English is the most widespread language, but you might be surprized to find out some new interesting facts (based on ELT Global Blog information).
1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it
L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).
For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.
2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this
According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.
3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic
Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.
4. Most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins
If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.
The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.
5. For more than a century, the English aristocracy couldn’t speak English
William the Conqueror tried to learn English at the age of 43 but gave up. He didn’t seem especially fond of the land he had conquered in 1066, spending half of his reign in France and not visiting England at all for five years when in power. Naturally, French-speaking barons were appointed to rule the land.
6. …which is why Latin words sound more prestigious than Germanic ones
Think about the difference between a house (Germanic) and a mansion (French), or between starting something and commencing, between calling something kingly or regal. English has a huge number of close synonyms, where the major difference is the level of formality or prestige. The prestigious form is almost always the Latin one.
7. The concept of “correct” spelling is fairly recent
There are many reasons why English spelling is so erratic including the lack of an academy, the contributions of Noah Webster (see below) and the introduction of William Caxton’s printing press just before major changes in pronunciation. But the idea of correct or incorrect spelling wasn’t really considered important until the 17th Century when the first dictionaries were published. Even then, it was largely a debate for academics and writers.
8. One man is largely responsible for the differences between American and British spelling
Noah Webster, whose name you still find on the front of many American dictionaries, was a patriotic man. Born in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758, he believed that a great emerging nation such as the USA needed a language of its own: American English.
Webster found the English in the textbooks of the time to be corrupted by the British aristocracy, with too much French and Classical influence. He was to write American books for American learners, representing a young, proud and forward-thinking nation.
9. -ize is not an American suffix
There is a popular belief that words such as popularise/ize, maximise/ize and digitise/ize have different spellings in British and American English.
10. The English language will change a lot during your lifetime, like it or not!
The only thing that is consistent in language is change. When a language stops changing, it becomes purely academic, like Latin or Ancient Greek.
New words are being coined all the time. If you asked someone twenty years ago whether they had googled the person they had just friended on facebook, they would stare at you blankly (spell-check still gives them wiggly red lines of disapproval).
Vocabulary changes more rapidly than grammar, but even English grammar is evolving.