Understanding Common Expressions In The English Language-Chapter Two–Understanding the English Language

The English language has been around an estimated 1,600 years and has gone through many changes to the form it has now taken. It has also followed different paths with England, Australia/New Zealand and the US all going their own ways and developing specialty phrases (idiomatic expressions) and even variations in the spelling of the same words. If yo don’t believe me read a journal article written in England, the magazine Nature is one example.

English is the only European language to employ uninflected adjectives; e.g., the tall man, the tall woman, compared to Spanish el hombre alto and la mujer alta. As for verbs, if the Modern English word ride is compared with the corresponding words in Old English and Modern German, it will be found that English now has only 5 forms (ride, rides, rode, riding, ridden), whereas Old English ridan had 13, and Modern German reiten has 16.

In addition to the simplicity of inflections, English has two other basic characteristics: flexibility of function and openness of vocabulary.

Flexibility of function has grown over the last five centuries as a consequence of the loss of inflections. Words formerly distinguished as nouns or verbs by differences in their forms are now often used as both nouns and verbs. One can speak, for example, of planning a table or tabling a planbooking a place or placing a booklifting a thumb or thumbing a lift. In the other Indo-European languages, apart from rare exceptions in Scandinavian languages, nouns and verbs are never identical because of the necessity of separate noun and verb endings. In English, forms for traditional pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs can also function as nouns; adjectives and adverbs as verbs; and nouns, pronouns, and adverbs as adjectives. One speaks in English of the Frankfurt Book Fair, but in German one must add the suffix -er to the place-name and put attributive and noun together as a compoundFrankfurter Buchmesse. In French one has no choice but to construct a phrase involving the use of two prepositions: Foire du Livre de Francfort. In English it is now possible to employ a plural noun as adjunct (modifier), as in wages board and sports editor; or even a conjunctional group, as in prices and incomes policy and parks and gardens committee. Any word class may alter its function in this way: the ins and outs (prepositions becoming nouns), no buts (conjunction becoming noun).

Openness of vocabulary implies both free admission of words from other languages and the ready creation of compounds and derivatives. English adopts (without change) or adapts (with slight change) any word really needed to name some new object or to denote some new process. Words from more than 350 languages have entered English in this way. Like French, Spanish, and Russian, English frequently forms scientific terms from Classical Greek word elements. Although a Germanic language in its sounds and grammar, the bulk of English vocabulary is in fact Romance or Classical in origin.

English possesses a system of orthography that does not always accurately reflect the pronunciation of words.

Characteristics of Modern English


British Received Pronunciation (RP), traditionally defined as the standard speech used in London and southeastern England, is one of many forms (or accents) of standard speech throughout the English-speaking world. Other pronunciations, although not standard, are often heard in the public domain. A very small percentage of the population of England is estimated to use “pure” RP (although the actual percentage is as unknown as what constitutes “pure” RP). It is considered the prestige accent in such institutions as the civil service and the BBC and, as such, has fraught associations with wealth and privilege in Britain.

The chief differences between RP, as defined above, and a variety of American English, such as Inland Northern (the speech form of western New England and its derivatives, often popularly referred to as General American), are in the pronunciation of certain individual vowels and diphthongs. Inland Northern American vowels sometimes have semiconsonantal final glides (i.e., sounds resembling initial w, for example, or initial y). Aside from the final glides, that American accent shows four divergences from British English: (1) the words cod, box, dock, hot, and not are pronounced with a short (or half-long) low front sound as in British bard shortened (the terms front, back, low, and high refer to the position of the tongue); (2) words such as bud, but, cut, and rung are pronounced with a central vowel as in the unstressed final syllable of sofa; (3) before the fricative sounds s, f, and θ (the last of these is the th sound in thin) the long low back vowel a, as in British bath, is pronounced as a short front vowel a, as in British bad; (4) high back vowels following the alveolar sounds t and d and the nasal sound n in words such as tulips, dew, and news are pronounced without a glide as in British English; indeed, the words sound like the British two lips, do, and nooze in snooze. (In several American accents, however, these glides do occur.)

