English language

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For other uses of "English", see English (disambiguation).
Pronunciation /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/1
Region Originally Great Britain
now worldwide (see Geographical distribution, below)
Native speakers
360 million  (2010)2
L2: 422 million3
Early forms
Latin script (English alphabet)
English Braille
Manually coded English
(multiple systems)
Official status
Official language in
54 countries
27 non-sovereign entities
Language codes
ISO 639-1 en
ISO 639-2 eng
ISO 639-3 eng
Glottolog stan12934
Linguasphere 52-ABA
  Countries of the world where English is an official or de facto official language or a majority language
  Countries where English is an official but not majority native language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now a global lingua franca.56 It is an official language of almost 60 sovereign states and the most commonly spoken language in sovereign states including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a number of Caribbean nations. It is the third-most-common native language in the world, after Mandarin and Spanish.7 It is widely learned as a second language and is an official language of the European Union and of the United Nations, as well as of many world organisations.

English arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England as a fusion of closely related dialects, now collectively termed Old English. These dialects had been brought to the south-eastern coast of Great Britain by Anglo-Saxons settlers by the 5th century. The word English is the modern spelling of englisc, the name used by the Angles and Saxons for their language, after the Angles' ancestral region of Angeln. The language was also influenced early on by the Old Norse language through Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries. The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman French: thus a layer of elaborate vocabulary, particularly in the field of governance, and some Romance-language spelling conventions were added to what had by then become Middle English.8 The Great Vowel Shift that began in the south of England in the 15th century is one of the events that mark the emergence of Modern English.

Through the worldwide influence of England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom from the 17th to mid-20th centuries under the British Empire, it has been widely propagated around the world. Through the spread of English literature, world media networks such as the BBC, the American film and television industry, and the Internet, English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions and in professional contexts such as science.


Phylogenetic tree showing the historical relations between the languages of the three main branches of Germanic, West, East and North Germanic.

English is an Indo-European language, and belongs to the West Germanic group of the Germanic languages.9 Most closely related to English are the Frisian languages, and English and Frisian form the Anglo-Frisian subgroup within West Germanic. Modern English descends from Middle English, which in turn descends from Old English. English and all the Germanic languages descend from Prot-Germanic. Sometimes Anglo-Frisian is grouped together with Old Saxon and its descendent Low German languages, as a group labeled "Ingvaeonic" or "North Sea Germanic".9 Middle English also developed into a number of other English languages, including Scots and the extinct Forth and Bargy dialect.

As a result of their common origin, English and other Germanic languages, such as Dutch, German, and Swedish, share innovations not found in the other branches of the Indo-European family: The use of modal verbs, the division of verbs into strong and weak classes, and common sound shifts from Proto-Indo-European known as Grimm's and Verner's laws.

English, like the other insular Germanic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, developed independently of the continental Germanic languages and their influences. Thus English is not mutually intelligible with any continental Germanic language, differing in lexis, syntax, semantics, and phonology, although some, such as Dutch, do show strong affinities with English, especially to its earlier stages.10

Because English through its history has changed considerably in response to contact with other languages, particularly Old Norse and Norman French, some scholars have argued that English can be considered a mixed language or a creole - a theory called the Middle English creole hypothesis. Although the high degree of influence from these languages on the vocabulary and grammar of Modern English is widely acknowledged, English is not considered by most specialists in language contact to be a true mixed language.1112


From Proto-Germanic to Old English

The opening to the Old English epic poem Beowulf, handwritten in half-uncial script:
Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon...
"Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings..."
Main article: Old English

The inhabitants of Roman Britain (43–409 AD) likely spoke Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, and some Latin, brought to Britain by Julius Caesar's invasions. In the early 5th century, Rome withdrew from Britain, and Germanic tribes settled Britain: the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and other Germanic peoples from the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland and Southern Sweden.13 They brought with them a set of North Sea Germanic dialects that became Old English, the earliest attested form of English.1415 England and English (originally Anglaland and Englisc) are named after the Angles.1617 Old English is sometimes called Anglo-Saxon.

Old English (c. 550–1066 AD) was divided into a number of dialects, the most important being Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon.18 Through the influence of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect became the most prestigious form of the language, and with the educational reforms of scholar-king Alfred the Great in the 9th century it became the standard written variety.19 It is in this variety that the first works of Old English literature, Cædmon's Hymn and the epic poem Beowulf, are written.2021 Old English and Old Frisian were originally written using a runic script. By the 6th century, a Latin alphabet was adopted, written with half-uncial letterforms. It included the runic letters wynn ƿ and thorn þ, and the Latin letter eth ð, a modified form of d.

