What is English?

This page is about the language called English. Other meanings of English include:

  • the English (plural noun): the people of England
  • English (adjective): relating to England or its people (or the language)

English is a language—originally the language of the people of England. Today, English is the main language of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and more than fifty other countries. (Interestingly, until as recently as 2017 English was NOT the official language of the USA, although it had long been the official language of several US states.)

Worldwide, there are over 400 million native speakers of English, and over one billion more people speak it as a second language. English is probably the third language in terms of number of native speakers (after Mandarin and Spanish); and probably the most widely spoken language on the planet taking into account native and non-native speakers.

Consequently English is sometimes described as a "world language" or a "global lingua franca". It is the world's most widely-used language in international business and telecommunications, newspaper and book publishing, scientific publishing, mass entertainment and diplomacy.

English uses a writing system based on the classical Latin or Roman alphabet—the English alphabet with twenty-six letters that have:

  • small or lowercase forms
    a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
  • and capital or uppercase forms
    A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

English belongs to the West Germanic group of Indo-European languages. Much of its vocabulary is Germanic, heavily influenced by Latin and French, though it has also borrowed many loanwords from other languages all over the world, for example:

  • mattress, algebra (from Arabic)
  • tulip, jackal (from Turkish)
  • bazaar, caravan (from Persian)
  • shampoo, dungarees (from Hindi)
  • fjord, ski (from Norwegian)
  • kayak, igloo (from Eskimo)
  • mosquito, siesta (from Spanish)
  • soprano, casino (from Italian)

lingua franca (noun): a language that is used as a common language between people who speak different languages

borrow (verb): take a word from another language and use it as your own language

loanword (noun): a word that has been borrowed from another language

Contributor: Josef Essberger