Language Dossier

The English Language

Where is English spoken?

English is spoken as a first language by 350 million people -in Britain, North America, Australia, New Zealand, India and parts of Africa and the Caribbean. In addition, it is used as a second language by about 200 million speakers.

Where does English come from?

"Old English" was spoken in Britain by the Anglo-Saxons about 1,500 years ago. It was then modified by the many different races who came to live in Britain over the centuries. Most importantly, the English were conquered by William of Normandy in 1066. The Norman rulers of Britain spoke a type of French, and, after the Norman invasion, English vocabulary was significantly influenced by Norman French.
Often two words in modern English mean the same or nearly the same thing:
From Anglo-Saxon                            From Norman French
other                                                  additional
lord                                                    master
pig                                                      pork
to let                                                  to allow

Foreign Words in English

Lots of words in modern English have been imported from other languages too.
Greek:     biography, catastrophe
Latin:       exit, species
Indian:     thug, bungalow
Arabic:    algebra, sofa
Turkish:   kiosk, yoghurt
Italian:     pizza, opera
Dutch:     yatch, bully
Spanish:  mosquito, vanilla
French:   chef, menu

What is easy about English?

On the one hand, English grammar is relatively simple for foreign students to learn. For instance, we only have one subject pronoun you . A lot of other languages have two or three words for you. Also English nouns aren't divided into masculine or femenine (or neuter) as in some languages. Furthermore, English verb forms aren't too problematic. That is to say, the construction of tenses in English isn't very complex. The past verb ate, for example, doesn't change with I, you, he, she, it, we or they.

What is difficult about English?

The use of English tenses is, on the other hand, quite difficult. When do we say "I'll do it" and when  do we say "I'm going to do it"? Another thing that causes problems is spelling. Some words that are spelt differently are pronounced the same - piece and peace, for instance. Some words with nearly the same spelling in fact sound very different - know and now, for example.

The Yiddish Influence

Yiddish is a language spoken by Jewish people of central and eastern Europe, made up partly of words from the local languages and partly of Hebrew words. Yiddish has had an influence on English, especially in parts of the US where there are many Jewish people, such as New York City. English words that come from Yiddish include words beginning with the letters "sch", such as schlep and schmaltz.

Old English Terms

art - are

bequeath - give or leave by will; to hand down.

beseech - request, ask.

besought – asked, made request. (past tense of beseech)

betwixt – between.

canst - can.

cometh – comes, or coming.

dearth - (durth) scarcity or scant supply of anything; want or lack.

dost - do, does.

durst – dare; to have the necessary boldness or courage for something.

fere - friend, companion.

fullsome - rich, plentiful.

hath - equivalent of modern has.

henceforth - from now on.

hither - here.

midst – middle, or among.

nary - none; absolutely nothing; not even close to anything.

naught – nothing. (The modern word “not” is actually an abbreviated form of this Olde-English word, which was itself a shortened form of “no whit” or “not a whit”)

nay – no.

onuppan - above.

overmany - a lot.

pece - silverware, fork.

prithee - contracted form of  "I pray thee", i.e., I ask of you, I beseech thee, etc.

proby - apprentice.

pudh - horrible.

seek - to go in search or quest of; to look or search for.

shall or shalt – will.

sirrah – an angry, disrespectful way of addressing a man.

syllan - sell.

tallt - to stand above others in a snobby way.

tarry - to linger, deliberate, wait, stay, or pause.

thou - you

thee - you

thine - your

thither - there.

thy - your

trow – to think or suppose.

whence - from where.

wax - to grow, to become.

whither - to where.

wilt –will.

wist - knew; past tense of wit.

wit – to know.

wrought - done, made, created.

ye pron you

ye determiner (a word used especially in the name of pubs and shops, in order to make them seem old and historical) the: Ye Olde Dog and Duck (pub sign)

ye adv yes opposite: nay.

yore – years ago.

Cool Links:

Ye Olde English Sayings

Click here to find the origin of common English phrases.

More Links:

What's the meaning of this?
Common English phrases and their meanings.

Why do we say that?
Phrases whose origin dates back to the 1500's.