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The English language

Preamble: The pages on this subsite give an overview of the major differences between English and other world languages. The comparisons can only be fully understood if the reader knows something about the nature of the English language. The information below provides the necessary background.

It is important to state at the outset that there are several English dialects or varieties. The grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of American native speakers of English are not identical to the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of British speakers of English. Indeed, within Britain itself there are varieties of spoken English that are to a large extent mutually unintelligible.

The variety of English that is the basis of comparison in these web pages is that used by educated, middle-class people from the south of England. This variety is sometimes called Standard English or BBC English or Oxford English. The phonology of this variety is called Received Pronunciation (RP).

Introduction: English is a member of the Germanic language family, which in turn belongs to the Indo-European language family. There are over 350 million native speakers in several countries across the globe, from Canada to New Zealand. It is the joint or second official language in many more.

English is the language of international business and politics, and by far the most commonly-learned second language.

Alphabet: The English alphabet consists of 26 Roman letters. There are no diacritics such as the umlaut in German or the circumflex in French. The exception is words imported from other languages, e.g. rôle, naïve from French. However, these words are increasingly written without the diacritic, even in formal English.

Although the varieties of spoken English sound very different, all native-speakers use the same writing conventions.

Phonology: Standard English has about 20 vowel sounds (12 pure vowels / 8 diphthongs) and about 24 consonant sounds. Speakers of languages which have fewer vowel sounds often have difficulty making a distinction between words like sit / seat; pull / pool; food / foot. The same applies to the consonants clusters in many English words: strength; splash, chronicle. Non-native speakers may say such words with an extra vowel sound or leave out the syllable altogther.

The pronunciation of English words such as this, thin, clothes, thirteenth, months inevitably causes problems for learners who do not need to use the tip of the tongue to produce words in their own language.

Further difficulties for learners attempting to produce spoken English that sounds natural are the unpredictability of English word stress, the elision of weak syllables and the insertion of consonants (liaison). Examples:

English is a stress-timed language.† Its intonation patterns, therefore, are different from those of syllable-timed languages like French, Spanish or Hindi. This accounts for the heavy English accents that many native speakers of those languages retain even after years of speaking English and the acquisition of flawless grammar.

Grammar - Verb/Tense: In one respect English verb grammar is easy. It does not have a large number of inflections such as exist in French or Russian. For example, there are only 4 forms of the regular verb to ask: ask, asks, asked, asking. On the other hand, English does have a large number of possible tenses (verb forms); and their designations are not always helpful to the learner. The past simple tense, for example, can be used to talk about the future: If I won a lot of money, I would buy a new house. Many languages do not have a continuous tense form, so English learners may make mistakes such as: I had a bath when the phone rang.

Indeed, the most significant problem for learners is to decide which tense (verb form) is required in English to correctly express the meaning that they wish to convey. More on this.

A further feature of verb grammar that causes difficulties is the correct choice of modal. Modal verbs are heavily used in English to convey shades of meaning in the areas of compulsion, ability, permission, possibility, hypothesis, etc. For example, learners have problems understanding the difference between: He must have done it and He has had to do it.

Grammar - Other: Not only are verbs largely uninflected in English, but also nouns, pronouns and adjectives. The articles and other determiners never change their form*. This makes it much easier to avoid mistakes in English than in, say, German which has large numbers of inflections in the various parts of speech.

Meaning in English is conveyed largely by word order. In the following sentences we know who is biting whom by the order of the words: The dog bit the man. / The man bit the dog. Compare this with German. Because German is a highly inflected language, a more flexible word order is possible. So, Den Hund biss der Mann translates as The man bit the dog.

Word order in English sentences becomes significantly more difficult when indirect objects or adverbials are added to the standard Subject-Verb-Object syntax. Most learners of English have problems ordering words correctly in longer, more complex clauses.

The article system is another feature of English grammar that causes some students enormous difficulties; particularly, of course, those whose native languages do not use articles.

Vocabulary: English has the largest vocabulary of any language. Depending on counting methods it has approaching one million words. The Anglo-Saxon lexical base has been supplemented by the influx of words from Latin and Greek, from French and the languages of countries colonized by England.

English shares cognates with most other languages, but a significant number of these are 'false friends'. For example, the German / English words Maus / mouse; Antenne / antenna; trink! / drink! are identical in meaning and virtually so in pronunciation. The German word sensibel, however, translates as sensitive, not sensible. and is stressed on the second syllable. Similarly, the German word also does not mean too as in English, but therefore, and is pronounced to rhyme with shall (not all).

A significant feature of English vocabulary that can cause severe difficulties for learners are phrasal verbs. Sentences such as I put it down to the weather, or I made it up with my sister, are usually impenetrable to non-native speakers. Unfortunately, phrasal verbs are extremely common in colloquial language, where they are inevitably preferred to their equivalents whose source is Latin or Greek (put down to = attribute / make up with = reconcile).

Miscellaneous: A final feature of English that is enormously problematic for some native-speakers and non-native learners alike is the unpredictable* correspondence between word sound and word spelling. Compared to 'phonetic languages' such as Turkish it is often impossible for learners to predict the spelling of a word they first encounter in speech, or the pronunciation of a word they first encounter in writing.

* In fact, a majority of English words do conform to spelling patterns. The difficulty for the learner, however, is that the words which don't are the most common words in the language, and thus the ones that learners encounter first.


† In a stress-timed language such as English, syllables are stressed at roughly regular intervals. Since it is the key words (typically nouns, pronouns, verbs or adjectives) that are stressed, the intervening words (typically articles, prepositions, etc.) get shortened and weakened ('swallowed'), so that two or three of them together may take up the same amount of time as the single stressed syllables preceding and following them. For example, in the statement: I like walking in the rain, the syllables I / like / wal / rain would probably be stressed and each occupy about the same amount of time as the 3 syllables kin / in / the together. (Note: There is not total agreement among linguists about the stress-timed nature of English.)

In a syllable-timed language such as Italian every syllable occupies roughly the same amount of time.

English is a non-tonal language. Thus it sounds very different from tone languages such Chinese or Vietnamese. In tone languages pitch is used to distinguish word meaning. So a word said with high pitch may have a different meaning than the same word said with a low pitch. In English, changes in pitch are used to emphasize or express emotion, not to give a different word meaning to the sound. It is not surprising that native speakers of tone languages often have strong accents when speaking English.


* This / that change to these / those in the plural.

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