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Of all the world’s languages it is Mandarin that is spoken by most people (14.5%) followed by Spanish (6.1%) and English (5.4%). However, it is now in English that the world communicates about matters of sport, culture, politics, economics, and science. English is the preferred language of the United Nations, the European Parliament, OPEC, NATO and many other international organisations and at least a third of the world’s population has at least a passing knowledge of the English language.[1] In short, English is the language of globalisation.

How did this come to be?

This article examines the origins, cultural history, and rise to world prominence of a Bronze Age Germanic dialect of Western Europe.

History of the English language
This BBC documentary presented by Melvyn Bragg lasts for four hours so you will need to watch it in several sittings.
However, it is the definitive account and well worth the time.

The Anglosphere

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Sulez raz – Accessed 8 February 2018

Celtic beginnings (4000-2000 BCE)

The Celtic linguistic sub-group and its many dialects was derived from the founding Indo-European (see Language – history) and were for many years spoken over the greater part of Western Europe, eventually retreating from the advance of Italic and Germanic languages to be confined to peripheral regions of Britain and France.

Oxford University archaeologist Professor Barry Cunliffe suggests that the path of linguistic migration to Britain started in Anatolia in about 7,000 BCE moving west across the Mediterranean, reaching Greece in about 6,000 BCE, evolving into Celto-Italic in about 5,500-5,000 BCE with the Celtic language emerging along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, Brittany in France then to Ireland and West Britain in 4,000-3,000 BCE and only later spreading to Central Europe in about 2,000 BCE. Support for this path of migration comes from genetic anthropology (see Migration) and the present-day distribution of Celtic place names, the accounts of the Celts and their language as described by classical authors, and the likely trade blocs that were operating at these times.[13] The final move into Central Europe could have been a phase in the distribution of the Western European ‘Beaker’ culture (2800 – 1800 BCE) overland and along Europe’s major rivers and associated with linguistic convergence.

This modern interpretation of events contrasts with the former view that warlike Celts arrived in Britain from the East, crossing the English Channel, a theory more in tune with the biblical idea of a Middle-Eastern people, after Noah’s flood, spreading westwards from Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans, through Central Europe, along the Italian Peninsula, Po Valley, and Danube. On this view Celtic art of the central European Late Iron Age archaeological La Tene period (from 450 BCE to the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE) found in Britain and Ireland and emerging from the early Iron Age Hallstadt culture (c. 800-500 BCE) was taken as evidence of a Celtic origin in Gaul c. 450-350 BCE. Linguistic scholars believe that the early Celtic dialect or Proto-Celtic began to segregate from the Indo-European parent language in about 2,000 BCE and may have been spoken by the central European Urnfield culture of the Late Bronze Age c. 1300–750 BCE but by the time of the early Iron Age Hallstadt culture (c. 800-500 BCE) it was fully Celtic.[3]

As noted previously there is a surprisingly close similarity between the native Celtic of the Irish and Vedic Sanskrit. Though existing far apart these two cultures show similarities in law, social custom, mythology, folk values, and traditional musical form indicating a likely common origin. Surviving Irish myths and some of the Welsh myths also show remarkable resemblances to the themes, stories and even the names that appear in the Indian Vedas thus demonstrating the conservatism of cultural tradition.[2]

Brythonic & Goidelic

In about 1,000 BCE the Celtic language divided into two. The original form was Goidelic (Gaelic) which, as we have seen, had spread to Britain from Spain and Portugal while, at about the same time, the continental Celts developed their own form of Celtic called Brythonic. It was this Brythonic or Germanic language that entered eastern Britain from the continent, gradually restricting the Goidelic Celtic language of the native Britons to peripheral geographic regions as the dialects of Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (spoken in Brittany, France).

