Which family does English belong to?
English is a West Germanic language. Before the first Roman invasion by Caesar (55-54 BC) Britain was inhabited by people speaking Celtic. The nearly five centuries of Latin domination supplanted much of this language, so that very little is left of Celtic in current English. Subsequent invasions by Germanic people (Angles, Saxons, Jutes), starting from the 5th century, in their turn supplanted the Latin language imposing the new one: Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Like the other Germanic languages, this language still retained the features of a synthetic language: a declination in four cases (a fossilized remnant is the current Saxon genitive) and a conjugation with strong and weak tenses.
The penetration of Christian missionaries (VII cent.) and the following invasion of the Vikings (IX cent.), even though they introduced a great number of new lexical items, did not affect the structure of the language, which remained essentially unchanged until the XI century. At this time there was a dramatic event: the conquest of England by the Normans headed by William the Conqueror (1066) imposed French as the official language: soon it became the language of the high society, influencing greatly the Germanic dialect which continued to exist only as the language of popular uses. This is the phase of the so-called Middle English, characterized by radical changes: not only the vocabulary was enriched by many thousands of French words, but also the structure of the language was deeply modified.
When the Hundred Years’ War broke out (1337-1453) French was rejected as the language of the enemy, but several structural innovations and many lexical items that by then were deeply rooted in the national language remained. During the 14th and 15th centuries the language defined its physiognomy more precisely: the religious controversies spread words of Latin origin and the admiration for the Italian Renaissance culture promoted the penetration of many Italian words (cupola, fresco, motto, etc.). The English language, so modified and enriched, was now ready for the great literary experiences of the Renaissance (e.g. Shakespeare). From this moment we usually speak of the Modern English. Since Shakespeare, English has remained structurally the same, only undergoing minor phonetic and morphological changes; however its lexical enrichment has never ceased. At the same time the tendency to extreme simplification of its morphology has never ceased.
What are the main linguistic features of English?
The simplicity of grammatical and syntactical structures contrasts with the complexity of the phonetic system, which is the main difficulty for the study of English: both among vowels and consonants, sounds often have only slightly distinguishable pronunciations, depending, among other things, on the particular relative positions they occupy within the word or the sentence. For this reason, and for quite complex historical reasons related (1) to the already mentioned influence of French and (2) to the relevant phonetic changes that took place especially during the Middle English period, there is in English a considerable discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation.
Due to relatively poor morphology (syntactic functions are not marked by word inflection), English sentences have a very fixed word order: Subject-Verb-Object.
Who speaks English?
Thanks to the diffusion reached through the British colonial conquests in most of the globe, English has become the most used language of the whole world in cultural and scientific exchanges as well as and in trade, gradually replacing French. Today English is the official language of many countries that once were part of the British Empire: Canada (together with French), the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of South Africa (together with Afrikaans); and it has been for a long time the official language of other countries, like India, which have adopted their national language after obtaining political independence.
In this diffusion, English has undergone local differentiations from the variety spoken in England; among those varieties American English was the first to start an independent life. Its peculiar features include the following (to cite just a couple of examples, concerning the rules of writing or the language itself):
- replacement of the British ending -our with -or in names like labor (instead of labour), color (instead of colour), etc.;
- u instead of the British pronunciation yu in words like student, tube, etc.;
- preservation of the sound r, at the end of the word and in front of a consonant.
More significant are the differences of vocabulary, due to the fact that the U.S. have often retained the archaic meaning of certain words.
- Enciclopedia Grolier