Though it is the direct ancestor of Modern English, Old English is very difficult for speakers of Modern English to understand. This is because significant changes both in the sound system and the grammar of the language have occurred since the time of Old English. Old English grammar is much more inflectional than Modern English, and similar to modern German and Icelandic. Its system of nominal declension kept 5 of the 6 proto-Germanic cases; The vocative case had been lost and the instrumental case gradually fell out of use. It also kept the three way gender distinction in nouns, grammatically distinguishing between masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, and dual number was conserved in some forms. The way that Old English used case and gender and verbal agreement is similar to modern German. Verbs were inflected to agree with their subject in person and number. The morphological inflection of grammatical relations made it possible for Old English to have a more flexible word order than Modern English, although the preference was for the verb to occur as the second constituent in a sentence as in modern German and Scandinavian.222324

Middle English

Main article: Middle English

In the period from the 8th to the 12th century, Old English was gradually transformed through language contact into Middle English. Middle English is often arbitrarily defined as beginning with the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.

First the waves of Norse colonisation of northern parts of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th centuries put Old English into intense contact with Old Norse, a North Germanic language. Norse influence was strongest in the Northeastern varieties of Old English spoken in the Danelaw area around York, which was the center of Norse colonisation, today these features are still particularly present in Scots and Northern English. However the center of Norsified English seems to have been in the Midlands around Lindsey, and after 920 AD when Lindsey was reincorporated into the Anglo-Saxon polity Norse features spread from there into English varieties that had not been in intense contact with Norse speakers.25 Some elements of Norse influence that persist in all English varieties today are the pronouns beginning with th- (they, them, their) which replaced the Anglo-Saxon pronouns with h- (hie, him, hera) and words such as same (from Norse same) which replaced the original ilka. While most of the Norse influence was in vocabulary, it also affected phonological and morphological processes (e.g. the loss of the prefix je- on perfect participles), and syntax.

With the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the now norsified Old English language was subject to contact with the Old Norman language, a Romance language closely related to Modern French, eventually developing into Anglo-Norman. Due to the fact that Norman was spoken primarily by the elites and nobles, whereas the lower classes continued speaking Anglo-Saxon, the influence of Norman consisted in introducing a wide range of loan words related to politics, legislation and prestigious social domains. An example of Norman influence is the introduction of the distinction between domestic animals and the food products derived from their meat such as the pairs swine/pork, cow/beef, lamb/mutton, where the first word in each pair is a Germanic word derived from Old English denoting the animal, and the second a word of Norman origin denoting the meat for consumption. Frequently French roots are used to encode a higher social quality associated with elite status, and a corresponding Germanic word used in a pejorative sense.

By the 12th century Middle English was fully developed, integrating both Norse and Norman traits, it continued to be spoken until around 1500. Middle English literature include Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Throughout this period, Latin in some form was the lingua franca of European intellectual life – first the Medieval Latin of the Christian Church, and later the humanist Renaissance Latin – and those who wrote or copied texts in Latin commonly coined new terms from that language to refer to things or concepts for which there was no native English word.26

Development of Early Modern English

Main article: Early Modern English

The development of Middle English into Modern English was characterized by the Great Vowel Shift, which began in the 14th century and was complete in all varieties of English by 1700. Literature from this period includes the works of William Shakespeare27 and the King James Version of the Bible. After the United Kingdom became a colonial power, English served as the lingua franca of the colonies of the British Empire. In Early modern English, consonant clusters such as the /kn/ in "knight", /gn/ in "gnat" and /sw/ were still pronounced. Many of the grammatical features that a modern reader of Shakespeare might find quaint or archaic represent the distinct characteristics of Early Modern English.

Modern English as a global language

See also: Anglosphere

The period following 1776 saw English become a global, pluricentric language, as England's continued to form new colonies, which in turn became independent and developed their own norms for how to speak and write the language. English was adopted in North America, India, Africa, Australia and many other regions – a trend that was reinforced by the emergence of the United States as a superpower in the mid-20th century. In the post-colonial period, some of the newly created nations that had multiple indigenous languages opted to continue using English as the lingua franca to avoid the political difficulties inherent in promoting any one indigenous language above the others. By the 21st century, English was more widely spoken and written than any language has ever been.28

Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca,629 is the world's mostly widely used language in communications, science, information technology, business, entertainment, radio, and diplomacy30 and the required international language of seafaring31 and aviation.32 Its spread beyond the British Isles began with the growth of the English overseas possessions, and by the 19th century the reach of the British Empire was global.33 As a result of overseas colonization from the 16th to 19th centuries, it became the dominant language in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The growing economic and cultural influence of the US and its status as a global superpower since the Second World War have significantly accelerated the spread of the language across the planet.529 English replaced German as the dominant language of science-related Nobel Prize laureates during the second half of the 20th century.34 It achieved parity with French as a language of diplomacy at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919.3536 By the time of the foundation of the United Nations after World War II, English had become pre-eminent3738 and is now the language of diplomacy and international relations.39

A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing; as a consequence, more than a billion people speak English to at least a basic level (see English as a second or foreign language). It is one of six official languages of the United Nations.40

One impact of the growth of English is the reduction of native linguistic diversity in many parts of the world. The influence of English continues to play an important role in language attrition.41 Conversely, the natural internal variety of English along with creoles and pidgins have the potential to produce new distinct languages from English over time.42

Geographical distribution

Circle frame.svg

Pie chart showing the relative proportions of native English speakers in the major English-speaking countries of the world.

