English Language as a Part of Western Culture and as a Tool of Cross-Cultural Communication
Philip Durkin, Principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, chooses five events that shaped the English Language.
It's never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons came to
The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western
The Celts were already resident in
The next invaders were the Norsemen. [See Vikings http://www.regia.org/vik1.htm ] From the middle of the ninth century large numbers of Norse invaders settled in
The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. [See
The late medieval and early modern periods saw a fairly steady process of standardization in English south of the Scottish border. The written and spoken language of
In the same period a series of changes also occurred in English pronunciation (though not uniformly in all dialects), which go under the collective name of the Great Vowel Shift. These were purely linguistic ‘sound changes’ which occur in every language in every period of history. The changes in pronunciation weren’t the result of specific social or historical factors, but social and historical factors would have helped to spread the results of the changes. As a result the so-called ‘pure’ vowel sounds which still characterise many continental languages were lost to English. The phonetic pairings of most long and short vowel sounds were also lost, which gave rise to many of the oddities of English pronunciation, and which now obscure the relationships between many English words and their foreign counterparts.
During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the
What is the difference between Old English and Anglo-Saxon?
There is no difference: Old English is the name that language scholars give to the language that was spoken by the people known to historians and archaeologists as the Anglo-Saxons.
There were several major dialects of Old English; most of the literature that survives is in the dialect of
Danish and Norwegian settlers in
The Norman invasion of 1066 resulted in the temporary dominance of French, and by 1150 Old English was effectively obsolete.
The Modern World and the Global English
Linguists estimate that there are about 5,000-6,000 different languages spoken in the world today. Mandarin Chinese is the most common, being spoken by around 874,000,000 people as a native language. English is a third with approximately 341,000,000 native speakers.
Language Number of Native Speakers
1. Mandarin Chinese
874,000,000 2. Hindi (India)
366,000,000 3. English
341,000,000 4. Spanish
330,000,000 5. Bengali (India and Bangladesh)
207,000,000 6. Portuguese
176,000,000 7. Russian
167,000,000 8. Japanese
125,000,000 9. German
100,000,000 10. Korean
78,000,000 11. French
77,000,000 12. Wu Chinese
77,000,000 13. Javanese
75,000,000 14. Yue Chinese
71,000,000 15. Telegu (India)
Number of Native Speakers
English is far more world wide in its distribution than all other spoken languages. English is an official language in 52 countries as well as many small colonies and territories. In addition, 1/3 of the people in the world understand and speak English. English has become the most useful language to learn for international travel and is now the de facto language of diplomacy.
Nations in Which English Is an Official Language
Nations in Which English Is Not an Official Language
But Is Commonly Understood At Least by Educated People
Approximately 60% of the world's radio programs are in English.
About 75% of the world's mail, telexes, and cables are in English.
About 90% of all Internet traffic is in English.
Global Internet Statistics:
Languages Number of people who have internet access Percentage of world online population
35.6% Other European languages
34.9% Asian languages
29.4% All languages
Number of people who have internet access
Percentage of world online population
In reality, the distribution of languages globally is very complex and difficult to easily describe. Numerous migrations of people over the last several centuries have resulted in most large nations now having many different languages. Some parts of the world have unusually high concentrations of different languages. For instance, there are around 900 native languages spoken by the 5-10 million people of
What is Language and Communication?
Many animal and even plant species communicate with each other. Humans are not unique in this capability. However, human language is unique in being a symbolic communication system that is learned instead of biologically inherited. Symbols are sounds or things which have meaning given to them by the users.
Language is the most important component of culture. It is impossible to understand the deep meanings of another culture without speaking its language. Studies of children show that there is rapid learning of language in the early years of life. Learning a second or third language is easier in early childhood than later. Learning a second language can be affected by the patterns of the first language. This is referred to as linguistic interference. Second languages learned as adults are often quickly forgotten if not used regularly. However, they usually come back quickly with a little study and practice when needed again.
What does it mean to learn a word in a foreign language?
It means that we must know how to
3. Understand (recognize when it is written)
4. Understand (when it is pronounced in different situations)
7. Know many of its meanings.
Types of words in a foreign language we know and we don’t know:
1. Active words.
2. Passive words.
3. New (Unknown to us) words.
Language and Thought Processes
Language is more than just a means of communication. Language influences our culture and even our thought processes.
