syllables are usually unstressed. Some English words have a primary + secondary stress, e.g., in the word skyscraper, sky receives a primary, and scraper receives a secondary stress.



English grammar is Germanic-based, but English is more analytical less inflected) than other Germanic languages, expressing most grammatical and pragmatic information through auxiliaries, word order, and intonation.



English nouns are marked for the following categies:

  • There are two numbers: singular and plural.
  • Gender is not marked, but is preserved in 3rd person pronouns, e.g., animate feminine nouns are referred to as she, animate masculine as he, inanimate nouns as it.
  • There are no cases, but possession is expressed by the clitic –s, e.g., mother’s.
  • There is a definite and an indefinite article.



English verbs are more complex than nouns. They are marked for the following categories:

  • Verbs are marked only in the 3rd person, e.g., he/she/it sits.
  • There are three voices: active (I broke the vase), passive (the vase was broken by me), and middle (The vase broke).
  • There are four moods: declarative, imperative, conditional, and subjunctive.
  • Most English verbs express tense/aspect through the use of various combinations of the auxiliary verbs be and have + main verb.
  • Like all Germanic languages, English has weak (regular) verbs that add –ed/-en to form the past tense, e.g., walk – walked, and strong (irregular) verbs that undergo internal vowel changes (umlaut), e.g., drink – drank.
  • Interrogative constructions use the auxiliary verb do, e.g., Did he go?
  • The rules of negation are fairly complex.


Word order

The normal word order in English sentences is Subject-Verb-Object. Spoken English uses sentence stress to signal focus. In writing, English uses a wide variety of syntactic resources to signal focus.



English is a lexically rich language with a rapidly expanding vocabulary. One of the consequences of the Norman invasion is that English vocabulary contains words of Germanic and words of French origin, the latter derived from Latin. As a result, English allows speakers to choose between Germanic and Latinate synonyms such as come or arrive, sight or vision, freedom or liberty, naval or marine. Old English relied primarily on compounding, prefixing, and suffixing for deriving new words, but today, English easily borrows words from other languages in addition to using its own internal elements. Dictionaries cannot keep pace with new words.

A computerized survey of about 80,000 words in the 3rd edition of the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary provided the following statistics on sources of English vocabulary (Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff 1973, cited in Wikipedia). It is estimated that close to a hundred donor languages contributed to the cosmopolitan vocabulary of modern English.

French (including Old French and early Anglo-French) 28.3%
Latin (including modern scientific and technical Latin) 28.2%
Other Germanic languages (including Old English, Old Norse, Dutch) 25.0%
Greek 5.3%
Derived from proper names 3.3%
Unknown origin 4.0%
All other languages combined >1.0%



There is a great distance between English orthography and speech. English spelling reflects earlier orthographic practices with the spelling of words diverging considerably from their pronunciation. In addition, American and British orthography have several notable differences, e.g., analyse (British) versus analyze (American).

Three centuries of Norman Conquest resulted in the English spelling being greatly influenced by French. English had also borrowed large numbers of words from French, keeping their French spelling. In addition, English underwent some sound changes. For example, The Great Vowel Shift resulted in igh of night changing from a vowel followed by a velar fricative to a diphthong. The spelling of the word night, however, did not change. These changes caused inconsistencies, like the many pronunciations of ough (rough, through, though, plough). George Bernard Shaw once joked that one could spell fish as *ghoti (gh as in enough, o as in women, ti as in action).

The introduction of the printing press institutionalized the existing spelling system, rather than providing an impetus for realigning it with the spoken language. By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid1600s, English orthography was institutionalized, and by the 1800s, most words had standardized spellings. Over the centuries, there have been numerous proposals for spelling reform, but they have mostly failed.

English is written with the 26-letter Latin alphabet. It uses the digraphs ch to represent /tʃ/ as in chat, and th to represent /θ/ and /ð/ as in this and that.

A a
B b
C c
D d
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
N n
O o
P p
Q q
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z


Did You Know?

These English words came from the languages listed below. Can you tell which of these languages these words came from?

Roll over the word to verify your answer.


robot condor paprika
skipper catamaran mogul
caravan anchovy paella
coyote ukulele messiah
trek guru cotton
sputnik bamboo dinosaur
pajamas umbrella tsunami
khaki yogurt blitz
kowtow tae kwon do glitch
boondocks sauna matinee


Click here to learn more about borrowings into English.



Language Difficulty

questionHow difficult is it to learn English?
It depends on your native language. English is easier to learn for speakers of German, a related language, than, for instance, for speakers of Chinese, an unrelated language.