The 24 consonant sounds comprise six stops (plosives): p, b, t, d, k, g; the fricatives f, v, θ (as in thin), ð [eth] (as in then), s, z,  [esh] (as in ship), Ʒ (as in pleasure), and h; two affricatives: t∫ (as in church) and dƷ (as the j in jam); the nasals m, n, ŋ (the sound that occurs at the end of words such as young); the lateral l; the postalveolar or retroflex r; and the semivowels j (often spelled y) and w. These remain fairly stable, but Inland Northern American differs from RP in two respects: (1) r following vowels is preserved in words such as door, flower, and harmony, whereas it is lost in RP; (2) t between vowels is voiced, so that metal and matter sound very much like British medal and madder, although the pronunciation of this t is softer and less aspirated, or breathy, than the d of British English.

Like Russian, English is a strongly stressed language. Four degrees of accentuation may be differentiated: primary, secondary, tertiary, and weak, which may be indicated, respectively, by acute (´), circumflex (ˆ), and grave (ˋ) accent marks and by the breve (˘). Thus, “Têll mè thĕ trúth” (the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) may be contrasted with “Têll mé thĕ trûth” (whatever you may tell other people); “bláck bîrd” (any bird black in colour) may be contrasted with “bláckbìrd” (that particular bird Turdus merula). The verbs permít and recórd (henceforth only primary stresses are marked) may be contrasted with their corresponding nouns pérmit and récord. A feeling for antepenultimate (third syllable from the end) primary stress, revealed in such five-syllable words as equanímity, longitúdinal, notoríety, opportúnity, parsimónious, pertinácity, and vegetárian, causes stress to shift when extra syllables are added, as in histórical, a derivative of hístory and theatricálity, a derivative of theátrical. Vowel qualities are also changed here and in such word groups as périod, periódical, periodícity; phótograph, photógraphy, photográphableFrench stress may be sustained in many borrowed words; e.g., bizárre, critíque, duréss, hotél, prestíge, and techníque.

Pitch, or musical tone, determined chiefly by the rate of vibration of the vocal cords, may be level, falling, rising, or falling–rising. In counting one, two, three, four, one naturally gives level pitch to each of these cardinal numerals. But if people say I want two, not one, they naturally give two a falling tone and one a falling–rising tone. In the question One? rising pitch is used. Word tone is called accent, and sentence tone is referred to as intonation. The end-of-sentence cadence is important for expressing differences in meaning. Several end-of-sentence intonations are possible, but three are especially common: falling, rising, and falling–rising. Falling intonation is used in completed statements, direct commands, and sometimes in general questions unanswerable by yes or no (e.g., I have nothing to addkeep to the rightwho told you that?). Rising intonation is frequently used in open-ended statements made with some reservation, in polite requests, and in particular questions answerable by yes or no (e.g., I have nothing more to say at the momentlet me know how you get onare you sure?). The third type of end-of-sentence intonation, first falling and then rising pitch, is used in sentences that imply concessions or contrasts (e.g., some people do like them [but others do not]; don’t say I didn’t warn you [because that is just what I’m now doing]). Intonation is on the whole less singsong in American than in British English, and there is a narrower range of pitch. Everywhere English is spoken, regional accents display distinctive patterns of intonation.



Modern English nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs are inflected. Adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections are invariable.

Most English nouns have plural inflection in (-e)s, but that form shows variations in pronunciation in the words cats (with a final s sound), dogs (with a final z sound), and horses (with a final iz sound), as also in the 3rd person singular present-tense forms of verbs: cuts (s), jogs (z), and forces (iz). Seven nouns have mutated (umlauted) plurals: man, men; woman, women; tooth, teeth; foot, feet; goose, geese; mouse, mice; louse, lice. Three have plurals in -enox, oxen; child, children; brother, brethren. Some remain unchanged (e.g., deer, sheep, moose, grouse). Five of the seven personal pronouns have distinctive forms for subject and object (e.g., he/him, she/her). Adjectives have distinctive endings for comparison (e.g., comparative bigger, superlative biggest), with several irregular forms (e.g., good, better, best).