Hidden Aspects of Communication
Communication is far more than speech and writing. Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking. The same goes for many other social animal species. We rarely learn about this mostly non-verbal communication in school even though it is very important for effective interaction with others.
Growing up in a society, we learn how to use gestures, mimics, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what we say and do. We learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating them.
The human communication process is more complex than it initially seems. Most of our messages in face to face contact are transmitted through paralanguage. These auxiliary communication techniques are highly culture bound. Communication with people from other societies or ethnic groups is fraught with the danger of misunderstanding if their culture and paralanguage is unknown to you or ignored.
COMMUNICATION PROCESS INCLUDES BODY LANGUAGE
Body Language is the language of gestures, mimics and postures.
In Europe, Australia and America people commonly use their arms and hands to say good-bye, point, count, express excitement, warn away, threaten, etc.
We learn many subtle variations of each of these gestures and use them in situations. We use our head to say: yes, no, smile, frown, wink acknowledgement or flirtation. Our head and shoulder in combination may shrug to indicate that we do not know something. While the meaning of some gestures, such as a smile, may be the same throughout the world, the meaning of others may be different. For example, spitting on another person is a sign of utmost contempt in
Tone and Character of Voice
In English, the simple sentence I'm here. can have very different connotations depending on whether it is spoken with a voice that is high, low, quick, slow, rising, falling, whispering, whining, yelling, or sighing.
Proxemics is the study of interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space. Most of us are unaware of the importance of space in communication until we are confronted with someone who uses it differently. For instance, we all have a sense of what is a comfortable interaction distance to a person we are speaking. If he or she gets closer than the distance at which we are comfortable, we usually automatically back up to reestablish our comfort zone. Similarly, if we feel that we are too far away from the person we are talking to, we are likely to close the distance between us.
Comfort in interaction distance mostly has to do with the distance between faces that are looking directly at each other. Most people do not have the same feeling about physical closeness if they do not have eye contact. In a crowd or an elevator, people usually choose not to look at anyone in order to avoid feeling uncomfortably close.
In addition to specifying comfortable interaction distances, culture tells us when and how it is acceptable to touch other individuals. In
Cultural Use of Space
Culture also tells us how to organize space in such a way as to control the nature of interaction.In Western culture, corporate offices, for instance, the boss is usually physically isolated in a very separate private room. This tends to minimize his or her personal contact with ordinary workers. In contrast, Japanese offices commonly are set up with the boss's desk at the end of a row of pushed together desks used by subordinate employees. This maximizes his interaction with them.
Cultural Use of Time
When people come together with very different cultural expectations about time, there is a potential for misunderstanding, frustration, and hurt feelings. This could occur, for instance, if a Brazilian businessman does not arrive "on time" for a meeting with a potential American customer in
Communicating with Clothes
Throughout the world, clothing has multiple functions. It is used to provide protection from the elements. It also is worn for modesty, usually to prevent others from seeing specific parts of one's body. However, the parts of the body that must be covered vary widely throughout the world. For instance, the man from
Some clothing is worn to provide supernatural protection, e.g. wearing a Christian cross. Moslem women cover their faces in public.
Putting on certain types of clothing can change your behavior and the behavior of others towards you. This can be the case with a military uniform, doctor's white lab coat, or a clown's costume. For instance, it is likely that policemen are more assertive and aggressive when they wear their uniforms.
Most uniforms are consciously symbolic so that they can rapidly and conclusively communicate status. The ribbons and other insignias on the
There are many forms of body decoration other than clothes that are used around the world to send messages. These include body and hair paint, tattoos, perfumes, and even body deformation.
Gender Differences in Paralanguage
When traveling to other societies, it is important to understand that there are likely to be significant gender differences in paralanguage in addition to clothes. For example, in
European and North American women usually are more restrained in their use of bold gestures but use more facial expressions (especially smiles) and are more skilled in interpreting them. In
Preparation for Examination
Questions and Answers to Remember about Global English
How many countries in the world have English as their first language?
This is a complicated question, as the definition of ‘first language’ differs from place to place, according to each country’s history and local circumstances. The following facts illustrate the complexities:
In all, English has official or special status in at least 75 countries (with a combined population of two billion people). It is estimated that one out of four people worldwide speak English with some degree of competence.
