Question Bank

Where does English come from?

By Jonathan Culpeper

If you wound the clock back 2,000 years and were listening to some people in Britain having a conversation, you would not hear the English you are familiar with, nor even an old-sounding form of English. This is because you would be listening to a Celtic language (to give yourself a rough idea of what this would sound like, think of today's Welsh). So, where does English come from? If you were standing in northern Germany, the chances are that you would recognise the odd word. English has its roots in the Germanic dialects of the tribes of north-western Europe.

How did this 'English' end up in England? According the Venerable Bede, a monk writing at Jarrow, the year AD 449 saw the arrival of three Germanic tribes - Angle, Saxon and Jutish. The problem is that Bede made this remark about three hundred years after the event, so we must treat it with some caution. It is unlikely that there were three distinct tribes. Moreover, it is not the case that that particular year saw some kind of dramatic conquest by the Anglo-Saxons. Prior to that date, Britain had had trading links with northern Europe and some settlement had taken place; after that date, although the influx of Anglo-Saxons increased, there was no instant conquest, but a rather slow movement from the east of Britain to the west, taking place over some 250 years.

What happened to the native Celtic-speaking tribes of Britain? Where the Anglo-Saxons settled there is evidence of some integration with the local population. However, the Anglo-Saxons never got as far as the northern and western extremes of Britain. The Celtic languages - notably Cornish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic - proceeded relatively independently of English in what are now Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

So, can one say that the English spoken today comes from the Germanic dialects of those tribes from northern Europe? Not exactly. In terms of the structure of English (its grammar and sound system) and also its most commonly used words, one can trace a clear line back towards those settlers and one can draw parallels with other Germanic languages. But the English we speak today has been influenced by many other languages. This is most noticeably true of vocabulary, where English has assimilated a multitude of words from other languages, but particularly from French and Latin


Which is the most popular language in the world?

By Paul Baker

The language which has the most native speakers (e.g. people who speak a language as their first language) is Chinese, which accounts for about 1 in 5 speakers on the planet. After that, come English, Spanish and Hindi-Urdu (two languages which are written down differently, but sound similar enough to be understood by both sets of speakers when heard) - each of these account for about 1 in 20 speakers at the moment, although it's predicted that English is likely to slip to 5th place and be replaced by Arabic at some time in this century.

However, as well as first-language speakers, we can also count people who learn a language as a second language at school (second-language speakers). If we consider these people, then Mandarin Chinese is still at the top, with 1,052 million speakers, English comes second with 508 million speakers, Hindi-Urdu is third with 487 million speakers and Spanish is fourth with 417 million speakers.

We can also consider the number of countries across the world that use certain languages. So while English doesn't have more speakers than Chinese, it's spoken in many more countries than Chinese. As well as been spoken as a first language in the UK, the USA, Ireland, Australia, it's also the "official language" of countries like India and Singapore. And it has a special status in countries like China, Russia, Japan, Greece and Poland, where it is often taught as a foreign language.

English also has a special status in that it's used as a "world" language in lots of different ways. So about 80% of internet communication is in English, many global satellite television channels broadcast in English (CNN, Sky News, MTV), certain products (McDonalds, Coke, Pepsi) bring the English language to many places in the world, about 99% of European organisations use English as an official language, and the universal form of language used across the world by air traffic control centres is a simplified version of English. Therefore, English has impacted on the world more than any other language, even though it doesn't have the most speakers.

Whether English will continue to be known as the closest thing to a global language we have though is another matter.


Do people speak less correctly now than they used to?

By Gerry Knowles

People have always spoken their own language perfectly, but vary in their ability to speak someone else's. During the time of the British Empire, there was a widespread belief that polite Londoners spoke correctly, and that everybody else got their English wrong. This view culminated in the early 20C in "Received Pronunciation", the accent of English public schoolboys, which was adopted for broadcasting by the BBC. Up to the 1970s there was intense social pressure on educated English people to modify their speech to make it closer to RP. In the modern world, global English is spoken in many different ways, and British English is one variety among many. Even in England the speech of young people is influenced not by RP, but by Estuary English, a less exclusive accent spreading from the South East of England. Young people today do not speak 1920s English, but do speak perfect 'noughties' English.



Why do people swear and should we stop them?

By Paul Baker

It's thought that swearing first began as a form of 'word magic', connected to religion, in early civilisations. People were more likely to believe in divine beings who had the power to punish them. So people called on divine beings in order to curse people they didn't like. This became a tabooed use of language, and sometimes, just saying the name of the divine being was tabooed.

In Norse cultures, swearing, or 'flyting' as it was known, was a form of ritualistic entertainment. People would show off their creative skills, inventing clever insults for each other, in front of an appreciative audience.

There's also a theory that swear-words are kept in a different part of the brain to other words, and these words come out automatically when we're very angry or emotional in some way - for example, if we hit our finger with a hammer. Some people who have damage to a part of the brain which means that they can't use language, can still swear. Tourette's syndrome, which is associated with people swearing uncontrollably, is also connected to damage in a part of the brain which is to do with control and inhibition. If our brains do have this special place which is reserved for swearing, then perhaps we have evolved swearing in our brains for a useful purpose - as an alternative to responding with violence when we get angry.

Campaigns to stop people from swearing in the past have only really had short-term successes - we now have more swearing on television than we did in the 1960s, despite campaigns by people like Mary Whitehouse and the NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) to regulate language in the media. Increased exposure to swearing may mean that some swear-words lose their power to shock us, although it's likely that they will be replaced by newer words. It's certainly the case that many of the words that the NVLA disapproved of in the 1960s, no longer have the same power to shock or upset people. It would certainly pointless in banning swear-words altogether. Most people are aware about what sort of language is appropriate in specific contexts and self-regulate their swearing accordingly.