Western Culture

Learning Materials for Students

History of English

English Language as a Part of Western Culture and as a Tool of Cross-Cultural Communication

Brief History of English


Five Events that Shaped the History of English

Philip Durkin, Principal etymologist at the Oxford English Dictionary, chooses five events that shaped the English Language.

The Anglo-Saxon Settlement

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 Britain. Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders came and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we'll probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbours. However it is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbours, and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way.

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 Europe until several centuries later. When Old English writings begin to appear in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods. This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as ‘English’ in the ninth century.

The Celts were already resident in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today. Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative. The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small. Those that survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb a type of valley, alongside many place names.

The Scandinavian Settlements

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 Britain, particularly in northern and eastern areas, and in the eleventh century the whole of England had a Danish king, Canute. The distinct North Germanic speech of the Norsemen had great influence on English, most obviously seen in the words that English has borrowed from this source. These include some very basic words such as take and even grammatical words such as they. The common Germanic base of the two languages meant that there were still many similarities between Old English and the language of the invaders. Some words, for example give perhaps show a kind of hybridization with some spellings going back to Old English and others being Norse in origin. However, the resemblances between the two languages are so great that in many cases it is impossible to be sure of the exact ancestry of a particular word or spelling. However, much of the influence of Norse, including the vast majority of the loanwords, does not appear in written English until after the next great historical and cultural upheaval, the Norman Conquest.

1066 and after 1066 and all that

The centuries after the Norman Conquest witnessed enormous changes in the English language. [See Normans http://www.regia.org/norm1.htm] In the course of what is called the Middle English period, the fairly rich inflectional system of Old English broke down. It was replaced by what is broadly speaking, the same system English has today, which unlike Old English makes very little use of distinctive word endings in the grammar of the language. The vocabulary of English also changed enormously, with tremendous numbers of borrowings from French and Latin, in addition to the Scandinavian loanwords already mentioned, which were slowly starting to appear in the written language. Old English, like German today, showed a tendency to find native equivalents for foreign words and phrases (although both Old English and modern German show plenty of loanwords), whereas Middle English acquired the habit that modern English retains today of readily accommodating foreign words. Trilingualism in English, French, and Latin was common in the worlds of business and the professions, with words crossing over from one language to another with ease. One only has to flick through the etymologies of any English dictionary to get an impression of the huge number of words entering English from French and Latin during the later medieval period. This trend was set to continue into the early modern period with the explosion of interest in the writings of the ancient world.


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 London continued to evolve and gradually began to have a greater influence in the country at large. For most of the Middle English period a dialect was simply what was spoken in a particular area, which would normally be more or less represented in writing - although where and from whom the writer had learnt how to write were also important. It was only when the broadly London standard began to dominate, especially through the new technology of printing, that the other regional varieties of the language began to be seen as different in kind. As the London standard became used more widely, especially in more formal contexts and particularly amongst the more elevated members of society, the other regional varieties came to be stigmatized, as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education.

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.

Colonization and Globalization

During the medieval and early modern periods the influence of English spread throughout the British Isles, and from the early seventeenth century onwards its influence began to be felt throughout the world. The complex processes of exploration, colonization and overseas trade that characterized Britain’s external relations for several centuries became agents for change in the English language. This wasn’t simply through the acquisition of loanwords deriving from languages from every corner of the world, which in many cases only entered English via the languages of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, but through the gradual development of new varieties of English, each with their own nuances of vocabulary and grammar and their own distinct pronunciations. More recently still, English has become a lingua franca, a global language, regularly used and understood by many nations for whom English is not their first language. The eventual effects on the English language of both of these developments can only be guessed at today, but there can be little doubt that they will be as important as anything that has happened to English in the past sixteen hundred years.

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 Wessex. Like modern German, Old English used a certain number of inflections, using endings added to the stem of a word to indicate its role in a sentence, its grammatical gender, and whether it was singular or plural.

Danish and Norwegian settlers in Britain spoke the related Old Norse language, and this influenced Old English, both in adding new words to the vocabulary, and probably in speeding up the loss of the inflections, which may often have been the only partial barrier to communication between Old English and Old Norse speakers.

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.