Where else is English spoken?
Apart from being spoken as a first language, English is used increasingly widely throughout the world as a second and a foreign language, and as a language of education, science, commerce, and the Internet. English has become the dominant international language (although Chinese is mother tongue for a larger number of people than English is).
In countries such as
Are there any words that mean completely different things in various parts of the world?
There certainly are, and this can cause both confusion and embarrassment. One well-known example is rubber: in British English this often means ‘an eraser’, in American English it is always ‘a condom’. In
An extreme example is the term Dolly Varden (named for a character in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge): a Dolly Varden is a frilly dress or a large elaborate hat in
Which varieties of English are spoken by the largest and the smallest numbers of people?
American English is the largest variety, spoken by 250 million people.
It is difficult to select the variety with the smallest number of English-speakers (would only predominantly English-speaking countries be considered? would second-language speakers count?) but as an example, in 1993 the first-language speakers of English in
However, all English-speaking populations are undoubtedly growing in numbers, so estimates become inaccurate quite rapidly!
How many people speak English as a first, and as a second, language, worldwide?
Statistics are not always reliable, and there are many ways to ‘speak English’—how does one define this? English can be a first, second, or occasional language, anywhere on a spectrum between standard English at one extreme, and pidgin varieties at the other.
However, estimates of first-language speakers range between 300 million and 400 million, with roughly the same number of second-language speakers.
What was the first country outside
Is old-fashioned English still spoken anywhere in the world?
It depends on what is meant by ‘old-fashioned’! Here are some possible examples:
North American English retains items like diaper (nappy in British English), guess (as in ‘I guess’, meaning ‘I imagine’), and sidewalk (replaced by pavement in modern British English).
Some aspects of the English of the former colonies of
Why does English have different vocabularies and accents in different countries?
This is a fascinating and complex question with no short answer, as regional features depend on many variables.
One factor is the accent in the area of Britain from which the settlers originated; for example, the tendency of South Africans to pronounce ‘milk’ as something like ‘mulk’ is thought to be the residual influence of a British regional accent. The educational level of the original settlers determined how ‘standard’ or ‘extreme’ their accent was when they arrived, which also determined the colonial accent to some extent.
From the time that the settlers were separated from their mother country (i.e. during the 17th century or the 19th century), their vocabulary and to some extent their grammar began to diverge from British English. The degree of isolation from the mother country was a factor: the more isolated, the more pronounced the differences would become.
The numerical size of the settlement, and thus the degree of susceptibility English had to being influenced by languages it encountered in its new environment, also played a part in the development of characteristic regional differences. Also, the more unfamiliar the geographical features (for instance the outback, the veld, and their flora and fauna), the more likely settlers were to borrow the local names for these features. The settlers encountered new cultures, and these encounters introduced new words into the regional Englishes (for example wigwam, powwow, and moccasin in North America, didgeridoo (musical instrument) and corroboree (tribal gathering) in Australia, indaba (gathering or discussion) and sangoma (healer) in South Africa, sadza (thick porridge) in Zimbabwe).
In countries such as
The influence of indigenous languages on English varies a great deal, according to the demography of the region, but it is probably safe to say that there is always some influence, generally on vocabulary. Aboriginal languages have contributed words to Australian English (budgerigar, wombat, koala, kookaburra), as have Maori languages to New Zealand English (haka a Maori ceremonial posture dance, kiwi, mako a type of shark, pakeha a white person). Native American words in English include persimmon, racoon, and toboggan. South African English (as a first language very much in the minority) has been affected by Afrikaans (the language based on Dutch and established in South Africa since 1652) and by the numerous indigenous African languages, with many words now in everyday use (from Afrikaans biltong dried meat, braai barbecue, dwaal a confused state, middelmannetjie the ridge in the middle of a dirt track; and from the African languages donga a water-worn gully, induna a person in authority, mamba a type of deadly snake, and tollie a heifer).
Are there varieties of spoken English which might be unintelligible to someone from, say,
There are in fact varieties of English spoken within the
There are some varieties of English among second-language speakers (for instance in
A pidgin can become the first language of a region, when it is known as a ‘creole’. Examples of creoles based on English are Krio (
Does the Internet lead to a brand of English that suppresses local variation in favour of quick and easy communication?
