Friday, 9 July 2010

The English language: a personal view

Is English innate? I have read many stories of foreign people knocked unconscious and wake up speaking English. I once recall reading the account of a German man who fell down the stairs and became unconscious. On waking up the German man could speak English. He could not speak a word of it beforehand. Or, so the story goes.

Much to the annoyance of her friends an American woman from Florida once woke up after a mighty fall speaking English in an English accent. But English is not the best language in the world because of this speculation, no matter how compelling the stories.

The best writer in the world is, as many argue, Shakespeare. I am not a fan since I have not found his plays that entertaining. However, I cannot argue against the quality and world renown of Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare also introduced new words and sayings into the English vocabluary. “All the worlds a stage” is a metaphor but probably created by Shakespeare.

English evolved from Anglo-Saxon (German) and, after an invasion by Viking Normans in 1066, French became the language of the ruling elite. It was not until Henry V in the 15th century that French was pushed into second place amongst English Royalty and others at Court. Later, (Dr Johnson et al) attempts were made, to introduce more Latin and Greek into the English language.

In Academia (and Medicine) words such Biology or Biography reveal Greek roots. Bios, means life in Greek. Lampos is another ancient Greek word which has been Anglicized as “lamp”. Though, its meaning remains the same as lamp or light. So, it might be considered that English has absorbed four languages in one. Four strings to one bow.

Add to this about sixteen thousand phrasal verbs eg a blazing row, a heavy smoker or, even, **** off. Add to this thousands of collocations – sayings and phrases that go together - and the English language numbers 550,000 words. More than enough for communication of the best and most profound quality.

Roughly speaking it is possible to identify the origins of certain English words through the number of syllables employed. Many popular – most used – Anglo Saxon words such as; if, is, am, are, be, the, it, for, of etc etc are one syllable. French, Latin and Greek words tend to be more than one syllable.

The French word “number” is said to be the most used French word in the English language and is two syllables. Although, I would of thought the word “menu” runs it close for usage. In addition to French, many Latin and Greek words are three, and even, four or five syllables.

English is not just the best language in the world because most people seek to speak it. It is the most widely spoken language in the world bar none. And, not just because of the great writers from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and America who have contributed to this outstanding language. No, it is a great language because it has also evolved according to necessity. A living language.

Not the top down introduction of words as prescribed by the powers that be in Spain for Spanish or many other continental countries. In English there is the genuine growth of a language spoken by the people and what appears in the Oxford English Dictionary has not been decided by academia but by common usage.

I said that there are well over half a million words in the English language. There are about 185,000 and 180,000 words in German and Chinese languages respectively. Enough, for a decent conversation, no doubt. But not as many as English.

The English language really is the best language in the world. And, as we have seen, for many different reasons.

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