  US (53.3%)
  UK (14%)
  Canada (6.7%)
  Australia (4.2%)
  Nigeria (0.9%)
  Ireland (0.9%)
  South Africa (0.9%)
  New Zealand (0.9%)
  Other (18.2%)

Approximately 359 million people speak English as their first language. English today is probably the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.743 However, when combining native and non-native speakers it is probably the most commonly spoken language in the world.2844

Estimates that include second language speakers vary greatly from 470 million to more than a billion depending on how literacy or mastery is defined and measured.8 Linguistics professor David Crystal calculates that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1.44

The countries with the highest populations of native English speakers are, in descending order: the United States (229 million),45 the United Kingdom (60 million),3 Canada (18.2 million),46 Australia (15.5 million),47 Nigeria (4 million),48 Ireland (3.8 million),3 South Africa (3.7 million),49 and New Zealand (3.6 million) in a 2006 Census.50

Countries such as the Philippines, Jamaica and Nigeria also have millions of native speakers of dialect continua ranging from an English-based creole to a more standard version of English. Of those nations where English is spoken as a second language, India has the most such speakers (see Indian English). Crystal claims that, combining native and non-native speakers, India now has more people who speak or understand English than any other country in the world.5152

Countries where English is a major language

English is the primary language in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guam, Guernsey, Guyana, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jamaica, Jersey, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand, Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, South Africa, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In some countries where English is not the most spoken language, it is an official language. English is also an important language in several former colonies and protectorates of the United Kingdom, such as Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cyprus, Malaysia, Malta and the United Arab Emirates.

English as a global language

Percent of national populations with knowledge of English

Because English is so widely spoken, it has often been referred to as a "world language", the lingua franca of the modern era,29 and while it is not an official language in most countries, it is currently the language most often taught as a foreign language.529 It is, by international treaty, the official language for aeronautical53 and maritime54 communications. English is one of the official languages of the United Nations and many other international organisations, including the International Olympic Committee.

This increasing use of the English language globally has had a large impact on many other languages, leading to language shift and even language death,41 and to claims of linguistic imperialism.55 English itself has become more open to language shift as multiple regional varieties feed back into the language as a whole.55

Dialects and varieties

English has been subject to a large degree of regional dialect variation for many centuries. Its global spread now means that a large number of dialects and English-based creole languages and pidgins have evolved all over the world. The major native dialects of English are often divided by linguists into the three general categories of the British Isles dialects, those of North America and those of Australasia.8

Several educated native dialects of English have wide acceptance as standards in much of the world. In the United Kingdom, the Received Pronunciation, an educated dialect of South East England, is used as the broadcast standard. General American, which is spread over most of the United States, is more typically the model for the United States. In Oceania, the major native dialect of Australian English is spoken as a first language by the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Australian continent, with General Australian serving as the standard accent. The English of neighbouring New Zealand as well as that of Ireland have to a lesser degree become influential standard varieties of the language.

Aside from these major dialects, numerous other varieties of English exist, which include, in most cases, several subvarieties, such as Cockney, Scouse and Geordie within British English; Newfoundland English within Canadian English; and African American Vernacular English ("Ebonics") and Southern American English within American English. English is a pluricentric language, without a central language authority like France's Académie française; and therefore no one variety is considered "correct" or "incorrect" except in terms of the expectations of the particular audience to which the language is directed.

A Book of Psalms printed in the reign of James VI and I, in Scottish English

Scots has its origins in early Northern Middle English56 and developed and changed during its history with influence from other sources. However, following the Acts of Union 1707 a process of language attrition began, whereby successive generations adopted more and more features from Standard English. Whether Scots is now a separate language or is better described as a dialect of English (i.e. part of Scottish English) remains in dispute, although the UK government accepts Scots as a regional language and has recognised it as such under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.57 Scots itself has a number of regional dialects: pronunciation, grammar and lexis of the traditional forms differ, sometimes substantially, from other varieties of English.

English-speakers have many different accents, which often signal the speaker's native dialect or language. For the most distinctive characteristics of regional accents, see regional accents of English, and for a complete list of regional dialects, see list of dialects of the English language. Within England, variation is now largely confined to pronunciation rather than grammar or vocabulary. At the time of the Survey of English Dialects, grammar and vocabulary differed across the country, but a process of lexical attrition has led most of this variation to die out.58

Just as English itself has borrowed words from many different languages over its history, English loanwords now appear in many languages around the world, indicative of the technological and cultural influence of its speakers. Several pidgins and creole languages have formed on an English base, such as Jamaican Patois, Nigerian Pidgin, and Tok Pisin. There are many words in English coined to describe forms of particular non-English languages that contain a very high proportion of English words.

Formal written English

A version of the language almost universally agreed upon by educated English-speakers around the world is called formal written English. It takes virtually the same form regardless of where it is written, in contrast to spoken English, which differs significantly between dialects, accents, and varieties of slang and of colloquial and regional expressions. Local variations in the formal written version of the language are quite limited, being restricted largely to minor spelling, lexical and grammatical differences between different national varieties of English (e.g. British, American, Indian, Australian, South African, etc.).