Yes, it does do this to an extent, when users of the Internet opt for online jargon and e-mail abbreviations and suppress any regional vocabulary which they feel might not be understood. There is however no proof that this online behaviour will influence the varieties of English in any significant way, for example by making the different spoken varieties into a single bland Internet English!
Is it possible to produce a dictionary that truly covers all the world Englishes?
No single dictionary could hope to cover all varieties of English comprehensively, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), recognizing the importance of recording the ‘family’ of English as fully as possible, is attempting to include the significant local words from each of the major English-speaking areas. In this task the OED is seeking the advice of lexicographers and language experts from each region—and e-mail is a great resource!
Do all English-speaking countries have their own English dictionaries?
No, not yet—it would help the OED enormously if they did! Many of the smaller varieties still need documentation, and there are no recent historical dictionaries of American English or of South Asian English comparable with the
Are people everywhere worried about the misuse of English, and about maintaining its ‘purity’?
In every English-speaking country there are people with these concerns. These are difficult issues to address, as each person has his or her particular likes and dislikes, and there are often strong feelings about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ uses of language.
The central issue seems to be that language change is inevitable and unstoppable: browsing through the OED shows this very clearly! From the beginning English has stretched and enriched itself by absorbing words from other languages—Old Scandinavian, French, Latin, and Greek, to name but a few—and thus the concept of a ‘pure’ English is difficult to support. Grammatical adaptation has also taken place over the centuries; and looking at the complications of Old English, we can be deeply thankful for this fact!
It is useful, however, to differentiate between what is beyond our control (historical language change) and what we can influence (good teaching of English, wide reading, support of poets, novelists, and playwrights). Good, effective, creative use of English and the control of a wide vocabulary are skills which every parent has the power to encourage in his or her children.
Is there 'posh' Australian and South African English, just as there is 'posh' British English?
Yes, in each English-speaking country there are forms of spoken English that are considered to be more prestigious than other forms. In these forms (often known as the ‘standard’ forms), the features of the local accent are usually less extreme, and the more prestigious form is generally that spoken by educated people, or by people of higher social status.
How many words are there in the English language?
There is no single sensible answer to this question. It is impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it is so hard to decide what counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning 'a kind of animal', and a verb meaning 'to follow persistently')? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (dogs plural noun, dogs present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since we might also find hot-dog or even hotdog?
It is also difficult to decide what counts as 'English'. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Youth slang? Computing jargon?
The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).
This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
Is it true that English has the most words of any language?
This question is practically impossible to answer, for the reasons set out in the answer to How many words are there in the English language? However, it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.
The reason for this is historical. English was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German, and it shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages. However, after the Norman Conquest in 1066 it was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class for a considerable period, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church. Very large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. Consequently, English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family to which French belongs.
English is also very ready to accommodate foreign words, and as it has become an international language, it has absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources. This does, of course, assume that you ignore 'agglutinative' languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of 'words'.
What is the proportion of English words of French, Latin, or Germanic origin?
It is very hard to make this estimate, particularly as many words reached English, for example, from Latin by way of Norman French. However, the result of a computerized survey of roughly 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd edition) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973). They reckoned the proportions as follows:
Middle English – 11- 15 c
Modern English – 16- present
Loanwords - borrowings
Dialects and languages
gender - sexual identity as male or female.
interaction distance - the distance our bodies are physically apart while talking with each other.
verbal – using words
non-verbal – without words
non-verbal communication - includes paralanguage, body language, kinesics.
kinesics - the part of non-verbal communication consisting of gestures, mimics, expressions, and postures. This part of paralanguage is also known as body language.
language a specific set of rules for generating speech.
speech - a broad term referring to patterned verbal behavior.
proxemics - the study of interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space that affect communication. Most people are unaware of the importance of space in communication until they are confronted with someone who uses it differently; proxemics is a form of paralanguage.
symbol - a sound or thing which has meaning given to it by the user. Human languages are systems of symbols.
Please study the following websites and prepare to speak about
(1) the Vikings:
(2) hidden aspects of communication:
(3) history of English: