Origins and Basic Characteristics

  • English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is therefore related to most other languages spoken in Europe and western Asia from Iceland to India.
  • The parent tongue, called Proto-Indo-European, was spoken about 5,000 years ago by nomads believed to have roamed the southeast European plains.
  • Frisian, spoken by the inhabitants of the Dutch province of Friesland and the islands off the west coast of Schleswig, is the language most nearly related to Modern English. Icelandic, which has changed little over the last thousand years, is the living language most nearly resembling Old English in grammatical structure.
  • Modern English is analytic i.e. relatively uninflected, whereas Proto-Indo-European, was synthetic, or inflected. During the course of thousands of years, English words have been slowly simplified from the inflected variable forms found in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Russian, and German, toward invariable forms, as in Chinese and Vietnamese.
  • English is the only European language to employ uninflected adjectives; e.g., the tall man, the tall woman, compared to Spanish el hombre alto and la mujer alta.
  • In addition to the simplicity of inflections, English has two other basic characteristics: flexibility of function and openness of vocabulary.
  • Words formerly distinguished as nouns or verbs by differences in their forms are now often used as both nouns and verbs. One can speak, for example, of planning a table or tabling a plan, booking a place or placing a book, lifting a thumb or thumbing a lift.
  • Openness of vocabulary implies both free admission of words from other languages and the ready creation of compounds and derivatives. English adopts (without change) or adapts (with slight change) any word really needed to name some new object or to denote some new process. Words from more than 350 languages have entered English in this way.
  • Like French, Spanish, and Russian, English frequently forms scientific terms from Classical Greek word elements. Although a Germanic language in its sounds and grammar, the bulk of English vocabulary is in fact Romance or Classical in origin.
  • English possesses a system of orthography that does not always accurately reflect the pronunciation of words… Don’t we know it?!!!

 

Did you know?

  • English is the only major language without an Academy overseeing it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent “Academy” for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

  • The concept of “correct” spelling is recent

There are many reasons why English spelling is so erratic, including the lack of an academy, the contributions of Noah Webster and the introduction of William Caxton’s printing press just before major changes in pronunciation. But the idea of correct or incorrect spelling wasn’t really considered important until the 17th Century when the first dictionaries were published. Even then, it was largely a debate for academics and writers.

  • One man is largely responsible for the differences between American and British spelling

Noah Webster, whose name you still find on the front of many American dictionaries, was a patriotic man. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, he believed that a great emerging nation such as the USA needed a language of its own: American English.

Webster found the English in the textbooks of the time to be corrupted by the British aristocracy, with too much French and Classical influence. He was to write American books for American learners, representing a young, proud and forward-thinking nation.

Between 1783 and 1785, he produced three books on the English language for American schoolchildren. During his lifetime, 385 editions of his Speller were published. The modern US spelling of color was initially spelt in the British way, colour, but this changed in later editions. Other differences include the US spelling of center as opposed to the British centre, and traveler instead of traveller. Webster wanted to make spelling more logical, as befitting a nation that was founded on progressive principles. This is a rare example of a dictionary writer trying to lead the English language instead of describing it.

In Britain, the use of “Americanisms” is almost guaranteed to upset people. But not all Americanisms are what they seem.

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