The forms of verbs are not complex. Only the substantive verb (to be) has eight forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been. Strong verbs have five forms: ride, rides, rode, riding, ridden. Regular or weak verbs customarily have four: walk, walks, walked, walking. Some that end in t or d have three forms only: cut, cuts, cutting.

In addition to the above inflections, English employs two other main morphological (structural) processes—affixation and composition—and two subsidiary ones—back-formation and blend.


Affixes, word elements attached to words, may either precede, as prefixes (do, undoway, subway), or follow, as suffixes (do, doerway, wayward). They may be native (overdo, waywardness), Greek (hyperbole, thesis), or Latin (supersede, pediment). Modern technologists greatly favour the neo-Hellenic prefixes macro-“long, large,” micro- “small,” para- “alongside,” poly- “many,” and the Latin mini- “small,” with its antonym maxi-. The early Internet era popularized cyber- “of computers or computer networks” and mega- “vast.” Greek and Latin affixes have become so fully acclimatized that they can occur together in one and the same word, as, indeed, in ac-climat-ize-d, just used, consisting of a Latin prefix plus a Greek stem plus a Greek suffix plus an English inflection. Suffixes are bound more closely than prefixes to the stems or root elements of words. Consider, for instance, the wide variety of agent suffixes in the nouns actorartisandotardengineerfinancierhirelingmagistratemerchantscientistsecretarysongsterstudent, and worker. Suffixes may come to be attached to stems quite fortuitously, but, once attached, they are likely to be permanent. At the same time, one suffix can perform many functions. The suffix -er denotes the doer of the action in the words worker, driver, and hunter; the instrument in chopper, harvester, and roller; and the dweller in Icelander, Londoner, and Trobriander. It refers to things or actions associated with the basic concept in the words breather, “pause to take breath”; diner, “dining car on a train”; and fiver, “five-pound note.” In the terms disclaimer, misnomer, and rejoinder (all from French), the suffix denotes one single instance of the action expressed by the verb. Usage may prove capricious. Whereas a writer is a person, a typewriter is a machine. For some time a computer was both, but now the word is no longer used of persons.


Composition, or compounding, is concerned with free forms. The primary compounds cloverleafgentleman, and (less obviously, because of the spelling) already show the collocation of two free forms. They differ from word groups or phrases in stress, juncture, or vowel quality or by a combination of these. Thus, already differs from all ready in stress and juncture, cloverleaf from clover leaf in stress, and gentleman from gentle man in vowel quality, stress, and juncture. In describing the structure of compound words it is necessary to take into account the relation of components to each other and the relation of the whole compound to its components. These relations diverge widely in, for example, the words cloverleaf, icebreaker, breakwater, blackbird, peace-loving, and paperback. In cloverleaf the first component noun is attributive and modifies the second, as also in the terms aircraft, beehive, landmark, lifeline, network, and vineyardIcebreaker, however, is a compound made up of noun object plus agent noun, itself consisting of verb plus agent suffix, as also in the words bridgebuilder, landowner, metalworker, minelayer, and timekeeper. The next type consists of verb plus object. It is rare in English, Dutch, and German but frequent in FrenchSpanish, and Italian. The English pastime may be compared, for example, with the French passe-temps, the Spanish pasatiempo, and the Italian passatempo. From French comes passport, meaning “pass (i.e., enter) harbour.” From Italian comes portfolio, meaning “carry leaf.” Other words of this type are daredevil, scapegrace, and scarecrow. As for the blackbird type, consisting of attributive adjective plus noun, it occurs frequently, as in the terms bluebell, grandson, shorthand, and wildfire. The next type, composed of object noun and a present participle, as in the terms fact-finding, heart-rending (German herzzerreissend), life-giving (German lebenspendend), painstaking, and time-consuming, occurs rarely. The last type is seen in barefoot, bluebeard, hunchback, leatherneck, redbreast, and scatterbrain.

