My language, my home: English

One of the most interesting aspects of English has to be the variations of the language that are spoken globally. English is spoken in countries which are on the other side of the world from each other, and this offers some staggering diversity.

By Sarah Robinson / 8.6.2017

Find more texts of the “My language, my home” series here.

The areas where English is the first, and more often than not sole language of the population can be broken down into three broad locations: the British Isles, Australasia and North America. (Although there are other important countries and states in Africa and the Caribbean.)

Countries where English is an official language © A. Meunier

The most notable differences between the dialects are found in spelling and vocabulary. Australian and British speakers would say autumn, lift, and wardrobe, whereas Americans would use fall, elevator, and closet. British spelling will use -ise rather than the American -ize for verbs (e.g. to specialise, organise, or memorise) and will spell nouns with -our rather than -or (e.g. favourite or colour). While the dialects of English may vary in style, vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, it is extremely rare that someone from, say, Canada would not be able to understand someone from New Zealand, and vice-versa. If there is any mutual incomprehensibility, it will frequently boil down to the strength of accent one or both people have, but in my experience the broad meaning will usually be conveyed.

Happily, English can come across as quite a straight-forward language, which I tend to agree with. One of the best illustrations of this is our tendency towards noun strings. A string of nouns is simply a list of nouns, one after the other, which serves to modify the final noun without making use of tricky things like adjectives or prepositions. They are most often used in business or political administrative contexts, but they can be found elsewhere too. If, for example your local council is constructing a park to mark an anniversary, it would be perfectly valid to call it the ‘anniversary park construction project’. Problems arise though if the jargon is left to run away with itself, leaving the meaning hard to decipher, especially for non-native English speakers. My personal favourite comes from a government website, a report entitled ‘independence payment assessment criteria equality analysis.’

As a native English speaker, one thing I don’t envy of those learning English is dealing with the spelling and pronunciation of words. While it’s true that English doesn’t have such linguistic complexities like grammatical gender, it does present a certain ‘rulelessness’ at points. Take for example the letters ‘ough’ and compare the differing pronunciation of the following words: rough [ruhf], plough [plou], though [th oh], through [throo], hiccough [hik-uhp], and thorough [thur-oh].

If you want to become even more confused, have a look at an excerpt of a poem written just on this subject, entitled ’The Chaos’ by Gerard Nolst Trenité. The poem contains around 800 of English’s most confounding spelling and pronunciation irregularities. It is worth noting that even native speakers do not get all of this poem right!

“Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.”

To read the full version of the poem click here, or listen to the poem being read aloud as it (mostly!) should be here.

Westminster Bridge, London © A. Meunier

I’m not of the opinion that English needs to be safeguarded and or that it needs to remain ‘pure’. Granted, English is fortunate in that it is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world and is in no danger of dying out as other languages are. The recent wave of nationalism in Britain has brought some of these strident opinions to the fore, but English is constantly evolving and is historically a ‘borrowing’ language. We adopt words from other languages in common parlance and wouldn’t think twice about it not being an ‘English’ word. We use words like Kindergarten, déjà vu, de facto, al dente, per capita, zeitgeist, and en masse, to name a few. We incorporate neologisms easily into our lexicon, mostly stemming from the online world, like spam, crowdfunding, and googling, all of which are now official entries in the English dictionary. The receptiveness and heterogeneousness of English are its charms and its strengths, and the more people who speak it, the better!

To learn more about English and its historical borrowing tendencies, have a look at this video, ‘The History of English’ by the Open University.

Find more texts of the “My language, my home” series here.


Sarah Robinson (United Kingdom)

Studies: French and German Language and Literature

Languages: French, German, English

Europe is… complex and invaluable.

Author: Anja

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