The English Language

My recent post on gender in languages reminded me of my good fortune to be a writer using English. It is the most widely spoken language in the world. It’s the primary language in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and several island nations in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is also an official language of India, the Philippines, Singapore, and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa. And English is the first choice of a foreign language to study in most other countries of the world. It has long since become the global lingua franca. Something like a third of the world’s population, some two billion persons, now use English.

That puts me as a professional linguist at a distinct disadvantage. In my travels all over the world, my attempts to speak the native languages of the countries I visited invariably led to responses in English. It turned out that people everywhere spoke English better than I spoke their language. The only exception was Vietnam during the war years, and even there ordinary people were so anxious to practice their English that I was discouraged from using the three languages of that country, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.

But my primary role in life is not as a linguist but as a writer. That American English as my native tongue has proven to be enormously beneficial. For one thing, English is probably the most versatile language now in existence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are an estimated 171,146 words currently in use in English, and there are another 47,156 obsolete words. As my readers know, I particularly enjoy delving into archaic usages in my writing.

So I am blessed with having at my fingertips an endless variety of words to allow me subtle distinctions not possible in other languages. If I want to say something is strong, I have the choice of almost endless synonyms, including robust, sturdy, stout, durable, solid, resilient, tough, heavy-duty, and hard-wearing. And that’s only in one sense of the word “strong.”

More tomorrow.

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