Celtic Goidelic is currently spoken as a mother tongue by about two million people in north-west Europe. The Manx and Scottish Gaelic traditions did not diverge from the ancient Irish parent language until about the fifth and sixth centuries which was about the same time as Welsh, Cornish and Breton were diverging from the early British Celtic language. Native Cornish died out in about 1800.

Old English – 450-1066

The recorded history of Britain and its languages begins with the Roman occupation but it is the Roman departure around 410 that markes the beginning of Old English that lasts until the Norman invasion in 1066.

Spoken word

Though Latin-speaking Roman garrisons occupied Britain for more than 300 years their language was not adopted by the native Celtic Britons as had occurred in France, Spain and Portugal.

At the time of European occupation by the Romans there were several independent Germanic tribes living to the north of the Rhine in today’s Germany, Netherlands and southern Scandinavia. They had remained rebellious and avoided Roman control while the subjugated tribes to the south of the Rhine had adopted the Latin that later became the Romance languages. Roman historian Tacitus in 98 CE notes that the Germanic tribes had little in common but the cult of Mother Earth. Nevertheless, the dialects of the different tribes were probably mutually understandable and derived from a Proto-Germanic.

With the Britons weakened by the Roman departure in the fifth century CE these Germanic peoples seized the opportunity to invade the vacated island and Angles and Saxons crossed the North Sea. North of the rivers Forth and Clyde were tribes of Picts who spoke a Celtic language akin to the Old Brythonic of the Britons to their south, Pictish being later replaced by Gaelic. The history of the Picts is uncertain but they probably arrived in Britain in the Late Iron Age.

From the sixth century the major invading tribes were the Saxons who settled the south-east in the regions of Essex, Sussex and Wessex, while the Angles prevailed in the more northern East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria up to the Firth of Forth beyond which was the land of the Picts. Other lesser invasions came from the Jutes who occupied Kent and the Isle of Wight and the Frisians from just across the North Sea in today’s Holland. Language does not appear to have been a barrier between the Germanic groups but it certainly was with the remaining Brythonic-speaking tribes.

The language that today most closely resembles the Germanic English of 1500 years ago is considered to be that spoken in the lowlands of Dutch Friesland. During this period language preserved its full inflections of nouns, adjectives and verbs.[2]

By 600 Germanic language had achieved what Latin had failed to do, Germanic tribes occupied about half of the country and their many dialects are thought to have contained a vocabulary of about 25,000 words. From the Angles[14] is derived the word ‘English’ which was referred to as a separate written language long before the recognition of French and Italian. As a Germanic language English is grouped with German, Flemish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.

Written word

Acceptance of a particular language is one of the strongest means of establishing a group identity but this can take a long time and has generally been underpinned by the creation of a written language. In Britain we see two distinct written traditions – runes and Latin script.[7]

Runes were invented in about the first century CE, the first brief inscriptions and graffiti appearing in about 200 CE as an alphabetic script derived from Roman Latin or possibly some other Mediterranean written language. Runes would remain in use in Scandinavia for over 1000 years.

In Britain the first runes were found on deer bone carved in about the fourth or fifth centuries and these make up a slightly different Anglo-Saxon alphabet. In the south and south-west use of runes had declined by 650 CE but to the north they remained in use from the seventh to eleventh centuries, probably appropriated by the church.[7]

Though little tradition was retained from the former Romans or Britons Latin remained the written language of scholarship, mostly restricted to church clerics. With the departure of the Roman garrisons Latin had effectively returned to Europe but in 597 CE Roman prelate Augustine (not to be confused with philosopher and Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 CE) with his entourage was sent by Pope Gregory as a Christian missionary to Britain. Augustine was received by Ethelbert, King of Kent, who had married a Christian Frankish princess who had a personal chaplain. With Augustine arrived not only the Christian faith but Latin, parchment and pens, and his appointment as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, which at that time was the major city in Kent.