Main article: English phonology

The phonology of English differs between dialects, and so does the pronunciation. This overview mainly describes the standard pronunciations of the United Kingdom and the United States: Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA). The phonetic symbols used below are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and are used in the pronunciation keys of many dictionaries.


English dialects share most of the same consonant phonemes, and consonant pronunciation varies less than that of vowels.

Consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ (x) h
Approximant r j (ʍ) w
Lateral l

Where consonants are given in pairs, as with /p b/, the first is voiceless, the second is voiced.

It is more accurate to say that voiceless and voiced consonants are fortis and lenis, since they are not always phonetically voiceless and voiced. The fortis and lenis stops are distinguished by varying levels of voice-onset time (aspiration and voicing) and sometimes by length of the preceding vowel. The fortis stop /p/ is always voiceless, but is aspirated in pin [pʰɪn], and unaspirated in spin [spɪn] and often in nip [nɪp]. The lenis stop /b/ is always unaspirated, but is partially voiced in bin [p̬ɪn] and nib [nɪˑp̬], and fully voiced in about [əˈbaʊt]. Within the same syllable, a vowel before a lenis stop is longer than a vowel before a fortis stop: thus nib [nɪˑp̬] has a longer vowel than nip [nɪp] (see below).

There are significant dialectal variations in the pronunciation of several consonants:

  • The th sounds /θ/ and /ð/ are sometimes pronounced as /f/ and /v/ in Cockney, and as dental plosives (contrasting with the usual alveolar plosives) in some dialects of Irish English. In African American Vernacular English, /ð/ has merged with dental /d/.clarification needed
  • In North American and Australian English, /t/ and /d/ are pronounced as an alveolar flap [ɾ] in many positions between vowels:59 thus words like latter and ladder /læɾər/ are pronounced in the same way. This sound change is called intervocalic alveolar flapping, and is a type of rhotacism. /t/ is often pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ] (t-glottalization, a form of debuccalization) after vowels in British English, as in butter /ˈbɐʔə/, and in other dialects before a nasal, as in button /ˈbɐʔən/.
  • In most dialects, the rhotic consonant /r/ is pronounced as an alveolar, postalveolar, or retroflex approximant [ɹ ɹ̠ ɻ], and often causes vowel changes or is elided (see below), but in Scottish it may be a flap or trill [ɾ r].
  • In some cases, the palatal approximant or semivowel /j/, especially in the diphthong /juː/, is elided or causes consonant changes (yod-dropping and yod-coalescence).
    • Through yod-dropping, historical /j/ in the diphthong /juː/ is lost. In both RP and GA, yod-dropping happens in words like chew /ˈtʃuː/, and frequently in suit /ˈsuːt/, historically /ˈtʃju ˈsjuːt/. In words like tune, dew, new /ˈtjuːn ˈdjuː ˈnjuː/, RP keeps /j/, but GA drops it, so that these words have the vowels of too, do, and noon /ˈtuː ˈduː ˈnuːn/ in GA. A few conservative dialects like Welsh English have less yod-dropping than RP and GA, so that chew and choose /ˈtʃɪu ˈtʃuːz/ are distinguished, and Norfolk English has more, so that beauty /ˈbjuːti/ is pronounced like booty /ˈbuːti/.
    • Through yod-coalescence, alveolar stops and fricatives /t d s z/ are palatalized and change to postalveolar affricates or fricatives /tʃ dʒ ʃ ʒ/ before historical /j/. In GA and traditional RP, this only happens in unstressed syllables, as in education, nature, and measure /ˌɛd͡ʒʊˈkeɪʃən ˈneɪt͡ʃər ˈmɛʒər/. In other dialects, such as modern RP or Australian, it happens in stressed syllables: thus due and dew are pronounced like Jew /ˈdʒuː/. In colloquial speech, it happens in phrases like did you? /dɪdʒuː/.
  • In conservative dialects lik Scottish English, the digraph wh is pronounced as a voiceless w [ʍ], as in which [ʍɪtʃ]. In most dialects, it has merged with w /w/, so that which and witch /ˈwɪtʃ/ are pronounced in the same way (winewhine merger).
  • The voiceless velar fricative /x/ is sometimes used in loanwords from other languages, such as Scottish Gaelic loch, Yiddish chutzpah, German Bach.


The pronunciation of vowels varies a great deal between dialects. The table below lists the vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA), with examples of words in which they occur (lexical sets). The vowels are represented with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet; those given for RP are standard in British dictionaries and other publications, aside from /ɐ/, typically written as /ʌ/.

RP GA word
i need
ɪ bid
e ɛ bed
æ back
RP GA word
(ɪ) ɨ roses
ə comma
ɜː ɜr bird
ɐ but
RP GA word
u food
ʊ good
ɔː ɔ paw
ɒ cloth
ɑ box
ɑː bra
RP GA word
əʊ road
ɔɪ boy

Vowel length varies between dialects and between words. RP has long vowels, marked with a triangular colon ː, but in GA they are typically shortened. Some RP long vowels develop from elision of /r/. In both RP and GA, vowels are longer before voiced consonants than before voiceless consonants: thus, the vowel of need [ˈniːd] is longer than the vowel of neat [nit]. Note that this rule applies exclusively within the same syllable; when a vowel ends an open syllable, it is always long, as in knee and seashore [ˈniː ˈsiː.ʃɔː].