Back-formations, blends, and other types of word-formation

Back-formations and blends are widespread. Back-formation is the reverse of affixation, being the analogical creation of a new word from an existing word falsely assumed to be its derivative. For example, the verb to edit has been formed from the noun editor on the reverse analogy of the noun actor from to act, and similarly the verbs automate, bulldoze, commute, escalate, liaise, loaf, sightsee, and televise are backformed from the nouns automation, bulldozer, commuter, escalation, liaison, loafer, sightseer, and television. From the single noun procession are backformed two verbs with different stresses and meanings: procéss, “to walk in procession,” and prócess, “to subject food (and other material) to a special operation.”

Blends fall into two groups: (1) coalescences, such as bash from bang and smash; and (2) telescoped forms, called portmanteau words, such as motorcade from motor cavalcade. In the first group are the words clash, from clack and crash, and geepoffspring of goat and sheep. To the second group belong dormobiles, or dormitory automobiles, and slurbs, or slum suburbs. A travel monologue becomes a travelogue and a telegram sent by cable a cablegram. Aviation electronics becomes avionics; biology electronics, bionics; and nuclear electronics, nucleonics. In cablese a question mark is a quark; in computerese a binary unit is a bit. In astrophysics a quasistellar source of radio energy becomes a quasar, and a pulsating star becomes a pulsar.

Simple shortenings, such as ad for advertisement, that some time ago might have been sneered at by some are now in common use. They are listed in dictionaries side by side with their full forms. Among such abbreviations are exam, gym, lab, lib, op, spec, sub, tech, veg, and vet. Compound shortenings, after the pattern of Russian agitprop for agitatsiya propaganda, are also used. Initial syllables are joined as in the words linocut (linoleum cut) and FORTRAN (formula translation); these shortenings are not uncommon in, and often become, the names of corporations and other organizations (FedEx [Federal Express], Intelsat [International Telecommunications Satellite Organization]).


Sentences can be classified as follows:

  • (A) simple, containing one clause and predication: Jane knows this country
  • (B) multiple or compound, containing two or more coordinate clauses: Jane has been here before, and she knows this country
  • (C) complex, containing one or more main clauses and one or more subordinate clauses: Jane, who has been here before, knows this country or Because she has been here before, Jane knows this country

Simple, declarative, affirmative sentences have two main patterns with five subsidiary patterns within each. Verb and complement together form the predicate. “Complement” is used here to cover both the complement and the object of traditional grammarians.

The table listing sentences (1) through (5) provides examples of the first main pattern. The sentences of the first pattern consist of three parts: subject, verb, and complement. In Jane knows this country (1), the complement is the direct object of a transitive verb; in Science is organized knowledge (2), it is a predicative nominal group forming the second component of an equation linked to the first part by the meaningless copula is; in Elizabeth becomes queen (3), it is a predicative noun linked with the subject by the meaningful copula becomes; in The captain falls sick (4), it is a predicative adjective; and in Nothing passes unobserved (5), it is a predicative past participle.

The table listing sentences (6) through (10) shows the second pattern. In the second main pattern, each sentence contains four components: subject, verb, and two complements, first and second or inner and outer. In John gives Mary a ring (6), inner and outer complements consist of indirect object (without preposition) followed by direct object; in The sailors make John captain (7), these complements are direct object and appositive noun; in You have kept your record clean (8), direct object and predicative adjective; in The driver finds the road flooded (9), direct object and predicative past participle; and in We want you to know (10), direct object and predicative infinitive.

One can seldom change the word order in these 10 sentences without doing something else—adding or subtracting a word, changing the meaning. There is no better way of appreciating the importance of word position than by scrutinizing the 10 frames illustrated. If, for instance, in (6) one reverses inner and outer complements, one adds to and says, John gives a ring to Mary; one does not say John gives a ring Mary. Some verbs, such as explain and say, never omit the preposition to before the indirect object: John’s mother explained the details to her son. If, in (10), the inner and outer complements are reversed (e.g., We want to know you), the meaning is changed as well as the structure.