Within a century both Latin and the Christian faith had spread, at least nominally, throughout the island and had become the vernacular language in Kent.[8] During the period 603-616 the Law of Ethelbert appeared as the first English text written in the Latin alphabet. The story of England’s Christianisation is recounted in excellent Latin by the monk Bede in his History of the Church of the English People in 730 CE although very few people were literate at this time and Latin was painstakingly learned in the religious context of monastery schools.


Codex Runicus

The Scanian law (Skånske lov) written entirely in runes.
A vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved runic texts
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Asztalos Gyula – Accessed 11 Sept. 2015

Old Norse

A new invading force and language (Old Norse) arrived in England when the Vikings attacked the monastery at Lindisfarne in 787 CE, their initial coastal raids lasting for about 70 years during which plundering and looting included the destruction of illuminated manuscripts and many of the written manuscripts of learning dating to Bede’s time. In 850 a settlement fleet of 350 ships delivered people inland supported by Danish armies followed by a period of assimilation in the 9th century. The new language was adopted across the country except in Wessex and the Viking advance was only halted when King Alfred the Great (871-899) defeated a Danish army resulting in a division of the country into two, the Danish sector under Danelaw and the remainder, mostly the former Wessex, Anglo-Saxon.

Bede had produced some of the earliest extended English written text and he was followed by the literary King Alfred the Great (871-899) an intelligent man who had visited Rome, becoming inspired to translate important Latin texts into the peoples’ English. This process was continued in the years around 1000 CE when many literary and ecclesiastical texts and histories were written in the standard West Saxon dialect including the monk-maintained Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, beginning in the 9th century as a record of Anglo-Saxon history and continuing into the 12th century.[19] It was between the 8th and 11th centuries that the anonymously-written folk-epic Beowulf, set in Scandinavia in the late 5th century, tells of the adventures of a Germanic hero and his battle with the monster Grendel … and in so doing establishing a uniquely English poetic tradition though with the familiar themes of duty, loyalty, and honour so characteristic the great Greek and Roman sagas of Homer and Virgil.

The written English of the period extending roughly from Alfred to the Norman invasion of 1066 is now generally referred to as Old English which is probably most closely related to Old Frisian and Old Saxon while the French adopted by the new upper class after the Norman invasion is more aptly termed Anglo-Norman.

By this time English had developed a degree of sophistication unparalleled on the continent.

Middle English – 1066-1470

The language of the British Islas was about to undergo a dramatic change with the invasion of a completely new people from across the North Sea.

Normans & Old French

The successful Norman invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066 resulted in drastic social change as the English ruling class were replaced by French-speaking Normans. Administrative and legal documents were now all written in Latin or French. William introduced the feudal system of social organisation with the English as cottage-dwelling serfs and the French their noble masters living in castles and building magnificent cathedrals administered by Norman prelates. French was the language of the royal court and would remain the official language of the nation for 300 years during the reign of the French Plantagenet dynasty and for some time concerns with lands and business in France outweighed those in England. Henry II (1133-1189) inherited the French districts of Anjou and Maine, his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine adding additional estates in the south such that Henry reigned over not only England but about two thirds of the lands in France.

The Normans, though themselves a Germanic people, spoke Old French which had Latin roots. Overall about 10,000 French words were imported into English, especially those to do with the law, social structure, the Church, royal court, romance, chivalry, trade and medicine and, not surprisingly, ‘castle’ was one of the first. All the while English remaining the accepted language of the common people which was absorbing many words from the Old Norse, a trend most evident in the northern part of the country. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles petered out in the 12th century.

After the Norman invasion few literary works appear until about 1200 after which the once formal spelling and grammar of the former West Saxon is for about 200 years replaced by languages using various dialects and spellings since it was produced largely for small local audiences. Around this time the French royalty relinquished its continental estates and rivalry between the two countries increased leading eventually to the 100 Years War. The return to local dialects resulted in rapid changes in both grammar and vocabulary with many inflections (different endings to nouns and verbs) and this persisted until some order returned in about 1350 as vowel sounds changed and the number of inflections was reduced.

