Amazing English: Fascinating Facts About Our Mother Tongue
There are approximately 328 million native English speakers in the world today (as of the year 2000), more than any other language besides Mandarin Chinese, with over 845 million speakers and Spanish, with over 329 million. However, it is the most spoken language in the world by far, since many hundreds of millions speak English as a second language. There are many fascinating and little known facts about our mother tongue and its history that have made it the marvelous world language that it is today.
Why English Almost Wasn't
Were it not for a single vote, we Americans would probably be speaking German today instead of English. During the first Continental Congress in the midst of the America Revolution, a discussion was launched about what the official language of the newly formed United States should be. There were several of our founding fathers who thought it would be preferable for it to be a language other than English, because that would make it easier to make a complete break with England. A few languages were considered during this discussion, but the one with the most in favor of it was German.
At that time, there was an influx of German speaking people to Pennsylvania and another pocket of German/Dutch speakers in New York. In addition, many of the Hessian soldiers, who were also speakers of German and were fighting as mercenary soldiers for the British, were deserting and deciding to stay and settle in the newly formed country.Because of these large pockets of German speakers, it was thought that the transition to German would be the easiest of the languages proposed, which included Hebrew and French. But, when the vote came to the floor, those who favored maintaining English as the spoken language of the infant nation won out.... by only one vote!
English is by far the most expressive language in the world. Why is this true? While most people tend to think that the Romance languages are more expressive, this is not the case. English has approximately 500,000 words, not including scientific and technical words, which would bring the total up to over a million words. The closest competitor to English, in terms of number of words, is German, with approximately 180,000, well short of English! French, often considered to be the most expressive of all languages, has only about 43,000 words, in comparison.
How English Evolved
Why does English have so many more words than other languages? The answer lies in the history of the British Islands, which suffered several waves of invasions from different parts of Europe. The first major influence to begin the process of nearly obliterating the native Celtic languages occurred when the British Islands were invaded by the Roman armies, beginning in 43 AD. (these marginalized Celtic languages include Irish and Scots gaelic, which are among the few survivors of the Celtic languages today) The Romans brought many new Latin words to the native Celtic speakers, including many place names such as roads, cities and towns, but the Romans were about at the end of their great empire by the time they conquered parts of Britain, and they left the islands by about 410 AD.
The next wave of invasions was by Germanic peoples, prior to about the year 400, from the areas now known as Holland and Germany. The language they brought to Britain is known as Anglo-Saxon, and was a Germanic tongue, which is why English to this day is still a Germanic language. Anglo-Saxon quickly overtook most of the remaining Celtic speakers in Britain, and pushed those that were left to the very fringes of the British Isles, where some are still spoken today.
Did you know that Icelandic, which was home to some of the invaders of the British Isles, is one of only three languages spoken in the world today that uses the "th" sound? This sound is actually quite baffling to many foreign learners of English, and apparently is not easy to make for the non-native speaker (the third language is Greek).
More Latin was to enter the lexicon of Anglo-Saxon when William the Conqueror of France invaded England in 1066. Many of our modern English words can be traced to those of French origin. In fact, the larger part of our words with two or more syllables, such as liberty, possible and society, are of French origin, while most of our one syllable words, like eat, want, get and look are from Anglo-Saxon.
Because the Norman (French) invaders treated the native people of Britain as second-class citizens, as was usual for conquering populations, much of the old language continued to be spoken alongside the new, with speakers of each language borrowing words from the other. It is for this reason that English is so extraordinarily expressive, often with two or more words that can be used to describe different shades of meaning to the same concept. Where other languages only have one term for something, English often has two or more. Here are some examples, with Anglo-Saxon/then its French rooted counterpart:
English, as with all languages, has undergone several major tranformations during its long history. Old English, in fact, is not at all comprehensible to the mondern speaker of English. It was spoken prior to about 1100, when Middle English became established. Here is a portion of an ancient poem called The Seafarer in Old English:
maeg ic be me sulfum sodgied wrecan,
sipas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
Can I about myself, true poem utter
of journeys tell, how I in toilsome days
An interesting remnant of Old English can still be seen on some establishments in the form of "Ye Olde", as in "Ye Olde English Tavern", for example. But the "ye" is actually a mistranslation of the old English word "the" which was spelled with one letter to make the "th" sound and then "e", This letter, known as thorn, was written like a p with a long tail. It looked a lot like the letter "y", and so modern English speakers, having long forgotten the letter thorn, thought it meant to say "ye" when it was actually supposed to be simply "the".
Listen to the Sounds of Old English
Middle English is a bit more recognizable. Spoken fairly briefly, between 1100 and 1400, Middle English was the bridge to Modern English, which is spoken today. Here is a passage from a poem in Middle English:
And smale fowules maken melodye
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
And small birds make melody
that sleep all night with open eye
Middle English was the language of Chaucer, and much of his works can be largely understood by the modern English speaker. This form of English was spoken until roughly the middle of the 1400's, by which time grammatical and spelling changes had evolved to arrive at pretty much the same form of English that we speak today, with a few exceptions, such as the continued use of "thee" and "thy". Here are examples of written Old English and Middle English. As you see, you can make out most of the Middle English, though the spelling is still quite different.
Listen to the Sounds of Middle English
Three Cheers for English!
The English language is a marvelously rich language, by far more expressive and versatile than any other on earth. We English speakers have a linguistic heritage to be proud of, and certainly English has a bright future as it takes its place as the predominant language of the modern world.
© Katharine L. Sparrow
Book: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal, 1995
Book: Native Tongues by Charles Berlitz, 1982
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