The English Language

My blog posts on words have led me to consider my native language, English, as a subject worthy of a post all to itself. I am fortunate that, as a writer, I am blessed with one of the richest, most variable languages ever created.

Some facts: English is the most spoken language in the world (if Chinese is divided into its various dialects). It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in 59 sovereign states. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, English now has 171,476 words in active use, or some 220,000 if obsolete words are counted. If all vocabulary is included, the number goes up to an astonishing million-plus.

English is an Indo-European language in the West Germanic language group. Modern English is widely considered to be the lingua franca of the world and is the standard language in a wide variety of fields, including computer coding, international business, and higher education. Its origin notwithstanding, English is one of the richest languages in terms of words borrowed from other languages. French words from various periods of the development of French make up one-third of the vocabulary of English, thanks to the conquest of England by the French-speaking William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066. We also appropriate extensively from Latin and Greek. And it is commonplace for us to steal words from wherever we are operating. Example: During the Vietnam war, GIs invented the term “dinkey-dow” (a crazy person) from the Vietnamese điên cái đu (crazy in the head). They also borrowed from World War II GIs the expression “number one” to mean the best, drawn from the Japanese ichiban. It also led to “number ten” meaning the worst, although, as far as I can tell, the Japanese never used the expression and the Vietnamese never did.

As a linguist in seven languages, I am continuously intrigued by modern English and its rich mixture of sources. And I’m fascinated by the fact that the more intellectual our conversation gets, the more our language borrows from other tongues. What more could a linguist and writer ask?

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