Approximate numbers:


 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)            69,000,000


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

1.        Antigua and Barbuda

2.        Australia

3.        Barbados

4.        Belize

5.        Botswana

6.        Cameroon

7.        Canada

8.        Dominica

9.        Federated States of Micronesia

10.     Fiji Islands

11.     Ghana

12.     Grenada

13.     Guyana

14.     India

15.     Ireland

16.     Jamaica

17.     Kenya

18.     Kiribati

19.     Lesotho

20.     Liberia

21.     Malawi

22.     Malta

23.     Marshall Islands

24.     Mauritius

25.     Namibia

26.     New Zealand

27.     Nigeria

28.     Palau

29.     Papua New Guinea

30.     Philippines

31.     Rwanda

32.     Saint Lucia

33.     Samoa

34.     Sierra Leone

35.     Singapore

36.     Solomon Islands

37.     South Africa

38.     Saint Kitts and Nevis

39.     Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

40.     Swaziland

41.     Tanzania

42.     The Bahamas

43.     The Gambia

44.     Tonga

45.     Trinidad and Tobago

46.     Tuvalu

47.     Uganda

48.     United Kingdom

49.     United States

50.     Vanuatu

51.     Zambia

52.     Zimbabwe

Nations in Which English Is Not an Official Language
But Is Commonly Understood At Least by Educated People

1.        Bahrain

2.        Bangladesh

3.        Brunei

4.        Costa Rica

5.        Cyprus

6.        Czech Republic

7.        Dominican Republic   

8.        Egypt

9.        El Salvador

10.     Eritrea

11.     Estonia

12.     Ethiopia

13.     France

14.     Germany

15.     Greece

16.     Honduras

17.     Iceland

18.     Israel

19.     Jordon

20.     Laos

21.     Lebanon

22.     Libya

23.     Lichtenstein

24.     Lithuania

25.     Luxembourg   

26.     Malaysia

27.     Maldives

28.     Mexico

29.     Monaco

30.     Nauru

31.     Nepal

32.     Nicaragua

33.     Norway

34.     Oman

35.     Pakistan

36.     Panama

37.     Peru

38.     Poland

39.     Portugal

40.     Qatar

41.     Saudi Arabia

42.     Seychelles

43.     Somalia

44.     South Korea

45.     Sri Lanka

46.     Sudan

47.     Suriname

48.     Sweden

49.     Switzerland

50.     Thailand

51.     The Netherlands

52.     United Arab Emirates

53.     Venezuela

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:


 Number of people who have internet access

Percentage of world online population 

 English                  262,300,000                    35.6%
 Other European languages                  257,400,000                    34.9%
 Asian languages                  216,900,000                    29.4%
 All languages                  679,700,000                    100.0%

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 New Guinea and its neighboring islands. That is roughly 1/6 of all languages being spoken by far less than 1% of the world's people. Other language high density areas have been native the Caucasus Mountains north of Turkey and Iran. The majority of the languages in the world are unwritten and many of them are now disappearing.

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.

Learning Language

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

1.        Spell

2.        Pronounce

3.        Understand (recognize when it is written)

4.        Understand (when it is pronounced in different situations)

5.        Use

6.        Feel

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.


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 Europe or North America but can be an affectionate blessing if done in a certain way among the Masai of Kenya.

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 Europe, Australia, and North America, culture generally discourages touching by adults except in moments of intimacy or formal greeting (hand shaking or hugging).

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 New York and fails to give an apology when he arrives. For him, time is relatively "elastic" and the pace-of-life is a bit slower. He believes that he was sufficiently prompt for the scheduled business meeting, having arrived within a half hour of the appointment. It is not surprising that he is astonished and offended when he is treated coldly by the American. This dismal scenario can be avoided, of course, by foreknowledge about the other culture and a willingness to adopt a cultural relativity approach. The old saying "when in Rome do as the Romans do" is still good advice.

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 New Guinea shown in the picture would feel undressed if he did not have the narrow gourd sheath over his penis tied in an erect position. Throughout most of the rest of the world, this would be a daring and embarrassing or humiliating style of dress.

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 U.S. sailor's uniform can tell even a stranger about his status, authority, and military experience. Similarly, the unconventional hair styles and clothing of the English "punks" are essential aspects of their uniforms.

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 Europe, Australia and North America, men generally prefer face to face conversations and maintain direct eye contact longer. In contrast, women often converse standing side by side but closer together than is typical of men. Male hand shakes tend to be firmer.

