Is English really such a common language?

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

“The English and Americans are two nations separated by a common language,” is a phrase normally attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. The actual wording may vary but the sentiment remains the same. An American is more likely to find a trunk at the back of a car than in an attic while the Englishman spends his time wandering aimlessly around a hotel foyer looking for a lift studiously ignoring all signs to the elevators which he thinks are shoes worn by short celebrities.

Leaving aside such trivialities, what do we mean by ‘common’? Various sources list more than ten uses of the word. There is common property, a common water supply, a common history and a common defence. Well-known information can be described as common knowledge; common mistakes are frequently made by the common man who is often denigrated by those who consider themselves superior. Livestock are grazed on common land; unintelligent criminals may be described as common thieves while the common carotid artery divides into eight branches. Wars are fought by the common soldier, cheap clothing is made of the most common or coarse fabric while there is a familiar medical adage regarding diagnosis that “common things commonly occur.” We, English, even have the House of Commons. The Book of Common Prayer and university colleges have senior common rooms.

But enough of this wordplay, why is English the most commonly used language in the world? It is not as though English has the most native speakers. Mandarin Chinese has 955million native speakers and there are 405 million natives speaking Spanish with English coming in at a modest third on the list, with 360 million native speakers, accounting for only 5.43% of the world’s population. So, the large majority of English users are non-native speakers. Why?

The most obvious reason has to be the rise of the British Empire. At its height, it controlled, in some way or other, over 400 million people which was 23% of the world population at the time and covered over 13 million square miles of the Earth’s land surface.

The English are renowned for their limited ability with foreign languages. Their basic tenet is that if a foreigner does not understand you — shout louder. This arrogance is one of the last remaining facets of the British Empire that led to its downfall. Despite the current historical fashion that the British Empire did some dreadful things including the employment and transportation of slaves, genocide, introduction of lethal disease such as chicken pox to North America, concentration camps in South Africa, unwarranted massacres of thousands of people, famine by robbing the colonies to feed ourselves and our allies, the British left behind many beneficial legacies which are quiety brushed to one side by the activists of today.

Democratic government with all its faults, the benefits of civil service and better crime prevention, vast rail networks, better education for the illiterate, distribution of old world culture — and an increasingly common language in spite of that language often being difficult to learn or even comprehend.

It was Victor Borge who queried why, if the plural of mouse is mice, the plural of blouse is not blice. There are eight different pronunciations of the letters “ough” — cough, bough, enough, bought, although, through and thorough are the seven most commonly recognised by English speakers but how many can pronounce the eighth? The answer is at the end of this article.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines over 615,000 words while the Korean language can call upon more than 1 million words and even the Finnish, Turkish, Kurdish, Turkish, Swedish and Icelandic dictionaries contain more words than the OED. These languages use phonetics, tones, notes and symbols unfamiliar to the English-speaking world despite the fact that English must be one of the most mongrel of languages. We have purloined (itself derived from the French), words from many different languages like bungalow from Bengali, schadenfreude from the Germans, cartoon from Italy, cookie from the Dutch and anonymous from the Greek. Even that selection does not include our debt to the Chinese (ketchup), Arabic (safari), Sankrit (guru)) and Latin (et cetera).

As a nation often apparently obsessed by ancestry, lineage, pedigree and blood lines, all aimed to preserve purity (whatever that is), we English have a remarkably crossbred language which seems to obey very few rules. We can become heated on the subject of ‘rules’ as well. Think of the interminable debates about the LBW rule in cricket. Very few people beyond the English-speaking world would have a clue as what these mad people are getting so heated about. We have arcane laws dating back centuries and yet have great pride in having no written Constitution.

Latin, Greek, French, German and many other languages use different forms of a noun in the nominative, vocative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative while the English more often than not use the same word for each situation. It is called the declension of a noun, pronoun and adjective. Most of these cases were lost with the Classical languages but verbs are a different matter

In the case of verbs, other languages use different forms again which come under the general heading of conjugation. The well-known Latin conjugation of amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatus, amant is simplified by the English as I love, you love, he loves (the one exception), we love, you (plural) love and they love. So that is one rule we have broken but then we revert to following a rule when we say “I am, you are, he is, we are and (just to complicate matters) they are” translated into French, they become “je suis, tu es, il est, nous sommes, vous ètes and ils sont.”

Many foreign speakers are understandably confused by the English use of plurals. I have already mentioned mouse and mice but the usual conversion of a singular noun to its plural is to add an “s”. Thus the plural of “cow” is “cows”, “house” becomes “houses” and “finger” becomes “fingers”. So why are certain singulars spelt in the same way as their plural? We do not speak of sheeps, deers, muds, livestocks or furnitures. On the other hand we are trumped by the French in one particular plural — that for “eye” or “oeil” which becomes “yeux” in the French.

Is it any wonder English has produced writers and poets such as Hughes Mearns and Lewis Carroll who wrote such drollery as –

“Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.”.

and

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Finally, the answer to that eighth pronunciation of “ough” is hiccough although increasingly spelt“hiccup”. Having mastered the intricacies of the English language, for the sake of your sanity, please do not try to interpret the rules of cricket many of which are beyond rational comprehension.

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Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.

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Adrian Arnold

Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.

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