8 Things You Should Know About How English is Used Around the World
What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? A popular response is the quote, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
The diverse ways in which English is used around the world highlight this idea neatly. In some places, pidgins based on English are nearly incomprehensible to speakers of standard English and vice versa, but they still count as dialects rather than languages in their own right. The majority of the world’s English speakers now speak it as a second or even third language, for instance in countries where multiple languages are in daily use and English is a vital lingua franca. It has become the key language of business and of science.
But even though over a billion people across the world are speaking the same language, we’re certainly not speaking it in the same way. In this article, we take a look at some of the strange and interesting ways that English is used around the globe.
1. German borrows words from English that don’t exist in English
The German word for mobile phone is Händy, pronounced “hen-di”, is a loanword from English – which will surprise all non-German English speakers, who are well aware that the word ‘handy’ in English has absolutely nothing to do with mobile phones. But during the Second World War, Motorola advertised a product called the Motorola HT 220 Handie Talkie – essentially a Walkie-Talkie by another name. When mobile phones were first launched in Germany, the name caught on – possibly because the German word for hand is Hand, so it made logical sense. But it will still baffle English speakers to hear a German grumbling about the number of words German is borrowing from English, to cite Händy as an example.
There are some egregious examples of modern German borrowing from English. Around 64% of Germans speak English at some level, so it’s natural that they would interchange the two languages to a certain extent. This can result in the linguistic discomfort (whether your native language is English or German) of words like downgeloadet, meaning “downloaded” – that’s taking the English word “download” and shoving the German past tense ge- and -et on to it with little consideration for taste. Particularly irritating is that there is a more reasonable German word for the same thing – heruntergeladen – it’s just that fewer people use it.
It’s not just about loanwords. It can sometimes seem as if advertising slogans in Germany are in English more often than not, even though the trend for English slogans has apparently become passé. It’s an old problem; the Rolls Royce Silver Mist encountered difficulties in Germany, as Mist in German means – to put it delicately – excrement.
2. English is one of three “official” languages in Scotland
The UK, which includes Scotland, doesn’t have any truly official languages. If you open up a British passport, the three languages used are English, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic. But if you read a Scottish newspaper, you’re likely to see another language, namely Scots. The National, the only newspaper in Scotland to support Scottish independence, is keen on publishing articles in languages other than English. So a recent article in Scottish Gaelic opens:
“Taobh a-staigh duilleag-aghaidh manifesto a’ Phàrtaidh Nàiseanta tha dealbh de dhrochaid ùr Fhoirthe.”
(very loosely: within the SNP manifesto is a photo of the new Forth Bridge).
While a recent article in Scots opens:
“It is gey clear gettin (aboot as plenn as the neb on ma plookie pus) that we as a nation or region or whitever we hope tae be cannae agree aboot the Scots language or even on whit it is or whit it’s supposed tae look like.”
… which, if you’re an English speaker, you can probably figure out – something along the lines of “It’s getting clear (about as plain as the nose on my face) that we as a nation or region or whatever we hope to be cannot agree about the Scots language or even on what it is or what it’s supposed to look like.” Out loud, it sounds like this.
And in fact, if you did manage to make it out, the rest of the article sets out the situation facing the Scots language quite nicely. We can’t decide whether “it’s a leid, a lingo, an argot, a slango, keechie dialect o blae-bluid English or muckle bing o hauf-biled Scottish” (essentially “we can’t decide if it’s a language or a dialect”, but the Scots version is much more enjoyable to read). In the context of the ongoing wrangles over Scottish devolution and independence, the question is necessarily politicised. While Scottish Gaelic is protected, Scots struggles, and so standard English continues to be the language that most Scottish people use most of the time.
3. Many Bollywood films are written in English
English is an official language of India (admittedly a “subsidiary official language”), but only about 25% of Indians speak English at all, and an even smaller number are fluent. English in India is a language of the elite. Higher education is primarily through the medium of English; government jobs require English; and learning English is a fast-track route to advancement for many Indians.
It’s not a situation that everyone is happy with, for understandable reasons, as it doesn’t help in tackling inequality if success depends on speaking a language that is mostly restricted to the wealthiest quarter of the population. All the same, it’s a situation that is replicated in many multilingual countries around the world, where English serves as a lingua franca, and because of its internationalism, carries less cultural baggage than other choices of language might.
Despite this, it’s still startling to learn that many Bollywood films are written in English. The directions, descriptions and other text will be in English, and the Hindi dialogue is written in a Latin alphabet. Film stars, after all, are of the elite, and they are not only comfortable with using English, but they are sometimes more comfortable with using English than they are with using Hindi. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, after the USA, India has the largest English-speaking population of any country in the world.
