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Nine Surprising Facts About the English Language

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If you read and listen to our Everyday Grammar program each week, you know it has detailed explanations of grammar, sentence structure and language usage. The show provides a lot of information for English learners. Some of you may worry about how you are going to use it all. But you need not worry too much. Today I'll give some reasons you why.

I will share nine facts about English that show how strange and wonderful the language can be and may ease some of your doubts.

1. Let me start with this: English is not the official language of the United States. The country, in fact, does not have an official language. While some states have named English, the US central government has made no such declaration. English is, however, the most common language spoken nationwide. Spanish is the second, with more than 40 million speakers. The United States is a nation of immigrants, with a large percentage of citizens for whom English is a second language.

2. Here is another fact: Of the ten most widely spoken languages, English is the only one that does not have a guiding institution to set language standards. That means that while experts like to dictate language rules, they do not have any official or decisive power. So what we know and teach as "official" is really just what we are taught in school and continue to use in everyday situations.

There has been debate for centuries over whether a guiding institution is needed for English. But many argue it is not, and that English should remain a "democratic" language.

3. The lack of such an organization is likely one reason that nearly 4,000 new words are added each year to the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. Such fast growth is also largely the result of technology, which has led to several new words and new uses for old ones. Social media, too, is quickly spreading new words through the general public, which then leads to the words appearing in dictionaries.

4. In addition, many of the words added to the OED in recent years are portmanteaus. A portmanteau is a word made from shortening and combining two other words. A few examples are: 'brunch,' which combines the words 'breakfast' and 'lunch'; 'motel,' which combines the words 'motor' and 'hotel'; and 'carjack,' from the words 'car' and 'hijack.'

A motel is an inexpensive hotel that people usually stay in when traveling long distances by car.
A motel is an inexpensive hotel that people usually stay in when traveling long distances by car.

5. Speaking of dictionaries, the word "set" has the most definitions of any English word, with well over 400 in the OED. The word "run" is a close second, with nearly 400 in the same dictionary. But the growth of machines and technology is causing "run" to grow much faster than "set." One can run a computer program, for example. Buses also run on roads and trains run on railroad tracks.

6. This next one may shock you: The shortest possible grammatically correct complete sentence in the English language is a word made of just two letters: Go! It is a command, which is a sentence that asks or tells people to do something. In a command, the subject (you) is not spoken or written. Instead, it is simply understood.

7. Our next fact is also a fun little way to test your listening skills. Listen to the following sentence and think about what is unusual or special about it:

He believed Caesar could see people seizing the seas.

This sentence has seven words with the vowel sound /i:/. There are seven ways in English to spell the /i:/ sound – yes, seven! You will hear more about the oddities of English spelling in a minute.

8. But first, I offer you the opposite idea: one spelling that makes many sounds. The letter combination o-u-g-h can be said several ways.

Listen to some examples:

/?f/ as in enough

/a?/ as in drought

/u?/ as in through

/o?/ as in although and though

/ɑ?/ as in bought and thought

/?:f/ as in cough and /?p/ as in hiccough

The word "hiccough" is more commonly spelled h-i-c-c-u-p but both spellings are acceptable.

9. You may be wondering how English spelling got to be so…odd. There are many reasons, some of them historical. One involves William Caxton, an English writer and businessman.

Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476 to produce and sell books. The English language was changing quickly during this time and there was no general agreement on its rules. Caxton tried to establish a standard spelling system, but there were other problems. One mistake he made was to employ workers from what is now Belgium to help with his printing business. The workers' command of English was weak.

Pictured is a 19th-century model of a printing press machine from the British company Harrild & Sons Limited.
Pictured is a 19th-century model of a printing press machine from the British company Harrild & Sons Limited.

As more printing houses opened in England, each had its own spelling. During that period, typesetters were also paid by each line, so they often spelled words longer on purpose. As you can imagine, keeping a standard system was impossible.

Centuries later, in 1828, an American named Noah Webster published an official dictionary of American English whose spellings we still use today.

So, now that you've learned some surprising – and even funny – things about English, you may find the language less frightening. And hopefully, you will keep a sense of humor as you continue to work at it!

I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

grammarn. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language

institutionn. an established organization

dictionaryn. a book that lists words in alphabetical order and contains their meanings, forms and pronunciations

voweln. a letter – such as a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y – in English that represents a sound

spelln. to say, write, or print the letters of word

oddityn. the quality or state of being strange or unusual

hiccoughn. a sound in your throat that sometimes happens after you have eaten or drunk too much or too quickly

printing pressn. a machine that prints books, magazines, newspapers and other documents in large numbers

typesettern. a person who arranges words on paper for the purpose of printing them

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