Apart from these fundamental rules of word order, the principles governing the positions of adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions call for brief comment. For attributive adjectives the rule is simple: single words regularly precede the noun, and word groups follow—e.g., an unforgettable experience but an experience never to be forgotten. It is also possible, however, to abandon this principle and switch groups to front position: a never to be forgotten experience. In the ordering of multiple epithets, on the other hand, some tendencies can be seen. Attributes denoting permanent qualities stand nearest their head nouns: long, white beardsix-lane elevated freeway. The order in multiple attribution tends to be as follows: determiner; quantifier; adjective of quality; adjective of size, shape, or texture; adjective of colour or material; noun adjunct (if any); head noun. Examples include: that one solid, round, oak dining tablethese many fine, large, black racehorsesthose countless memorable, long, bright summer evenings.

Adverbs are more mobile than adjectives. Nevertheless, some principles seem to be at work. Adverbs of frequency tend to come immediately after the substantive verb (You are often late), before other verbs (You never know), and between auxiliaries and full verbs (You can never tell). In this last instance, however, American differs from British usage. Most Americans would place the adverb before the auxiliary and say You never can tell. (In the title of his play of that name, first performed in 1899, George Bernard Shaw avowedly followed American usage.) Adverbs of time usually occur at the beginning or end of a sentence, seldom in the middle. Particular expressions normally precede more general ones: The bridge opened at 9 o’clock in the morning on October 23 of last year. An adverb of place or direction follows a verb with which it is semantically bound: We arrived home after dark. Other adverbs normally take end positions in the order of manner, place, and time: The bird flew suddenly [manner] from the tree [place] a few minutes ago [time].

In spite of its etymology (Latin prae-positio “before placing”), a preposition may sometimes follow the noun it governs, as in all the world over, slept the clock round, and the whole place throughThis seems a good place to live in seems more natural to most speakers than This seems a good place in which to liveHave you anything to open this can with? is more common than Have you anything with which to open this can?

The above are principles rather than rules, and such structural flexibility makes it easy to find ambiguity in isolated sentences. When walking snipe always approach up wind, a shooting manual directs. The writer intends the reader to understand, “When you are walking to flush snipe, always approach them up against the wind.” John kept the car in the garage can mean either (1) “John retained that car you see in the garage, and sold his other one” or (2) “John housed the car in the garage, and not elsewhere.” Flying planes can be dangerous is ambiguous because it may mean either (1) “Planes that fly can be dangerous” or (2) “It is dangerous to fly planes.” On the other hand, such “ambiguities” almost always disappear when the sentences are seen in context.

Two ways in which John gives Mary a ring can be stated in the passive are: (1) A ring is given to Mary by John and (2) Mary is given a ring by John. Concerning this same action, four types of questions can be formulated: (1) Who gives Mary a ring? The information sought is the identity of the giver. (2) Does John give Mary a ring? The question may be answered by yes or no. (3) John gives Mary a ring, doesn’t he? Confirmation is sought of the questioner’s belief that John does in fact give Mary a ring. (4) John gives Mary a ring? This form, differing from the declarative statement only by the question mark in writing, or by rising intonation in speech, calls, like sentences (2) and (3), for a yes or no answer but suggests doubt on the part of the questioner that the action is taking place.


The vocabulary of Modern English is approximately a quarter Germanic (Old English, Scandinavian, Dutch, German) and two-thirds Italic or Romance (especially Latin, French, Spanish, Italian), with copious and increasing importations from Greek in science and technology and with considerable borrowings from more than 300 other languages. Names of many basic concepts and things come from Old English or Anglo-Saxon: heaven and earthlove and hatelife and deathbeginning and endday and nightmonth and yearheat and coldway and pathmeadow and stream. Cardinal numerals come from Old English, as do all the ordinal numerals except second (Old English other, which still retains its older meaning in “every other day”). Second comes from Latin secundus “following,” through French second, related to Latin sequi “to follow,” as in English sequence. From Old English come all the personal pronouns (except they, their, and them, which are from Scandinavian), the auxiliary verbs (except the marginal used, which is from French), most simple prepositions, and all conjunctions.

