English is the primary language spoken in the United Kingdom, Ireland, United States, Australia, and New Zealand, and sundry other places; one of the primary languages of Canada and South Africa; and a second language for most Europeans and many in the rest of the world. Worldwide, the language is second only to Chinese in number of speakers, and its cultural and economic importance has given it preeminent status as a language of international communication.
English descends from the language spoken by the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain at the beginning of the Middle Ages, usually referred to as Old English. Although its most commonly used words today derive from those early Anglo-Saxon roots, its vocabulary was greatly influenced over time by both Old Norse and the French language. By about the time of the Renaissance, the language had evolved into what is known as Middle English. From the late 1400s, the language changed further into what is described as Modern English. English has continued to assimilate foreign words, especially Latin and Greek, even to the present time. As a result of this history of assimilation, English today has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world.
English is a slightly inflected language, retaining features like
- Possessive (which has developed into a clitic)
- Verb conjugation (third person single ending of -s)
- Verb tenses
- Accusative (only on pronouns)
All in all English is a much less inflected language than the bulk of Indo-European languages, placing more of the information in the word order.
English grammar is based on that of its Germanic roots, though some scholars during the 1700s and 1800s attempted to impose Latin grammar upon it, with little success.
English is noted for the vast size of its active vocabulary and its fluidity. English easily accepts technical terms into common usage and imports new loan words which often come into common usage. In addition, slang provides new meanings for old words. In fact this fluidity is so pronounced that a distinction often needs to be made from formal and correct forms of English and contemporary usage.
Varieties of English include American English, Australian English, British English, Canadian English, Hiberno-English, Newfoundland English, New Zealand English, and South African English. These varieties may, in many cases, contain several subvarieties, such as Cockney within British English and Black English vernacular (spoken among African-Americans and sometimes known as Ebonics).