Return to Anglo-Saxon

French gathered in importance into the thirteenth century as the royal families in England and on the continent shared common ancestry and land. Across Europe the French were admired as the epitome of chivalry, the French language enjoying a widespread favour for a period that would not return until the 18th century. The early 13th century was commercially vibrant with a strong wool trade and expanding towns with active craftsmen, self-governoing local communities and a rising middle class. The population of London doubled in this century. But bickering between British and continental royalty came to a head in 1337 marking the commencement of the 100 Year’s War beginning with English victories in France at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and later Agincourt (1415) but tempered by the feats of ‘The Maid of Orléans’ Joan of Arc (1412–1431). Over time the French nobility were forced to work more closely with the English people. The Great Plague of 1348 had depleted the communal-living religious orders eroding the power of Latin and with demand for labour rising wages saw a breakdown of the feudal system and greater use of English in books, schools and business.

From 1349 to 1385 English had gradually been reintroduced to the schools. In 1362 Parliament was introduced using the English language and from this time on legal documentation was to be in English. In 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt led by Wat Tyler and prompted by a universal poll tax attempted to abolish serfdom. As a threat to the French nobility ringleaders, including Tyler, were rounded up and hanged but by now few French lands were in the hands of the English. By the late 14th century English, formerly a language secondary to both French and Latin, had become the language of both the army and law courts and in 1399 Henry II made English the language of kings in a process that had been accelerated by the introduction to England in 1476 of the printing press of William Caxton (c. 1422 – 1491). English was now once again the official language of the country for the first time since Anglo-Saxon King Harold (c. 1022–1066).

The Church

The Catholic Church pervaded all aspects of Medieval life. Through the 14th and 15th centuries a long battle was fought to replace the Latin restricted to the church clergy with words that could be understood by commonfolk, thus removing the priest as an intermediary between beliefs and the Bible. Oxford scholar John Wycliffe (c. 1331– 1384) and his supporters, known as lollards, railed against clerical corruption and privilege and, in 1382, he completed a translation of the Bible into the language of the people but was declared a heretic and his bibles burned.

Bibles in languages other than Latin remained heretical into the early reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) although Wycliffe’s cause was now taken up by William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) who, moving to Cologne, printed a new vernacular translation written in rhythmical and well-crafted prose and a rich vocabulary that would serve as a template for the later King James Bible, the Authorised Version of 1611. Still regarded as a heretic Tyndale was captured, strangled, and burned at the stake shortly before Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation in 1540 when, eventually, a Bible was published in the English language, the Prologue proudly commending it to ‘all people’.
English was now the preferred language of teachers and writers and by the late 15th century French had been completely replaced.

In about 1350 there was a rapid development of the written language as dialects disappeared and a common literary idiom began to emerge with its foundation in London and most evident through the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1342-1400) The Canterbury Tales in the 1390s. French nobility had taken English wives and very gradually the native culture took hold. Then in 1417 when Henry V of England was victorious against the French at the battle of Agincourt he decided that official documents of the Chancery (civil service) and Court would henceforth be written in English with the standardised London dialect.[17] This curbed the many spellings, pronunciations and dialects that were used at this time.

This was in a tumultuous time that included the Peasants’ Revolt and Great Schism, a period of diversity that lead to gradual standardisation of the vernacular that took place between the Norman conquest and late 15th century and marking the period of English language history now referred to as Middle English.