The vowels /ɨ ə/ only occur in unstressed syllables and are a result of vowel reduction. Some dialects do not distinguish them, so that roses and comma end in the same vowel. GA has an unstressed r-colored schwa /ɚ/, as in butter [ˈbɐtɚ], which in RP has the same vowel as comma.

The pronunciation of some vowels varies between dialects:

  • In conservative RP and in GA, the vowel of back is a near-open [æ], but in modern RP and some North American dialects it is open [a]. The vowel of words like bath is /æ/ in GA, but /ɑː/ in RP (trap–bath split). In some dialects, /æ/ sometimes or always changes to a long vowel or diphthong, like [æː] or [eə] (bad–lad split and /æ/ tensing): thus man /mæn/ is pronounced with a diphthong like [meən] in many North American dialects.
  • The RP vowel /ɒ/ is pronounced /ɑ/ (father–bother merger) or /ɔ/ (lot–cloth split) in GA. Thus box is RP /bɒks/ but GA /bɑks/, while cloth is RP /klɒθ/ but GA /klɔθ/. Some North American dialects merge /ɔ/ with /ɑ/, except before /r/ (cot–caught merger).
  • In Scottish, Irish and Northern English, and in some dialects of North American English, the diphthongs /eɪ/ and /əʊ/ (/oʊ/) are pronounced as monophthongs (monophthongization). Thus, day and no are pronounced as /ˈdeɪ ˈnəʊ/ in RP, but as [ˈdeː ˈnoː] or [ˈde ˈno] in other dialects.
  • In North American English, the diphthongs /aɪ aʊ/ sometimes undergo a vowel shift called Canadian raising. This sound change affects the first element of the diphthong, and raises it from open [a], similar to the vowel of bra, to near-open [ɐ], similar to the vowel of but. Thus ice and out [ˈɐɪs ˈɐʊt] are pronounced with different vowels from eyes and loud [ˈaɪz ˈlaʊd]. Raising of /aɪ/ sometimes occurs in GA, but raising of /aʊ/ mainly occurs in Canadian English.

In RP, but not GA, the rhotic /r/ has been elided (lost) at the end of a syllable after a vowel (in the syllable coda). Thus, RP does not pronounce the letter r in car and cart, but GA does. English dialects are classified as rhotic or non-rhotic depending on whether they elide /r/ like RP or keep it like GA.60

In both rhotic and non-rhotic dialects, vowels are pronounced differently before historical /r/:

  • In most rhotic dialects, vowels before /r/ are often pronounced with r-colouring. For example, nurse and butter in GA are pronounced with the r-coloured vowels [ɝ ɚ]: [ˈnɝs ˈbɐtɚ].
  • In most non-rhotic dialects, stressed vowels before elided /r/ underwent vowel breaking (diphthongization) or compensatory lengthening. Thus, in RP, words like nurse /ˈnɜːs/ have long vowels, and words like here /ˈhɪə̯/ have centering diphthongs ending in /ə/. Words like butter [ˈbɐtə] have no lengthening, because the final vowel is not stressed.

Many vowel shifts only affect vowels before historical /r/, and in most cases they reduce the number of vowels that are distinguished before /r/:

  • Several historically distinct vowels are reduced to /ɜ/ before /r/. In Scottish English, fern, fir, and fur [fɛrn fɪr fʌr] are pronounced differently and have the same vowels as bed, bid, and but, but in GA and RP they are all pronounced with the vowel of bird: /ˈfɝn ˈfɝ/, /ˈfɜːn ˈfɜː/ (fern–fir–fur merger). Similarly, the vowels of hurry and furry /ˈhʌri ˈfɜri/, cure and fir /ˈkjuːr ˈfɜr/ were historically distinct and are still distinct in RP, but are often merged in GA (hurry–furry and cure–fir mergers).
  • Some sets of tense and lax or long and short vowels merge before /r/. Historically, nearer and mirror /ˈniːrər ˈmɪrər/; Mary, marry, and merry /ˈmɛɪɹi ˈmæri ˈmɛri/; hoarse and horse /ˈhoːrs ˈhɔrs/ were pronounced differently and had the same vowels as need and bid; bay, back, and bed; road and paw, but in some dialects their vowels have merged and are pronounced in the same way (mirror–nearer, Mary–marry–merry, and horse–hoarse mergers).
  • In traditional GA and RP, poor /pʊr/ or /pʊə/ is pronounced differently from pour /pɔr/ or /pɔə/ and has the same vowel as good, but for many speakers in North America and southern England, poor is pronounced with the same vowel as pour (poor–pour merger).