4. Australian English contains around 5,000 diminutives
Australian English has plenty of features that distinguish it from both American and British English. It didn’t take long to separate out from British English, either; the differences were first recognised in 1820, only around 30 years after the colony of New South Wales was founded. Unlike other varieties of English, it’s borrowed extensively from Aboriginal languages, it uses idioms more frequently, and it sounds much less formal, especially relative to British English. For instance, swearing is more acceptable, and formal registers are used less often in settings such as Parliament.
But one of the really noteworthy things about Australian English is its use of diminutives. That could be arvo for “afternoon”, journo for “journalist”, barbie for “barbecue”, firie for “fireman”, servo for “service station” and so on to the full list of around 5,000 (and of course, more are created all the time). While other dialects of English do use diminutives (“journo” is popular in the UK too, as is deli for delicatessen), Australian English can seem unusually dedicated to them. It’s been suggested that it’s because words ending in -o or -y sounds flow better with Aboriginal words than the harsher, sharper sounds of the standard English words. Or possibly it’s another expression of Australian informality.
5. Americans sound more like Shakespeare than the English do
Reading Shakespeare, you’ll come up against words that are clearly meant to rhyme, but that don’t rhyme in modern English. For instance, think about the last two lines of Sonnet 116: “If this be error and upon me proved/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Earlier in the poem, “love” is rhymed with “remove”. We can hypothesise that Shakespeare’s pronunciation of the word was softer, perhaps nearer “luve” than the modern-day “love” – or perhaps it was “remove” and “prove” that were pronounced differently.
Scholars can carry out this sort of analysis at a much higher level in order to work out how Shakespeare spoke generally, and it’s been suggested that it might have been nearer American English than modern-day British English. This makes sense; the Mayflower sailed just four years after Shakespeare’s death, so the English they brought with them to America would have sounded like the language Shakespeare used. There are examples where American English has retained 17th-century grammar than has been discarded by British English. The use of “gotten” as the past tense of “got” is an example of this; Shakespeare used “gotten”, but many English people now consider it an unacceptable Americanism.
If you’re curious to know what one group think Shakespeare’s pronunciation sounded like, have a listen to their version of Sonnet 116 here – though it sounds more West Country than American to us!
6. Very few Welsh words have made it into English
The Welsh language has existed alongside English for around 1,400 years; though the timings are hazy, primitive Welsh seems to have evolved from Celtic around 550 AD, while the Old English-speaking Anglo-Saxons started arriving in Britain around a hundred years before that. So it would make logical sense that the two languages should exchange words. After all, the British Raj in India lasted rather less than 1,400 years, but there are plenty of words borrowed from Indian languages from that time that crop up in English today, such as Blighty, bungalow, cushy and thug.
But in fact there are very few Welsh loanwords in English, and even fewer that entered Old English and survived to the present day. Some of the rare exceptions include dad, corgi, flannel and perhaps penguin, which is either Latin pinguis (fat) or Welsh pen (head) and gwyn (white), making a penguin a white-head – which is more fun than penguins being fatties. Why so few words made the transition from Welsh to English is a bit of a mystery; this site claims it’s because there were determined efforts for about 500 years until recently to prevent people from speaking Welsh, but there were no such prohibitions on the Anglo-Saxons, who failed to borrow Welsh words all the same.
7. English is Liberia’s only official language, but only 2.5% of the population speak Standard Liberian English
More than thirty languages are spoken in Liberia, from the language groups Mande, Kru, Mel and Gola, and there is no dominant language among them; no language is spoken by more than a small minority of the population. English, as a non-indigenous language, is an official language that does not leave any of Liberia’s 16 ethnic groups slighted in relation to one another – so as a choice of official language, it is entirely practical. A variety of creoles based on English also exist in Liberia, including the Caribbean English of ex-Caribbean slave settlers in Liberia, which has influenced other creoles in turn. In Liberian English, “Liberian” is pronounced similar to “Labberan” in British English.
Liberia isn’t the only country to adopt English as an official language, and to have several non-standard variants of English in common use, but few countries have so few English speakers at the same time.
8. … While New Zealand doesn’t have English as an official language
About 98% of the New Zealand population speaks English, giving it the highest percentage of English speakers of any large country in the world after Ireland. All the same, English has no official status. The only two languages that do have official status in New Zealand are Māori, with about 180,000 speakers, and New Zealand Sign Language, which became an official language in 2006, so that sign language users could use it in legal proceedings.
Māori’s official status was hard-fought, after generations of the Māori language being suppressed. Campaigners drew on legislation for minority languages such as the Irish Bord Na Gaeilge Act 1978 and in the UK, the Welsh Language Act 1967, both of which aimed to preserve a language from extinction in the face of an English-speaking majority.
Wherever you are around the world, the widespread use of English as a lingua franca has had an impact.
Image credits: encyclopedias; chatting; mobile phone; forth bridge; bollywood posters; bbq; stars and stripes; cymru tile; maori group.