The broad social changes that took place in England were echoed in France, Sweden and Italy in the 11th to 16th centuries. Small states coalesced into larger nation states, each with a national written and spoken language based on Latin script and with a proud national literary tradition. The national language was linked to the source of political power, essentially that of the royal court, and the name of the language was established after the creation of the written form. Language was thus a major force in the birth of the modern nation state.[18]

English was no longer a highly inflected language. Many of the Old English words had gone, replaced or supplemented by thousands of words from French and Latin. Even so, it is notable that while about 90% of the words in the English dictionary are of Greek, Latin, or French origin the spoken language contains a much higher proportion of Germanic words, reflecting common language and usage.[16]

Early Modern English – 1470-1650

From the 15th to 17th centuries English society would be transformed by the introduction of the printing press which provided not only books but newspapers to a wide audience. By 1640 about 20,000 titles had been published in English.[3] Improved education increased literacy and communication gnerally was much more efficient leading to a generally better informed populace.

In 1588 the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I exhorted English sailors to defeat the Spanish armada. England’s population of 3.5 million were to become the heirs to later world naval supremacy. The prevailing languages across the world at this time were: Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese, and Spanish, the latter pair a consequence of recent colonial conquest. With the advent of new maritime trade and exploration the English language would accrue another 10,000-12,000 words like those words naming new delicacies for the table, many from the New World: limes, bananas, chocolate, apricots, tomato, yam, lychee and bamboo. With the Renaissance came the revival of language originating from the classical world of the Greeks and Romans, their philosophy, art, architecture, law, medicine and more as the British elite, from about 1650-1850, completed their education with a Grand Tour that took in the sights of the ancient Mediterranean world.

By 1600 about half the English population had some literacy and with the influx of new words and a royal court that prized rhetoric and composition, not to mention the appearance of the first English-only alphabetical dictionary in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall, the stage was set for William Shakespeare (1564–1616) to explore the English language to the full.

As plays, poetry and prose flourished French, Italian and Spanish were now challenged as the languages of literary preference. The famous Globe Theatre in London produced plays that appealed to all sectors of society and attracted huge audiences from London’s population of 200,000 people. Though the educated were familiar with the classical Cicero, Virgil, and Ovid, Shakespeare himself was not university-educated, attending his local grammar school and church and skillfully combining in his work the elevated language of learning with the monosyllables of the street that conveyed feeling more directly. Shakespeare’s plays and Tyndale’s Bible (and its influence on the Authorised King James Bible) were probably the greatest of all ambassadors of the English language.[1]

Modern English – 1650->

The period of Modern English takes us out of England as the language absorbs influences from English colonies and elsewhere including America, India, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada but not before the Age of Reason had attempted to tame its wild growth and lack of discipline.

Logic and reason

Enlightenment English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) proposed in his great work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that conflict arose because of a failure in communication, through simple misunderstanding of word meanings. Locke was a member of the Royal Society and although his claim seems unlikely, the sentiments were of the times – a scholarly desire to communicate with precision, simplicity, and clarity. Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) was published in Latin but his later Opticks (1704) was written in English and there was uncertainty as to whether the native language had the precision of its classical predecessor.

This was the age of scholars as new technical words were added from classical times and rapidly expanding scientific disciplines. Newspapers were now avidly read and their contents discussed in packed coffee-houses. Language had changed so rapidly that Chaucer had become difficult to read and understand. For some this was a sign of unregulated liguistic decay in desperate need of system and order. To counter this alarming trend would require ‘fixing’ language by standardising its pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. Among the champions of the cause were Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and Samuel Johnson well-known for his dictionary of 1755 containing 43,000 words that he completed in seven years. He acknowledged its many omissions and the difficulty of taming language but was determined that there should be a single correct form of pronunciation. It was a vain hope as Italy and France had already tried unsuccessfully to regulate their own languages.

Class, snobbery, and pedantry played a large role in the demand for ‘correct’ spelling and pronunciation. Cockney pronunciation was said to epitomise the vulgar and uncouth accent of the lower classes, an accusation also frequently levelled at the Australia accent. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) in which Professor of phonetics and elocution Henry Higgins coaches cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to speak like a duchess drew attention to the feigned gentility, airs, graces and pretentions that established social status.