Stress, rhythm and intonation

English is a strongly stressed language. Certain syllables are stressed, while others are unstressed. Stress is a combination of duration, intensity, vowel quality, and sometimes changes in pitch. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer and louder than unstressed syllables, and vowels in unstressed syllables are frequently reduced while vowels in stressed syllables are not. Many words have one syllable that is stressed (word stress or lexical stress), and words used in a phrase or sentence may receive additional stress (sentence stress or prosodic stress).

In content words of any number of syllables, as well as function words of more than one syllable, there will be at least one syllable with lexical stress. The word civilization has stress on the first and fourth syllables, and the other syllables are unstressed.61 The position of stress in English words is not predictable.

Stress in English is phonemic, and some pairs of words are distinguished by stress. For instance, the word contract is stressed on the first syllable when used as a noun, but on the last syllable when used as a verb (see Initial-stress-derived noun): contract, contract. Here stress is connected to vowel reduction: in the noun contract the first syllable is stressed and has the unreduced vowel /ɒ/, whereas in the verb contract the first syllable is unstressed and its vowel is reduced to /ə/: /ˈkɒntrækt kənˈtrækt/.62

English has strong prosodic stress: typically the last stressed syllable of a phrase receives extra emphasis, but this may also occur on words to which a speaker wishes to draw attention. Prosodic stress affects the pronunciation of function words like of, which are pronounced with different vowels depending on whether or not they are stressed within the sentence.

Rhythmically, English is stress-timed, meaning that the amount of time between stressed syllables tends to be equal. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer, but unstressed syllables (syllables between stresses) are shortened. Vowels in unstressed syllables are shortened as well, and vowel shortening causes changes in vowel quality: vowel reduction.

As concerns intonation, the pitch of the voice is used syntactically in English; for example, to convey whether the speaker is certain or uncertain about the polarity: most varieties of English use falling pitch for definite statements, and rising pitch to express uncertainty, as in yes–no questions. There is also a characteristic change of pitch on strongly stressed syllables, particularly on the "nuclear" (most strongly stressed) syllable in a sentence or intonation group. For more details see Intonation (linguistics): Intonation in English.


Main article: English grammar

Despite extensive lexical borrowing, the workings of the English language are resolutely Germanic, and English is rightly classified as a Germanic language due to its structure and grammar. Borrowed words get incorporated into a Germanic system of conjugation, declension, and syntax, and behave exactly as though they were native Germanic words from Old English. For example, the word reduce is borrowed from Latin redūcere; however, in English one says "I reduce – I reduced – I will reduce" rather than "redūcō – redū – redūcam"; likewise, we say: "John's life insurance company" (cf. Dutch "Johns levensverzekeringsmaatschappij" [= leven (life) + verzekering (insurance) + maatschappij (company)] rather than "the company of insurance life of John", cf. the French: la compagnie d'assurance-vie de John).


English grammar has minimal inflection compared with most other Indo-European languages. For example, Modern English, unlike Modern German or Dutch and the Romance languages, lacks grammatical gender and agreement between adjectives and nouns. Indeed, English is the only Germanic language spoken in Europe without grammatical gender. Case marking has disappeared from the language, except in pronouns and possessive forms. The patterning of strong (e.g. speak, spoke, and spoken) versus weak verbs (e.g. love and loved or kick and kicked) has declined in importance in modern English, and the remnants of inflection (such as plural marking) have become more regular.

In English, all basic grammatical particles added to nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are Germanic. For nouns, these include the normal plural marker -s/-es (apple – apples; cf. Frisian appel – appels; Dutch appel – appels; Afrikaans appel – appels), and the possessive markers -'s (Brad's hat; German Brads Hut; Danish Brads hat) and -s' .

For verbs, these particles include the third-person present ending -s/-es (e.g. he stands/he reaches ), the present participle ending -ing (cf. Dutch and German -end(e)), the simple past tense and past participle ending -ed (Swedish -ade/-ad), and the formation of the English infinitive using to (e.g. "to drive"; cf. Old English drīfenne; Dutch te drijven; Low German to drieven; German zu treiben). Adverbs generally receive an -ly ending (cf. German -lich; Swedish -ligt), and adjectives and adverbs are inflected for the comparative and superlative using -er and -est (e.g. hard/harder/hardest; cf. Dutch hard/harder/hardst), or through a combination with more and most (cf. Swedish mer and mest). These particles append freely to all English words regardless of origin (tsunamis; communicates; to buccaneer; during; calmer; bizarrely) and all derive from Old English. Even the lack or absence of affixes, known as zero or null (-Ø) affixes, derives from endings that previously existed in Old English (usually -e, -a, -u, -o, -an, etc.), that later weakened to -e, and have since ceased to be pronounced and spelt (e.g. Modern English "I sing" = I sing-Ø < I singe < Old English ic singe; "we thought" = we thought-Ø < we thoughte(n) < Old English wē þōhton).


