English is a language full of stories and connections. Each word has a background in how it came to be a part of this complicated and exciting collection of sounds. In this article, we attempt to provide an overview to some of the more unique aspects of the English language.

How many words are in the English language?

The easy answer is approximately 470,000 words, at least per the third edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But is this fact set in stone? As it turns out, not even close.

Language is constantly changing. As new words become more frequent in the English language, they may find their way into the dictionary. For example, while not considered an English word, “teriyaki” has been used so often, and with such frequency, it is now commonplace. 

Compounding the equation, how many times a word is counted is a predicament. Take a verb such as “pick.” Would the word be counted once, or would pick, picked, picks, and picking each yield a separate tally? The same concept applies to a word with multiple meanings or actions. Consider the word “post.” Post may reference a letter or station, but it could also mean to write something on a social media outlet. Does each definition equate to a different word count, or would it just register once, as the word itself is one word despite the varied meanings?

The question of tallying expands into the method by which expressions are counted. The phrase “word of mouth” could be listed as a word, despite each word already having been calculated, or the pre-inclusion of its separate words could void it. 

English language origin

Experts believe English originated from nomads traveling amongst the European plains about 5,000 years ago. Their dialect was called Proto-Indo-European. Over time, Proto-Indo-European morphed into the ancient variations of Latin, Greek, and German. The Ancient German language evolved to become Dutch, Danish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and eventually English. About 1500 years ago, the influence of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes produced a version of English referenced as “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon.” With land acquisition, trade, and travel, the language continued to morph so much that historians and linguists have divided the English language periods into Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

Is English a Germanic Language? Is English a Latin language?

English is a Germanic language. Long ago, people spoke a Proto-Indo-European tongue, splitting into groups: Latin, Greek, and German. The Germanic language eventually morphed into different languages: English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and a few others. 

We cannot ignore the significance of the Latin-based Romance languages to the English language. English embraces a combination of the Germanic and the French. For example, the word for the animal is “sheep” (an Anglo-Saxon Germanic word), while the meat is mutton/lamb, which is a French derivative. In English history, French and Italian influences made their way into the language. Much like your family’s ancestry may start in one country and over time include people from other countries resulting in a change in the gene code, language is the same way.

Is the English language hard to learn?

English has earned quite the reputation of being difficult to learn. The reason? It is full of contradictions to its rules and inconsistent pronunciation. Below are some of the common reasons why English has earned itself a title of complexity.

Vocabulary

Not just is there an abundance of words with new ones continuously added; some make no sense. The word “hamburger” is made of beef from a cow and not ham from a pig. “Pineapple” consists of neither pine nor apple. Sayings are not a clean translation. “Beat around the bush” does not involve beating or a bush, but means to not take your time getting to the point. Finally, slang can make vocabulary a nightmare. When you think you understand “cool” means cold, you realize that in America, cool can mean amazing or awesome.

Spelling and Pronunciation

Spelling and pronunciation are tricky, as English is derived from so many languages and their respective rules. “Dough” and “tough” said aloud sound quite different. Dough’s ending holds out the “o” sound and tough changes the “gh” to an “f” sound. It would make more sense for tough to be spelled tuff or dough to be doo. The contradictions and twists of spelling and pronunciations are endless with the English language, tripping up even native speakers. These inconsistencies don’t even touch the variations between English speaking countries or even regions within a country.

Sounds not found in other languages

Certain sounds in English are difficult in other languages. Some native Chinese speakers have a tough time telling the difference between r and l sounds. Native Spanish speakers struggle with the b and v sounds. A combination of characters, like str, can be unlike sounds found elsewhere, tripping up learners.

Silent letters

Silent letters are found in the beginning, middle, and end of words. It can be confusing when to voice the letter sound or when to leave it as a silent letter. When placed at the beginning, k can often be silent. The silent k is shown in “knife,” often mispronounced as ka-nife. Yet, the k in kite is a voiced sound. Mid-word inconsistencies like “character” with a silent h, but in “cherry,” the h changes how the c is pronounced. Endings can also confuse like “autumn” with the n silent just as the b is in “thumb.” 

