1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it.
L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.
2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this.
According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.
3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic.
Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.
Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on.
4. But most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins.
The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.
5. For more than a century, the English aristocracy couldn’t speak English.
William the Conqueror tried to learn English at the age of 43 but gave up. Within 20 years of the Normans taking power in England, almost all of the local religious institutions were French-speaking. There is little to suggest that aristocrats themselves spoke English. It isn’t until the end of the 12th Century that we have evidence of the children of the English aristocracy with English as a first language.
6.That is why Latin words sound more prestigious than Germanic ones.
Think about the difference between a house (Germanic) and a mansion (French), or between starting something and commencing, between calling something kingly or regal. English has a huge number of close synonyms, where the major difference is the level of formality or prestige. The prestigious form is almost always the Latin one.
7. The concept of “correct” spelling is fairly recent.
Shakespeare, for example, was liberal in his spellings of words, often using multiple variants within a single text; his name itself has been spelt in many different ways over the centuries.
8. One man is largely responsible for the differences between American and British spelling.
Noah Webster, whose name you still find on the front of many American dictionaries, was a patriotic man. Between 1783 and 1785, he produced three books on the English language for American schoolchildren. During his lifetime, 385 editions of his Speller were published. The modern US spelling of color was initially spelt in the British way, colour, but this changed in later editions.
9. -ize is not an American suffix-ize.
There is a popular belief that words such as popularise/ize, maximise/ize and digitise/ize have different spellings in British and American English.
Look at that z – isn’t it snazzy? It’s got to be American, hasn’t it?