But pronunciation was a minefield. There are seven ways of pronouncing ‘e’ and the varieties of ‘ough’ are infamous and how could you possibly decide who was ‘right’. Playwright Richard Sheridan (1751-1816) argued that if all adopted the same pronunciation there would be a socially equalising effect.

A movement of resistance was headed by people like Scottish poet Robert Burns who countered the Scottish embarrassment in the sound of their pronunciation by taking pride in its uniqueness and colour. English poet William Wordsworth used romantic and revolutionary language to promote linguistic imagination and creativity rather than fixity and standardisation. Eighteenth century prudery had censored the crude words out of Shakespeare but once again it was pointed out how effectively and cleverly he had juxtaposed elegant scholarly language with the direct language of the streets. The Lewis Carol (1832–1898) Alice books, notably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) delighted readers with their word play, neologisms and general flouting of the rules. Slang flourished.

With the Industrial Revolution, perhaps most socially evident in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, came the language of engineering. Greek and Latin were used in the creation of new words, and word meanings were changing at a greater rate.

World War I marked the beginning of a long-term decline of the ‘accepted’ social order – the class system, social pretension, and female inferiority, and the British Empire as internal power in Britain passed to the rising middle class and external power to America.

Today a rough breakdown of word-derivation in the English language is 29% Latin, 29% French, 26% Germanic, 6% Greek and 6% other.


Competition between European states no doubt contributed to the technology that took seafarers across the Atlantic Ocean to subjugate the native peoples of the Americas, replacing native languages with Portuguese, Spanish, and English and leading to a population today (2013) of 954 million compared to the 743 million in Europe. The period of European colonialism spelled the end of indigenous languages on a massive scale.[9] In 1500 the population of Europe was about 70 million with 30 languages while in America the population was about 50 million and over 1000 languages. While the number of substantial languages in Europe has remained about the same over this period, the number of languages in the Americas has reduced to three.

It would be some time after the discovery of the Americas by Columbus in 1492 before the English Pilgrim Fathers stepped ashore from the Mayflower onto today’s New England on the Atlantic coast of America in November 1620, the second English settlement after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. They were puritans, a persecuted minority of religious separatists. Other European countries had claimed territories: Delaware was Swedish and then Dutch before becoming English; Florida was Spanish and it was only in 1804 that Louisiana was purchased from the French. But it was the conservative English that remained and settled, borrowing little from the native language and preserving the language of the Bible through the strict rules taught from the New England Primer (1687).

In 1776 America declared its independence from the mother country. The blend of dialects showed little variation but by 1824 there was already a divergence from English in the trend to pronounce every syllable and in spelling to reduce the number of letters ‘honor’ for ‘honour’, ‘traveler’ for ‘traveller’, ‘ax’ for ‘axe’). Such changes had been presaged in the spelling books that preceded the first of the many editions of Webster’s Dictionary of 1828. This was a mixture of independent American ideas and a desire for uniformity and precision. English snobbery regarded American English as barbaric: ‘We have everything in common with America except, of course, language‘ declared Oscar Wilde.

In 1804 explorer-frontiersmen Lewis and Clark had reached the Pacific west coast and this heralded a freeing up of American English from the conservative hold of the eastern states. Now America’s great rivers, especially the Mississippi and Missouri were opened up as new settlers arrived in numbers, many from Scotland and Ireland, and changing the language. A new entrepreneurial creative spirit introduced new words of trade, gambling, and drinking. Opening up the west saw the native Indians confined to reservations and a frontier spirit exemplified through the cowboy, epic stories of pioneers like Davy Crocket and the popular cowboys vs Indians entertainment of Buffalo Bill (William Cody). The trickle of people to the west became an avalanche when gold was discovered in California in 1849 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, other tracks reducing the need for river steamboats. The mix of peoples and commerce provided a melting pot for language and novelty.