The language is moderately analytic.63 It has developed features such as modal verbs and word order as resources for conveying meaning. Auxiliary verbs mark constructions such as questions, negative polarity, the passive voice and progressive aspect. English word order has moved from the Germanic verb-second (V2) word order to being almost exclusively subject–verb–object (SVO). The combination of SVO order and use of auxiliary verbs often creates clusters of two or more verbs at the centre of the sentence, such as he had hoped to try to open it, although there is an argument that English is technically a mixed word order language because it still has many uses of V2 word order then SVO word order.clarification needed64

Due to the Viking colonisation and influence of Old Norse on Middle English, English syntax follows a pattern similar to that of North Germanic languages, such as Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic, in contrast with other West Germanic languages, such as Frisian, Dutch and German. In English and the North Germanic languages, an infinitive or past participle in a verb phrase is placed before the object, whereas in Dutch and German it is placed at the end.

English I will never see you again
Danish Jeg vil aldrig se dig igen
Icelandic Ég mun aldrei sjá þig aftur
Dutch Ik zal je nooit weer zien
German Ich werde dich nie wieder sehen
English I have never seen anything in the square
Danish Jeg har aldrig set noget på torvet
Icelandic Ég hef aldrei séð neitt á torginu
Dutch Ik heb niets op het plein gezien
German Ich habe nie etwas auf dem Platz gesehen

As in most Germanic languages, English adjectives usually come before the noun they modify, even when the adjective is of Latinate origin (e.g. medical emergency, national treasure). English continues to make extensive use of self-explaining compounds (e.g. streetcar, classroom) and nouns that serve as modifiers (e.g. lamp post, life insurance company) – traits inherited from Old English (see Kenning).

The long literary history of English has also created many conventions regarding the use of techniques such as verbal nouns and relative clauses to express complex ideas in formal writing.


English vocabulary or lexis has changed considerably over the centuries.65

Technical vocabulary

English easily accepts technical terms into common usage and often imports new words and phrases. Examples of this phenomenon include contemporary words such as cookie, Internet and URL (technical terms), as well as genre, über, lingua franca and amigo (imported words/phrases from French, German, Italian, and Spanish, respectively). In addition, slang often provides new meanings for old words and phrases. In fact, this fluidity is so pronounced that a distinction often needs to be made between formal forms of English and contemporary usage.

Register effects

It is well-established66 that informal speech registers tend to be made up predominantly of words of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic origin, whereas the proportion of the vocabulary that is of Latinate origins is likely to be higher in legal, scientific, and otherwise scholarly or academic texts.

Child-directed speech, which is an informal speech register, also tends to rely heavily on vocabulary rife in words derived from Anglo-Saxon. The speech of mothers to young children has a higher percentage of native Anglo-Saxon verb tokens than speech addressed to adults.67 In particular, in parents' child-directed speech the clausal core 68 is built in the most part by Anglo-Saxon verbs, namely, almost all tokens of the grammatical relations subject-verb, verb-direct object and verb-indirect object that young children are presented with, are constructed with native verbs.69 The Anglo-Saxon verb vocabulary consists of short verbs, but its grammar is relatively complex. Syntactic patterns specific to this sub-vocabulary in present-day English include periphrastic constructions for tense, aspect, questioning and negation, and phrasal lexemes functioning as complex predicates, all of which also occur in child-directed speech.

The historical origin of vocabulary items affects the order of acquisition of various aspects of language development in English-speaking children. Latinate vocabulary is in general a later acquisition in children than the native Anglo-Saxon one.7071 Young children almost exclusively use the native verb vocabulary in constructing basic grammatical relations, apparently mastering its analytic aspects at an early stage.69

Number of words in English

The vocabulary of English is undoubtedly very large, but assigning a specific number to its size is more a matter of definition than of calculation – and there is no official source to define accepted English words and spellings in the way that the French Académie française and similar bodies do for other languages.

Archaic, dialectal, and regional words might or might not be widely considered as "English", and neologisms are continually coined in medicine, science, technology and other fields, along with new slang and adopted foreign words. Some of these new words enter wide usage while others remain restricted to small circles.

The General Explanations at the beginning of the Oxford English Dictionary states:

The Vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits... there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.

The current FAQ for the OED further states:

How many words are there in the English language? There is no single sensible answer to this question. It's impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it's so hard to decide what actually counts as a word.72

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (OED2) includes over 600,000 definitions, following a rather inclusive policy:

It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang (Supplement to the OED, 1933).73

The editors of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged include 475,000 main headwords, but in their preface they estimate the true number to be much higher. Comparisons of the vocabulary size of English to that of other languages are generally not taken very seriously by linguists and lexicographers. Besides the fact that dictionaries will vary in their policies for including and counting entries,74 what is meant by a given language and what counts as a word do not have simple definitions. Also, a definition of word that works for one language may not work well in another,75 with differences in morphology and orthography making cross-linguistic definitions and word-counting difficult, and potentially giving very different results.76 Linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has gone so far as to compare concerns over vocabulary size (and the notion that a supposedly larger lexicon leads to "greater richness and precision") to an obsession with penis length.77

In December 2010 a joint Harvard/Google study found the language to contain 1,022,000 words and to expand at the rate of 8,500 words per year.78 The findings came from a computer analysis of 5,195,769 digitised books. Others have estimated a rate of growth of 25,000 words each year.79

Word origins

One of the consequences of the French influence is that the vocabulary of English is, to a certain extent, divided between those words that are Germanic (mostly West Germanic, with a smaller influence from the North Germanic branch) and those that are "Latinate" (derived directly from Latin, or through Norman French or other Romance languages). The situation is further compounded, as French, particularly Old French and Anglo-French, were also contributors in English of significant numbers of Germanic words, mostly from the Frankish and Old Norse elements in French (see List of English Latinates of Germanic origin).