Numerous nouns would be identical whether they came from Old English or Scandinavianfather, mother, brother (but not sister); man, wifeground, land, tree, grasssummer, wintercliff, dale. Many verbs would also be identical, especially monosyllabic verbs—bring, come, get, hear, meet, see, set, sit, spin, stand, think. The same is true of the adjectives full and wise; the colour names gray (grey), green, and white; the possessives mine and thine (but not ours and yours); the terms north and west (but not south and east); and the prepositions over and under. Just a few English and Scandinavian doublets coexist in current speech: no and nayyea and ayfrom and frorear (i.e., “to bring up”) and raiseshirt and skirt (both related to the adjective short), less and loose. From Scandinavian, law was borrowed early, whence bylaw, meaning village law, and outlaw, meaning “man outside the law.” Husband (hus-bondi) meant “householder,” whether single or married, whereas fellow (fe-lagi) meant one who “lays fee” or shares property with another, and so “partner, shareholder.” From Scandinavian come the common nouns axle (tree), band, birth, bloom, crook, dirt, egg, gait, gap, girth, knife, loan, race, rift, root, score, seat, skill, sky, snare, thrift, and window; the adjectives awkward, flat, happy, ill, loose, rotten, rugged, sly, tight, ugly, weak, and wrong; and many verbs, including call, cast, clasp, clip, crave, die, droop, drown, flit, gape, gasp, glitter, life, rake, rid, scare, scowl, skulk, snub, sprint, thrive, thrust, and want.

The debt of the English language to French is large. The terms president, representative, legislature, congress, constitution, and parliament are all French. So, too, are duke, marquis, viscount, and baron; but king, queen, lord, lady, earl, and knight are English. City, village, court, palace, manor, mansion, residence, and domicile are French; but town, borough, hall, house, bower, room, and home are English. Comparison between the many pairs of English and French synonyms shows that the former are more human and concrete, the latter more intellectual and abstract; e.g., the terms freedom and libertyfriendship and amityhatred and enmitylove and affectionlikelihood and probabilitytruth and veracitylying and mendacity. The superiority of French cooking is duly recognized by the adoption of such culinary terms as boil, broil, fry, grill, roast, souse, and toastBreakfast is English, but dinner and supper are French. Hunt is English, but chase, quarry, scent, and track are French. Craftsmen bear names of English origin: baker, builder, fisher (man), hedger, miller, shepherd, shoemaker, wainwright, and weaver, or webber. Names of skilled artisans, however, are French: carpenter, draper, haberdasher, joiner, mason, painter, plumber, and tailor. Many terms relating to dress and fashioncuisine and viniculture, politics and diplomacy, drama and literatureart and ballet come from French.

In the spheres of science and technology many terms come from Classical Greek through French or directly from Greek. Pioneers in research and development now regard Greek as a kind of inexhaustible quarry from which they can draw linguistic material at will. By prefixing the Greek adverb tēle “far away, distant” to the existing compound photography, “light writing,” they create the precise (though today rarely used) term telephotography to denote the photographing of distant objects by means of a special lens, known as a telephoto lens. By inserting the prefix micro- “small” into this same compound, they make the new term photomicrography, denoting the electronic photographing of bacteria and viruses. Such neo-Hellenic derivatives would probably have been unintelligible to Plato and Aristotle. Many Greek compounds and derivatives have Latin equivalents with slight or considerable differentiations in meaning (see table).

At first sight it might appear that some of these equivalents, such as metamorphosis (from the Greek) and transformation (from the Latin), are sufficiently synonymous to make one or the other redundant. In fact, however, metamorphosis is more technical and therefore more restricted than transformation. In mythology, metamorphosis signifies a magical shape changing; in nature it denotes a postembryonic development such as that of a tadpole into a frog, a cocoon into a silkworm, or a chrysalis into a butterflyTransformation, on the other hand, means any kind of change from one state to another.

Ever since the 12th century, when merchants from the Netherlands made homes in East AngliaDutch words have infiltrated into Midland speech. For centuries a form of Low German was used by seafaring men in North Sea ports. Old nautical terms still in use include buoy, deck, dock, freebooter, hoist, leak, pump, skipper, and yacht. The Dutch in New Amsterdam (later New York) and adjacent settlements gave the words boss, cookie, dope, snoop, and waffle to American speech. The Dutch in Cape Province gave the terms apartheid, commandeer, commando, spoor, and trek to South African speech.