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 Japan, women most often speak with an artificially high pitch, especially when conversing with men in a business or official setting.  This is part of the general deference traditionally shown to men.


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:

Australia, Botswana, the Commonwealth Caribbean nations, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Ireland, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have English as either de facto or statutory official language. In Cameroon and Canada, English shares this status with French; and in the Nigerian states, English and the main local language are official. In Fiji, English is the official language with Fijian; in Lesotho with Sesotho; in Pakistan with Urdu; in the Phillipines with Filipino; and in Swaziland with Siswati. In India, English is an associate official language (after Hindi), and in Singapore English is one of four statutory official languages. In South Africa, English the main national language—but just one of eleven official languages.

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).

South Africa provides a good illustration of the diverse roles assumed by English. Although English speakers are an important group (three million strong), they make up less than 10% of the population. However, millions of South Africans use English as a second language, and it has become the dominant national language of government, commerce, education, and the media, as well as providing access to the wider world, and serving as the means of communication between speakers of the country’s many languages.

In countries such as Bangladesh, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, and Tanzania, English is a second language for most people, but it is significant as a national language of communication (and often education).

In northern Europe, English plays an important role as a foreign language: for example, in the Scandinavian countries English is a compulsory subject in all schools, and at tertiary level is the frequent language of choice for theses and scholarly publications. English has been a major influence in the Netherlands since World War II, and is the foreign language of choice in schools.

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 South Africa, robot is the standard name for a set of traffic lights, a globe is an electric light bulb, and a packet is a shopping bag. Walking on the pavement is safe in Britain (where it means the paved area reserved for pedestrians) but fatal in North America (where it means the paved surface of a road)!

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 Britain, a type of trout in North America, a cake in the shape of a doll wearing a crinoline dress in Australia, and a draped dressing-table in South Africa!

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 Hong Kong were estimated to number 59,000.

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 Britain to use English as its first language?

Ireland was invaded by an English force under Henry II in 1171, after which Norman French and English were introduced. Newfoundland was claimed for England in 1583, and settled from 1610 onwards. The first significant and fast-growing English-speaking settlement dates from 1607, at Jamestown in the colony of Virginia (later a part of the United States).

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).

Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the South Atlantic, midway between Cape Town and Buenos Aires, was settled from 1816, and is administered by Britain as part of the colony of St Helena. The 300 islanders speak a variety of English that has many archaic features (thought to be influenced by the English of the Scottish Highlands). Distinctive expressions include: to plant in (to plant potatoes), the sea put up bubbles (the sea was too rough [for fishing]), and eastings and westings, indicating which way the island is circled.

Some aspects of the English of the former colonies of Australasia and South Africa are old-fashioned to British people. ‘Colonial’ English often has a ‘clipped’ sound (resulting from clearly enunciated consonants) which some see as reminiscent of British English in the 1950s. Some words are retained which are no longer used in Britain: for example, in Australia chook (a chicken) and pikelet (a type of drop-scone), in South Africa bioscope (cinema) and geyser (a water heater).

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 Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, do the languages spoken by the indigenous peoples affect English?

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, London or New York?

There are in fact varieties of English spoken within the United States and Britain which might be unintelligible even to fellow citizens! There are certainly varieties of British English which Americans can’t understand, and vice versa. Much will depend upon regional accent and how extreme this is, though differences in vocabulary will also play a part.

There are some varieties of English among second-language speakers (for instance in Africa and Asia) which border on pidgin English, and which would be unintelligible to most English speakers. Pidgin English is the name given to any language based on English but containing a high proportion of words from other languages, and having a simplified grammar and a limited vocabulary. There are many forms of pidgin English, spoken as second languages in order to make communication possible.

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 (Sierra Leone), Gullah (South Carolina and Georgia in the United States), Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), and the creoles of the Caribbean region.

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 Oxford dictionaries of Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, New Zealand, and South African English. However, one exciting development is that in 2000 the OED established a unit in North America to carry out research and collect material (both historical and modern) on American English.

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:

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle 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% .



Old English – 7-11 c

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.

linguistics - the comparative study of the function, structure, and history of languages and the communication process in general; linguistics is also referred to as linguistic anthropology.

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.



Home Assignment


Please study the following websites and prepare to speak about


(1)     the Vikings:


(2)     hidden aspects of communication:


(3)     history of English:






Resources for English teachers