At Sullivan’s Island off South Carolina large numbers of black slaves were introduced to America an their way to the cotton plantations. To prvent plotting their captors had ensured that groups were of mixed language. English became the means of communication but in a much simplified form called ‘gullah’ that is also found in the Bahamas adding many new expressions and constructions to the regular form.

Much of the American spirit is captured in the writing of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) which convey the dialects spoken on the great American rivers by frontiersmen, blacks, boatmen, travellers, businessmen, and conservative easterners.

However, American English was yet to be enriched by the many migrants of the twentieth century – the Germans, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, and Jews and American English took on Central and Eastern European words along with yiddish. Afro-Americans defined much of the music scene. Jazz thrived as did gangsters, movies and Hollywood, all bringing new words.

With World War II came a revival in oratory as Churchill and Hitler strove to inspire with rhythm and rhetoric, Churchill especially reverting to traditional vocabulary in his war-time speeches. Recovery from the devastation of this war resulted in the fifties in growth, suburbia, the comforts of consumer society, mass electronics, and now the influence of social media.


English seems an unlikely language for a population of 1.252 billion people (2013) speaking over 200 languages – mostly Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Kashmiri and Sanskrit. English linguistic influence arrived with trade in the form of the British East India Company and its early 16th century spice trade developing especially in Calcutta. English settlers studying Sanskrit would first postulate the existence of a common founding Indo-European language. English racial arrogance was at its height during Indian colonisation as Christianity was introduced to civilise the natives and elite English-speaking schools, based on the English public school model, were built to create an Indian educated class that could administer an Indian civil service under a British Raj. Hill stations outside the cities and away from the heat allowed the British to enjoy tiffin and pink gins in comparative comfort. Design of a major part of New Delhi by Edwin Lutyens was to become India’s site for government. The occupying British army introduced a kind of slang consisting of Anglo-Indian colloquial phrases with these and many other words entering the English language.

Only with Gandhi would resistance to British linguistic control emerge while today trade has ensured that English can be seen on hoardings in all major Indian cities. Though it is a minority language it expresses internationalism, jobs, money and status. The elite British-style English-speaking schools remain.


Over the first 80 years of Australian settlement about 150,000 convicts were transported, mostly cockneys and Irish. Apart from numerous new words for the flora and fauna of the new land there was a retention of old words that disappeared from the mother country (digger and cobber), criminal slang (chum, swag). Though awareness of social differences existed between convicts and emancipists, new settlers and an increasingly affluent squatocracy, there was, in general, a resistance to authority and the social distinctions so marked in the country that they had left.

The poems and writing of Banjo Patterson expressed the world of the bush and sheep farming.

Australia printed its first national dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, in 1981 based on Hamlyn’s Encyclopedic World Dictionary (1971) also the American College Dictionary (1947) the New Century Dictionary (1927), The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language and the Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1841, second edition).

Most evident in pronunciation are the addition of ‘e’ and ‘o’ to words (tinny, dunny, lefty, smoko, jacko), the popularity of monosyllables and abbreviations, the glottal stop (‘right’ stopped at the end with the throat and without a pronounced ‘t’), and a tendency for sentence endings to rise in pitch as though a question is being asked.


English pirates preying on Spanish treasure ships began English settlement in the Caribbean (named after a ferocious native people the Caribs) on the islands of Nevis and St Kitts. This would produce a rich blending of English and native tongues as black slaves were introduced, first for the tobacco plantations and then the sugar cane, the new dialect known as creole varing from island to island. Many new words and colloquialisms were incorporated into English from this settlement apart from the food words associated with South America and its maize, tomato and potato.

The once-despised proninciations of the new Englishes now stand together as equals – the American drawl, the Caribbean patois, Australian strine – as English continues to evolve.