The contribution of High German has been on a different level. In the 18th and 19th centuries it lay in technicalities of geology and mineralogy and in abstractions relating to literaturephilosophy, and psychology. In the 20th century this contribution was sometimes indirect. Unclear and meaningful echoed German unklar and bedeutungsvoll, or sinnvollRing road (a British term applied to roads encircling cities or parts of cities) translated Ringstrasseround trip came from Rundfahrt; and the turn of the century from die Jahrhundertwende. The terms classless society, inferiority complex, and wishful thinking echoed die klassenlose Gesellschaft, der Minderwertigkeitskomplex, and das Wunschdenken.

Along with the rest of the Western world, English has accepted Italian as the language of music. The names of voices, parts, performers, instruments, forms of composition, and technical directions are all Italian. Many of the latter—allegro, andante, cantabile, crescendo, diminuendo, legato, maestoso, obbligato, pizzicato, staccato, and vibrato—are also used metaphorically. In architecture, the terms belvedere, corridor, cupola, grotto, pedestal, pergola, piazza, pilaster, and rotunda are accepted; in literatureburlesque, canto, extravaganza, stanza, and many more are used.

From Spanish, English has acquired the words armada, cannibal, cigar, galleon, guerrilla, matador, mosquito, quadroon, tornado, and vanilla, some of these loanwords going back to the 16th century, when sea dogs encountered hidalgos on the high seas. Many names of animals and plants have entered English from indigenous languages through Spanish: potato through Spanish patata from Taino batata, and tomato through Spanish tomate from Nahuatl tomatl. Other words have entered from Latin America by way of TexasNew MexicoArizona, and California; e.g., such words as canyon, cigar, estancia, lasso, mustang, pueblo, and rodeo. Some have gathered new connotations: bonanza, originally denoting “goodness,” came through miners’ slang to mean “spectacular windfall, prosperity”; mañana, “tomorrow,” acquired an undertone of mysterious unpredictability.

From Arabic through European Spanish, through French from Spanish, through Latin, or occasionally through Greek, English has obtained the terms alchemy, alcohol, alembic, algebra, alkali, almanac, arsenal, assassin, attar, azimuth, cipher, elixir, mosque, nadir, naphtha, sugar, syrup, zenith, and zero. From Egyptian Arabic, English has borrowed the term loofah (also spelled luffa). From Hebrew, directly or by way of Vulgate Latin, come the terms amen, cherub, hallelujah, manna, messiah, pharisee, rabbi, sabbath, and seraphjubilee, leviathan, and shibboleth; and, more recently, kosher and kibbutz.

English has freely adopted and adapted words from many other languages, acquiring them sometimes directly and sometimes by devious routes. Each word has its own history. The following lists indicate the origins of a number of English words:

