Introduction to The English Language

And, here we go again.  You press play, and another podcast, another story, commences.  And then, it just happens – you can be driving, exercising, you can be savoring a swallow of wine – it doesn’t really matter.  So long as you can hear me and pay some attention, the rest seems effortless – you comprehend the sounds I make.  Your mind’s eye orchestrates the play for you.  These words, these ephemeral little sculptures of breath, set the stage and all the actors in motion in barely a blink, 300 syllables a minute, in fact – that’s how fast we comprehend the spoken word.  The scaffolding of prepositions and conjunctions support the persons, places, and things of nouns, whose form and substance are specified by adjectives and enlivened by the action of verbs.  We are surely some species of magician, you and I, to conjure such worlds of meaning from air.

But why these particular forms of air?  Why these words?  Colonialism certainly has something to do with the history of the English language’s dominance, but that is not the only story.  Another story centers on the English language itself.  Linguistic experts assert the total number of distinct sounds in English to be at least 45, while most other languages offer less than 30.  Of the thousands upon thousands of languages that have existed, none are as expansive as English, which offers tens of thousands of more words than even the richest runners up, like German and Chinese, and twice as many words as more typical lexicons like French.  This enables English speakers to express ideas in higher definition, as it were, capturing even the most minutely divergent contours of experience by recalling just the right synonym.  Did you administer the event or manage the occasion?  You might admit of wrongdoing but never confess a crime.  Something could be awful but not quite terrible, apparent though not obvious, more bizarre than weird, and so on.  English grammar is exceptionally supple too; we can finagle pretty much any word to be any part of speech, making nouns into adjectives, and adjectives into verbs.  We can use the active or passive voice.  We can move words around every which way to strike just the right emphasis.  But even with all those extra words and available layers of meaning, English is still easier to learn than most other languages.  There are around 375 million native English speakers in the world, but another 1200 million have learned it, so that over one and a half billion people can speak English.  Barely over a billion people speak Chinese, less than 650 million speak Hindi, and Spanish speakers number only 420 million.  English is the international language of business, science, politics, and entertainment.  You want to be a pilot for a major national airline, for example?  You’ll need to speak English; it’s the language of intercommunication among all 157 of them.

So dominant is English today that we might assume it’s been a key linguistic player forever.  On the contrary, less than a thousand years ago, English was still a fragmented island language spoken by a few million farmers.  Two thousand years ago, it didn’t exist at all.  So what happened?  How did this once diminutive dialect of a backwater clan on the fringe of Europe come to define the expression of the modern world?

I give you the English Language, and how it began.


Select Bibliography for The English Language

Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 2002.

Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way, William Morrow Paperbacks, 1990.

John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, Gotham Books, 2008.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English: 500AD to 2000, The Biography of a Language, Hodder &Stoughton, 2003.

Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, & William Cran, The Story of English, 3rd Revised Edition, Penguin Books, 2003.