The Crown
Anyone who has studied English history will have encountered
the contortions of historically accumulated political and geographic categories and groupings.
The diagram above should help you to disentangle the various groupings.
Courtesy C.P.G. Grey

Commentary & sustainability analysis

English had arrived in the British Isles as a Germanic dialect that pushed the native Celtic language of prehistory to the country’s boundaries. Absorbing first other Germanic dialects and the Old Norse of the Viking invasions it was later subjugated by the Latin-based Old French of Norman invaders in 1066. French (with Latin as the language of scholarship and the Church) then prevailed for about 300 years until the late 14th century to be followed by the full flowering of the English language of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays, developing into the Modern English that would envelope the globe. New-Englishes are themselves diverging in a manner reminiscent of the way the Romance languages emerged from Latin.

Many attempts have been made to establish a world-wide common language the best-known being esperanto, but it is English that has prevailed. English did not come to prominence because of its simplicity, richness of vocabulary, or expressiveness – or any other intrinsic qualities – it prevailed by natural selection, the factors of selection being more basic.[1]

Language is an indicator of political and economic influence. As one nation has prevailed over another the dominant culture has asserted its own laguage as a matter of national identity. This has was especially pronounced with the rise of the nation state as European imperialism spread its native languages across the globe in the 15th to 19th centuries – notably through Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English colonies. For sustainability this reflects the influence of the access to resources and technology that determine the scale of social organisation and levels of consumption. Today’s global prevalence of English clearly reflects the once great English empire but also perhaps a language that has proved adaptable to a wide range of situations. It was the language of power, the pound and the dollar and the desire to share money and power has acted as an incentive for nations and peoples to adopt its use.

Language also reflects the cumulative character of knowledge. Though words are constantly being lost from our regular vocabulary dictionaries are getting larger. This is because with greater interaction and interdependence of the world’s people comes the introduction of new ideas. As academic subjects increase in number, proliferating into new disciplines so there is a parallel increase in technical vocabulary. The cumulative increase in knowledge is accompanied by a cumulative increase in words.

The current Oxford English Dictionary consists of 750,000 words. As a historical record no words are removed but new additions are closely monitored to ensure that they are both quite widespread and likely to be long-lived, a difficult task at the interface of different languages and cultural groups.

Let’s make sure that this helps shed light and understanding rather than complexity, confusion, and lack of perspective.

Word numbers
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is a meticulously researched document that contains full entries for 171,476 words (this is omitting inflexions, most obsolete words, archaisms, technical and regional vocabularies, coinages, and neologisms – including 47,156 obsolete words).[4] This we can regard as English words in current use. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.

The myriad names of chemicals and other scientific and technical entities has vastly expanded the known vocabulary to well over a million and growing fast. It is this technical expansion of language that contributes to the idea of progress by accretion of cumulative knowledge. Historically the number of communally available words is related to systems of information storage, beginning with written language, then encyclopaedias and dictionaries made more comprehensive through the printed word, and leading to modern computer databases.

What is of special interest is the repertoire of words that we draw on in our daily conversation. This might depend more on our brain capacity than on the variety of objects that we wish to name.

Clearly we know many more words than we use on a regular basis. The average native English speakers at age 4 knows 5,000 words, at age 8 knows 10,000 words. Adults know 20,000 to 35,000 (average educated adult) words and they learn around 1 new word a day until middle age, their vocabulary growth more or less ceased by middle age. 3,000 words will cover 95% of everyday writing. 1,000 words cover 89% of everyday writing, and the commonest 25 words are used in 33% of everyday writing. At around 10,000+ words you are regarded as fluent in most languages with the words needed to talk about nearly any topic in detail.[5][6]

The key statistic here is that 95% of average English word usage engages 3,000 of the 171,476 words in current use, which is less than 2%.

Is this number of words determined by our brain capacity and, if so, in what way?

Media gallery


Melvyn Bragg – Definitive history of the English language

BBC Documentary – c. 2015
8 Episodes – c. 7 hours
Robin C. Carter


Where did English come from?

TED-Ed – Claire Bowern – 4:54

Why Did English Become the International Language?

LangFocus – 2017 – 7:24
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