English is an extremely important and influential language and yet can be very strange and complex; full of rules and inconsistencies. English has a rich history and has gone through many changes which makes it a beautiful but complicated language. Here are some answers to the things you’ve always wondered about the English language:

Why is English a ‘universal language’?

The simplest explanation is that the English language is spoken worldwide. I’ll elaborate. English is the world’s third largest native language (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) and second largest language by number of speakers (again after Mandarin Chinese). Just to make things complicated these statistics are always changing and therefore there are a few discrepancies between studies, but these seem to be the most widely accepted results. English is the official language of around 70 countries. But why?

A little history.

The spread of the English language began during the 16th century during the growth of the British Empire. At it’s largest, the British Empire covered a quarter of the earth including North America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, most of Western and Southern Africa, South Asia and parts of South East Asia. The English language was therefore used worldwide in systems of government and industry.

The British Empire disengaged soon after the Second World War and power shifted to the USA. Although this obviously had a huge impact on the British, with America being an English speaking nation, it ensured that English stayed the most influential language.

Due to this English is not only the official language of business, science, diplomacy, communications, publishing, trade, mass entertainment, and IT but also the language of seafaring and aviation and so, understandably, is the language most often taught as a foreign language (and is therefore regarded as a ‘world language’). 

English is considered the ‘lingua franca’, this means that it is the language most used as a common language between two people who speak different languages. In fact, most English speakers are non-native speakers, meaning that they weren’t born and/or raised in a place where English in considered a native tongue.

English is also prevalent in film, TV and music and for some, this exposure means that the English language is relatively easy to pick up. Although English has an extensive vocabulary and a highly inconsistent spelling system it has no noun genders, no complicated morphology and is written in the roman alphabet with ties to French and Latin. The ease at which people learn English is obviously subjective and tends to depend on the language/s the user already knows.

Why isn’t the English language gendered?

A lot of languages, approximately a quarter of the world’s languages (especially European and Romance languages), have a ‘grammatical gender’. So why doesn’t English? While English still uses gender specific pronouns (he/she) and a couple of gendered nouns in nautical and aviation languages (the use of ‘she’ when referring to a ship or plane), English, on the whole, doesn’t use gendered nouns. But this hasn’t always been the case. Old English use gendered nouns extensively. In English the noun categories were masculine, feminine and neuter but in other languages the categories can also include animate, inanimate, common and animal.

What is Grammatical Gender?

Grammatical gender is simply a way of categorizing nouns and doesn’t necessarily have a link with ‘natural gender’ (the gender of a person). The ways in which these nouns are categorized depends on the language in question. Sometimes the mythology and cultural views of a place can influence the categorization but in some languages the characteristics of an object are used to decide the word’s category. That said, in many languages several nouns belong to a category that contrasts with the meaning, the gender is instead influenced by the morphology or phonology of the noun. 

The decline of the use of grammatical gender in English began in the Middle English period (specifically the 1200s). In the north of England the decline began slightly earlier in the 1100s. It is thought that the loss of grammatical gender was at least partially to do with the Viking invasions that took place from the 700s to the 1000s. The two groups spoke different languages: Old English and Old Norse respectively, but it is likely that eventually people became fluent in both languages. Both Old Norse and Old English used grammatical gender but they used it differently so it is thought in order to simplify communication the use of gendered nouns was disused.

Some aspects of gender usage in English are due to the movement for more gender-neutral language. This includes the avoidance of using ‘he’ when referring to a person of unspecified gender, instead using the neutral ‘they’. There’s also a movement away from using feminine forms of nouns (such as hostess, authoress etc.) and instead using the ‘male’ noun (host, author) for both genders or using a gender neutral noun (such as firefighter) instead of the male (fireman).

Why does U always follow Q?

‘QU’ is a digraph: a pair of letters that represents a single sound, and there is a complicated history to explain why.

Before the 1066 Norman invasion English didn’t even have a ‘Q’. Instead, words were spelt with a ‘cw’, for example, ‘queen’ was ‘cwen’ and ‘quick’ was ‘cwic’. The French language, however, represented the ‘kw’ sound with ‘qu’, and due to the invasion The French largely influenced the English language. Later on, the French stopped pronouncing the ‘w’ meaning that words we borrowed later like mystique and quiche are pronounced with a ‘k’ sound.

Latin influenced both French and English. In Latin, ‘Q’ was used when there was a ‘k’ sound before a ‘w’ sound and a ‘C’ was used when there was not.

The Romans got their writing system from the Etruscans (a civilization of ancient Italy including Tuscany, western Umbria and northern Lazio) who had three different symbols for the ‘k’ sound:

  • Gamma (Γγ) – the ancestor of C and G, was used before E or I.
  • Kappa (Κκ) – the ancestor of K, was used before A.
  • Koppa (Ϙ, ϙ) – the ancestor of Q, was used before U or O.

Gamma, kappa and koppa originated in Phoenician but represented different sounds. Koppa represented a sound that was made in the back of the throat; a sound that English doesn’t have, but Arabic does. In the words English borrows from Arabic this sound is represented with a ‘Q’. Interestingly, there are foreign loan words used in English that do use q without u, which are mostly Arabic and Hebrew.

I before E except after C?

I before E except after C is a mnemonic rule for English spelling that English speakers are taught (or at least used to be) throughout school. However, there are so many exceptions to the rule that some people deem it not worth learning. The general rule is that in words where an ‘e’ and an ‘i’ are paired the user can work out in which order they should be according to whether there is a C preceding it or not.

While this rule works for some words (believe, friend, receive, ceiling) there are a lot of exceptions (species, science, seize, vein, weird).

Some new rules have been created in an effort to reduce the exceptions. They are:

  • Exclude cases where the spelling represents the ‘long a’ sound.
  • Include only cases where the spelling represents the ‘long e’ sound.

The ‘rule’ mnemonic has also been extended by some to “I before E except after C or when sounded as ‘EYE’ or ‘AY’ as in Einstein or weigh. Neither, weird, foreign, leisure, seize, forfeit, and height are exceptions spelt right, but don’t let the C-I-E-N words get you uptight.” But this is quite long and understandably is not very efficient or useful to a lot of people.

A lot of the problems in spelling with ‘ie’ or ‘ei’ stem from Early Modern English when spelling was not fixed or standardized and therefore ‘ie’ and ‘ei’ were often used interchangeably.

Why does English have silent letters?

English is not the only language to use silent letters, in fact, there are very few that don’t. One language that doesn’t (allegedly) is Devanagari, a branch of Sanskrit. However, it is difficult to compare the writing systems of two languages that use different alphabets. The Sanskrit alphabet doesn’t translate to the Roman alphabet exactly so the idea of ‘silent letters’ is different.

There are multiple reasons why English does have silent letters:

  • Some silent letters exist because of the history of language. The sounds of the letters have changed over time and therefore the words we use now have ‘ghost letters’ that used to be sounded but no longer are.
  • Some silent letters come from other languages. Many English words have been borrowed from other languages and so the spelling stays the same but the pronunciation is anglicised.
  • Some silent letters are diacritic letters. This means that rather than being pronounced they are used to change the pronunciation of another syllable in the word.
  • Some silent letters exist because of new technology. When the printing press came to England (the late 1400s) many of those who bought the new technology were Flemish and German. At this point spelling was not standardized so the Flemish and German would spell words the way the were used to seeing and pronouncing them. Because of the power of the printing press some of these spellings stuck. 

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