  • Hindinabob, guru, sahib, maharajah, mahatma, pundit, punch (drink), juggernaut, cushy, jungle, thug, cheetah, shampoo, chit, dungaree, pucka, gymkhana, mantra, loot, pajamas, dinghy, polo
  • Tamilpariah, curry, catamaran, mulligatawny
  • Welshflannel, coracle, cromlech, penguin, eisteddfod
  • Cornishgull, brill, dolmen
  • Gaelic and Irishshamrock, brogue, leprechaun, ogham, Tory, galore, blarney, hooligan, clan, claymore, bog, plaid, slogan, sporran, cairn, whisky, pibroch
  • Persianparadise, divan, purdah, lilac, bazaar, shah, caravan, chess, salamander, taffeta, shawl, khaki
  • Bretonmenhir
  • Norwegianski, ombudsman
  • Finnishsauna
  • Russiankvass, ruble, tsar, verst, mammoth, ukase, astrakhan, vodka, samovar, tundra (from Sami), troika, pogrom, duma, soviet, bolshevik, intelligentsia (from Latin through Polish), borscht, balalaika, sputnik, soyuz, salyut, lunokhod
  • Polish—mazurka
  • Czechrobot
  • Hungariangoulash, paprika
  • Turkishjanissary, turban, coffee, kiosk, caviar, pasha, odalisque, fez, bosh
  • Chinesetea (Amoy), sampanketchup
  • Japaneseshogun, kimono, mikado, tycoon, hara-kiri, gobang, judo, jujitsu, bushido, samurai, banzai, tsunami, satsuma, Noh (the dance drama), karate, Kabuki
  • Malay—ketchup, sago, bamboo, junk, amuck, orangutan, compound (fenced area), raffia
  • languages of the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia—kangaroo (Guugu Yimidhirr), corroboree, wallaby, wombat, boomerang, koala (Dharuk), budgerigar (Yuwaalaraay)
  • Polynesiantaboo (Tongan), tattoo (Tahitian)
  • Hawaiian—ukulele
  • Kongo—chimpanzee
  • Bantu—gumbo
  • Zulu—impala, mamba
  • Inuitkayak, igloo, anorak
  • Yupikmukluk
  • Algonquiantotem
  • Nahuatlmescal
  • Taino—hammock, hurricane, tobacco, maize
  • Arawak and Carib—iguana
  • Portuguesemarmalade, flamingo, molasses, veranda, port (wine), dodo
  • Basquebizarre


The Latin alphabet originally had 20 letters, the present English alphabet minus JK, V, W, Y, and Z. The Romans themselves added K for use in abbreviations and Y and Z in words transcribed from Greek. After its adoption by the English, this 23-letter alphabet developed W as a ligatured doubling of U and later J and V as consonantal variants of I and U. The resultant alphabet of 26 letters has both uppercase, or capital, and lowercase, or small, letters.

English spelling is based for the most part on that of the 15th century, but pronunciation has changed considerably since then, especially that of long vowels and diphthongs. The extensive change in the pronunciation of vowels, known as the Great Vowel Shift, affected all of Geoffrey Chaucer’s seven long vowels, and for centuries spelling remained untidy. If the meaning of the message was clear, the spelling of individual words seemed unimportant. In the 17th century compositors began to adopt fixed spellings for practical reasons, and in the order-loving 18th century uniformity became more and more fashionable. Since Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), orthography has remained fairly stable. Numerous changes, such as music for musick (c. 1880) and fantasy for phantasy (c. 1920), have been accepted, but spelling has nevertheless continued to be in part unphonetic. Attempts have been made at reform. Indeed, every century has had its reformers since the 13th, when an Augustinian canon named Orm devised his own method of differentiating short vowels from long by doubling the succeeding consonants or, when this was not feasible, by marking short vowels with a superimposed breve mark (˘). William Caxton, who set up his wooden printing press at Westminster in 1476, was much concerned with spelling problems throughout his working life. Noah Webster produced his Spelling Book, in 1783, as a precursor to the first edition (1828) of his American Dictionary of the English Language. The 20th century produced many zealous reformers. Three systems, supplementary to traditional spelling, were proposed for different purposes: (1) the Initial Teaching (Augmented Roman) Alphabet (ITA) of 44 letters used by some educationists in the 1970s and ’80s in the teaching of children under age seven; (2) the Shaw alphabet of 48 letters, designed in the implementation of the will of George Bernard Shaw; and (3) the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), constructed on the basis of one symbol for one individual sound and used by many trained linguists. Countless other systems have been worked out from time to time, such as R.E. Zachrisson’s “Anglic” (1930) and Axel Wijk’s Regularized English (1959).

Drastic reform remains impracticable, undesirable, and unlikely. This is because there is no longer one criterion of correct pronunciation but several standards throughout the world; regional standards are themselves not static, but changing with each new generation; and, if spelling were changed drastically, all the books in English in the world’s public and private libraries would become inaccessible to readers without special study. In the days when one country “owned” the English language, reform was feasible—and Noah Webster’s proposals for American English did indeed have some success—but today, when English is so widespread that no country can be said to own it, agreement on simplification is inconceivable.


britannica.com, “English language.” By David Crystal;