10 interesting facts about the English language

10 interesting facts about the English language

The English language; it’s sometimes frustrating, often confusing, but never boring.

English is spoken as a first language by over 400 million people. And as a second or tertiary language? Over a billion people, or a seventh of the world’s population, are either learning or are proficient in the language.

However, it is full of notable quirks and interesting history. For a start, it’s a bit confusing as to how English got to where it is now. English, despite its name, is West Germanic, and derives a lot of influence from Latin (by using the Latin alphabet), French and Old Norse languages.

It might seem as though English - as we know it - has settled into a groove, with grammar rules, more standardised syntax and “proper” English becoming commonplace in business and media. However, across the world there are numerous variations, dialects and accents that give English a unique flavour wherever it’s spoken.

You'll learn all about the basics of English grammar during your TEFL course , but here are some interesting facts about this widely-spoken, historic and diverse language!

A person holding a small card with the word 'English' written on it in front of a small globe

Here are 10 interesting facts about English that you might not have known

The English language is full of tricks !

A “contronym” is a word that has contradictory meanings. 

For example “variety” can be a particular type of something or a great number of something.

Similarly, to “dust” can mean either adding or removing dust - dusting a cabinet and a croissant are very different activities! We doubt you’d get a great reaction if you were asked to do some dusting around the house, and you left icing sugar everywhere.

It’s tricky - but context will give you clues on what a specific word means. Even when it’s a contronym!

Have you ever “swaggered” into a room, to “break the ice”?

Then you can thank William Shakespeare. The poet and playwright introduced over 1,000 words to the English lexicon! Shakespeare, ever a critic of how limited English was, made stiff language gatekeepers uncomfortable with his bandit- like disregard for existing words.

Yep, all those common words we’ve put in bold? All Shakespeare.

An “ambigram” is a word that looks the same from various orientations

For example, the word "swims" will be the same even when turned upside down.
There are surprisingly ample examples of this. The word “big” can look the same, written down, from all kinds of angles.

Others might need a little poetic license in terms of your handwriting, but “awesome” and “blessing” can be understood either way up.

The English alphabet used to be longer

Over time, letters like ‘ash’ (æ) and ‘ethel’ œ were dropped, although they are still used in Scandinavian languages.

The English alphabet we know and love today has 26 letters. However, earlier variations included 29 letters and more. Comedian Steven Wright once asked “Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of the song?”

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 changed the English language forever

The Battle of Hastings had a lot to answer for. Primarily, the Normans added a lot of new words and phrases to the English language, from what we’d call French today.

Many words with French origins are commonplace in spoken and written English today, including parliament and banquet. A lot of the words we use today for food, and even the quintessentially English game of cricket, come from Norman French.

People think the longest word in the English language is antidisestablishmentarianism

It’s not.

The longest English word is, in fact, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Wondering what exactly pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is? It’s a lung condition that comes from inhaling sand or ash.

Truthfully, it’s unlikely you’ll need it in your everyday lexicon. However, if you want to be the person that knows that longest word in English, there you have it. We’d advise against trying to pronounce it after a drink or two, though.

The most used noun in the English language?  

Why, it’s “time”, which outranks “person”, “year”, “way” and “day” in the top 5.

Big news, then, for watch-makers, exam invigilators and Morris Day. Maybe ask your parents about that last one.

A photo of the dictionary definition of 'English'

On paper, “set” is a fairly simple word

Except, its entry in the Oxford English dictionary is 40,000 words long, and has over 430 definitions.

Think about it: you can set a table for a set time, you can complete a set of something, and so on. If it seems crazy to you that a three-letter word can mean so many different things, you’re not alone.

According to stereotypes, British people love a good queue

But where does this French-sounding word come from? Surprisingly - or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective - it’s from the tail of a beast in medieval art. A queue, then, resembles the tail of a creature, either in a single-file, or snaking around bends.

Something to remember when you’re next at the airport!

What’s the most commonly used letter in the English language ?

In that last sentence, you saw it 6 times alone. Yep, it’s ‘E’.

There are words where ‘e’ can occur up to five times. For example, “beekeeper”, “effervescence” and “teleconference” all have 5 inclusions of the letter ‘e’.

So, the next time you have a teleconference with a particularly effervescent beekeeper, this fact is something to bear in mind.

The English Language: tricky, but interesting!

No wonder, then, that non-native level English speakers can get caught up in the eccentricities of English. In truth, the name itself, ‘English’, is something of a misnomer. As discussed, much of the language comes from Latin, Germanic and French influences.

Of course, there are variations of English, including American and Australian English. Either way, it’s become popular worldwide and is often described as the language of business across the globe.

Languages, as ever, grow and continue to confound. New words and phrases are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every year, with pop culture having a big impact on new words, idioms and terminologies.

English can be an extremely tricky language to learn. However, it is a legitimately fascinating language, with many disparate influences. As TEFL teachers, you can help make the world’s most popular language less confusing, and impart some wisdom beyond the dictionary as you teach English to an enthusiastic audience!

Check out our guides to Teaching English Abroad and Teaching English Online to find out more about teaching English.

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