Ordering and emphasis

The natural flow of the language demands practice. For example, “she was a clever little cat” would be the proper structure of the sentence, versus “she was a little clever cat.” Both are technically reasonable, but one is a more natural way of speaking. Where the emphasis falls can change a statement into a question or alter the context of what you are saying.

What are English language idioms?

An idiom is a phrase intending something other than the literal translation of the words. It is estimated the English language has over 25,000 idioms. Using metaphorical language, idioms leave non-English speakers confused as to the actual interpretation of the phrase, yet learning them can be fun. Because they are more colorful than merely stating the literal translation, English-learners tend to find them entertaining. A few examples of idioms are: a hot potato, a piece of cake, and once in a blue moon.

What is the only country in South America whose official language is English?

Spanish and Portuguese are the languages most spoken in South America, with 210 million and 206 million speakers. Next, the indigenous language of Quechua is spoken by about 8 million speakers. Although English comes in next with 5.4 million speakers, it is only one country’s official language. It isn’t Argentina, with 2.8 million speakers, or Colombia with 1.9 million, but Guyana, with 680,000 speakers, who calls English its official language. Although Guyana gained its independence from Britain in 1966, English as its official language stuck. Ironically, most of its citizens speak Guyanese Creole as their first language and not English.

How many phonemes in the English language?

A phoneme is speech’s smallest unit of sound. The English language contains 44 phonemes, although there is some debate in the steadfastness of the number. Some argue there are only 42 phonemes, and some debate even less. 

Despite the number landed upon, because the language consists of 26 letters, some sounds must be produced using multiple letters. The word “pat” has three phonemes: /p/, /a/, and /t/, whereas the word “chop” has three phonemes, not four: /ch/, /o/, and /p/. 

Most common words in the English language

According to Dr. Edward Fry, the top 300 words are used in 65% of English written material, and unfortunately, many of the words do not follow English rules. These words are gathered into lists known as the “Fry Lists.” Below are some of the most common words found in the English language.

 

Most Common Words in the English Language
theofand
atoin
isyouthat
ithewas
foronAre 
aswithhis
theyiat
bethishave
fromorone
hadbyword
Canada (except but)notwhat
allwerewe
whenyourcan

Most common letter in the English language

When evaluating which letters were used with the higher frequency, Samuel Morse discovered “e” was applied far beyond any other letter. This finding stood as significant importance to Morse. He needed to know the letters used the most often so they could be assigned the shortest code.

Oldest word in the English language

The University of Reading released an article in 2009 stating their scientists discovered “I,” “we,” “who,” and the numbers 1, 2, and 3 were the oldest in the English language. Not just that, they were the oldest in all Indo-European languages. Supercomputers installed at the time allowed the scientists to evaluate back 30,000 years.

New words in the English language

New words are being added all the time to the English language. In September 2020 alone, 650 new words were added. As you scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of updates, influences worldwide are on display. 

The July entry for 2020 revealed additions surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Words such as comorbidity, physical distancing, and Zoom found their way into the dictionary.

Not all such entries for 2020 had such a somber feel. In January, some of the words entering the dictionary were “awesomesauce” or “weak sauce.” Even “Chicken Licken” made the list of entries.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists all of its updates from the last twenty years on its website for the public to view. Because language is ever-changing, the years have multiple entries and updates. 

What is the easiest language for English speakers to learn?

Each individual differs on the easiest language for an English speaker to learn, making perfect sense! Every individual learns differently. There is no one size fits all solution for language learning.

Numerous sites listed Norwegian as surprisingly easy for English speakers. Coming from the Germanic languages, Norwegian and English share many similarities. Vinter and Sommer are seasons in Norwegian, which sound remarkably similar to Winter and Summer in English. The grammar is straightforward, and the sentence structure is quite similar. There are many dialects, so you do not need to master a perfect accent. 

Coming in closely behind is Swedish, Spanish, and Dutch. Due to Swedish and Dutch having a similar feel to Norwegian and Spanish’s widespread nature, these three are next in line for ease of learning. 

English words borrowed from other languages

Seeing as English has been molded into the language of today through so many various influences, it would be impossible to list every single word borrowed from another language. However, these are some of our favorites:

 

The English language continues to change, providing new opportunities for cultures to impact future words. Perhaps one day English will adopt a new word originating from your home country! 

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