The majority (estimates range from roughly 50%80 to more than 80%81) of the thousand most common English words are Germanic. However, the majority of more advanced words in subjects such as the sciences, philosophy and mathematics come from Latin or Greek, with Arabic also providing many words in astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry.

Source of the most frequent 7,476 English words
1st 100 1st 1,000 2nd 1,000 Subsequent
Germanic 97% 57% 39% 36%
Italic 3% 36% 51% 51%
Hellenic 0 4% 4% 7%
Others 0 3% 6% 6%
Source: Nation 2001, p. 265

Numerous sets of statistics have been proposed to demonstrate the proportionate origins of English vocabulary. None, as yet, is considered definitive by most linguists.

A computerised survey of about 80,000 words in the old Shorter Oxford Dictionary (3rd ed.) was published in Ordered Profusion by Thomas Finkenstaedt and Dieter Wolff (1973)82 that estimated the origin of English words as follows:

Influences in English vocabulary
  • Langues d'oïl, including French and Old Norman: 28.3%
  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • Germanic languages (including words directly inherited from Old English; does not include Germanic words coming from the Germanic element in French, Latin or other Romance languages): 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages: less than 1%

A survey by Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language of 10,000 words taken from several thousand business letters gave this set of statistics:83

  • French (langue d'oïl): 41%
  • "Native" English: 33%
  • Latin: 15%
  • Old Norse: 2%
  • Dutch: 1%
  • Other: 10%

Writing system

Since around the 9th century, English has been written in the Latin script, which replaced Anglo-Saxon runes. The modern English alphabet contains 26 letters of the Latin script: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z (which also have majuscule, capital or uppercase forms: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z). Other symbols used in writing English include the ligatures, æ and œ (though these are no longer common). There is also some usage of diacritics, mainly in foreign loanwords (like the acute accent in café and exposé), and in the occasional use of a diaeresis to indicate that two vowels are pronounced separately (as in naïve, Zoë). For more information see English terms with diacritical marks.

The spelling system, or orthography, of English is multilayered, with elements of French, Latin and Greek spelling on top of the native Germanic system; further complications have arisen through sound changes with which the orthography has not kept pace. This means that, compared with many other languages, English spelling is not a reliable indicator of pronunciation and vice versa (it is not, generally speaking, a phonemic orthography).

Though letters and sounds may not correspond in isolation, spelling rules that take into account syllable structure, phonetics, and accents are 75% or more reliable.84 Some phonics spelling advocates claim that English is more than 80% phonetic.85 However, English has fewer consistent relationships between sounds and letters than many other languages; for example, the letter sequence ough can be pronounced in 10 different ways. The consequence of this complex orthographic history is that reading can be challenging.86 It takes longer for students to become completely fluent readers of English than of many other languages, including French, Greek, and Spanish.87 English-speaking children have been found to take up to two years longer to learn to read than children in 12 other European countries.88

As regards the consonants, the correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is fairly regular. The letters b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, z represent, respectively, the phonemes /b/, /d/, /f/, /h/, /dʒ/, /k/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /p/, /r/, /s/, /t/, /v/, /w/, /z/ (as tabulated in the Consonants section above). The letters c and g normally represent /k/ and /ɡ/, but there is also a soft c pronounced /s/, and a soft g pronounced /dʒ/. Some sounds are represented by digraphs: ch for /tʃ/, sh for /ʃ/, th for /θ/ or /ð/, ng for /ŋ/ (also ph is pronounced /f/ in Greek-derived words). Doubled consonant letters (and the combination ck) are generally pronounced as single consonants, and qu and x are pronounced as the sequences /kw/ and /ks/. The letter y, when used as a consonant, represents /j/. However this set of rules is not applicable without exception; many words have silent consonants or other cases of irregular pronunciation.

With the vowels, however, correspondences between spelling and pronunciation are even more irregular. As can be seen under Vowels above, there are many more vowel phonemes in English than there are vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u, y). This means that diphthongs and other long vowels often need to be indicated by combinations of letters (like the oa in boat and the ay in stay), or using a silent e or similar device (as in note and cake). Even these devices are not used consistently, so consequently vowel pronunciation remains the main source of irregularity in English orthography.

See also


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External links

  • "Oxford Learner's Dictionaries". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 February 2015.  An online dictionary for English-language learners, part of the Oxford Dictionaries series
  • "Dictionary and Thesaurus | Merriam-Webster.com". Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 15 February 2015.  An authoritative dictionary of American English
  • "Macquarie Dictionary". Australia's National Dictionary & Thesaurus Online | Macquarie Dictionary. Macmillan Publishers Group Australia. Retrieved 15 February 2015.  An authoritative dictionary of Australian English

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