Fascinating Facts about the English Language

Language is the main form of communication between people. Some interesting statistics on languages would include:

  • The number of living languages: 6912, with 516 of those nearly extinct.
  • Mandarin is the most-spoken language in the world with about 1.2 billion speakers.
  • English is the second most-spoken language with more than 840 million people who speak it as a first or second language.
  • Languages have existed since around 100 000 BCE.
  • Sumerian was probably the first written language, around 3200 BCE.
  • Greek and Chinese could be considered the oldest written languages still in existence, dating from about 1500 BCE.
  • The language with the longest alphabet is Khmer (Cambodian) with 74 letters.
  • Rotokas, spoken by people on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, has the shortest alphabet with only 12 letters.
  • English is the official language in 67 sovereign states and 27 non-sovereign states such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico.
  • English is the official language of the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Olympic Committee and is also the mandated language of aviation throughout the world.
  • Many multinational companies are adopting an English corporate language culture, including Daimler-Chrysler, Renault, Nokia and Samsung.
  • There are 615 000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So why is English such a confusing language, especially in its spelling and pronunciation? Better yet, why are there so many words in the English language (especially ones we are never likely to use)? As Paul Anthony Jones states: “… it’s just one fantastic mishmash of borrowings, inventions, corruptions, misinterpretations, misspellings, alterations, words you’ll never need, and words you never even knew you’ll never need.” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul…/66-facts-you-may-not-have_b_5508623.html)

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Flammable and inflammable mean exactly the same thing, although you would think they were antonyms. Both words mean: capable of burning. Antonyms for both words are: fireproof, non-inflammable, non-flammable and non-combustible!

  • Another confusing pair is habitable and inhabitable which both mean: capable of being lived in. The antonym is: uninhabitable.
  • ‘ch’ pronounced as: chrome (k), machine (sh) and attach (ch).
  • What about letters that serve no purpose as in: knee, pneumonia, Wednesday, island, asthma, receipt and colonel?
  • The best example of many ways to pronounce one type of spelling must be ‘ough’. There are at least eight types of pronunciation:
    – enough
    – plough
    – hiccough
    – cough
    – through
    – though
    – thought
    – thorough
  • There are also the same words that have opposite meanings, depending on context. These are known as contronyms or auto-antonyms: ‘bolt’ means to secure or to flee or escape; ‘dust’ can be either: to remove fine particles or to sprinkle them over something; ‘cleave’ can mean to separate or to join; ‘handicap’ means either an advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement.
  • The ‘ee’ sound has 7 different spellings: ‘e’ as in he; ‘ie’ as in believe; ‘ae’ as in Caesar; ‘ee’ as in knee; ‘ei’ as in receipt; ‘ea’ as in sea.
  • Only in English would you have a word written as ‘boatswain’ but pronounced ‘bosun’!
  • There are approximately 100 spelling rules for 45 sounds.
  • The word ‘set’ has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Words with more than 250 definitions each include: ‘run’, ‘go’, ‘take’, ‘stand’, ‘get’ ‘turn’, ‘put’, ‘fall’ and ‘strike’.
  • Joseph Wright compiled The English Dialect Dictionary between 1898 and 1905, and many of the words made their way into the English Oxford Dictionary. Some of these wonderful words are:
    – shivviness: the uncomfortable feeling of wearing new underwear
    – slitherum: a dawdling, slow-moving person
    – omperlodge: to disagree with or contradict someone
    – outspeckle: a laughing stock
    – paddy-noddy: a long and tedious story
    – clomph: to walk in shoes too big for you
    – dauncy: to look ill or unwell
    – polrumptious: raucous or rude; and the best of all:
    – bang-a-bonk: verb meaning ‘to sit lazily on a riverbank’!

  • ‘Euouae’ is a medieval music term meaning a type of cadence in music. It is the longest English word containing only vowels.
  • Almost 4 000 new words are added to the dictionary every year.
  • The word ‘girl’ used to mean ‘child’ or ‘young person’, regardless of gender, and ‘harlot’ originally meant a young boy.
  • Portmanteaus are words which combine the letters and meaning of two words to create a different word (breakfast and lunch become brunch). Some of these are really interesting:
    – endorphin: endogenous and morphine
    – moped: motor and pedal
    – modem: modulator and demodulator
    – dumbfound: dumb and confound
    – chortle: chuckle and snort
    – bash: bang and smash
  • Certain interesting words from American English have made their way into the Oxford Dictionary:
    – discombobulate: to confuse or upset
    – hornswoggle: to trick or hoax
    – lollapalooza: an extraordinary thing, person or event
    – barbecue: to grill food over an open fire
    – bumptious: offensively self-assertive
  • Certain words have changed meaning, but the word remains the same:
    – awful: full of awe and inspiring wonder
    – counterfeit: legitimate copy
    – manufacture: make by hand
    – brave: wild, untamed, wrong, bad, deformed
    – fantastic: existing only in one’s imagination
    – nice: stupid and foolish
  • Shakespeare gave us approximately 1 700 words, including the following:
    – addiction, arch-villain, assassination
    – obscene, barefaced, leapfrog
    – salad days, new-fangled, radiance
    – ladybird, multitudinous, dwindle
    – scuffle, swagger, lonely
  • The word ‘tank’ is interesting. It originally meant: a water reservoir or cistern. In 1915, it was used in its current meaning: armoured, gun-mounted vehicle moving on tracks. However, many of the tank parts have nautical terms: hatch, turret, hull and deck. This could be because the British Navy rather than the Army developed it.

  • ‘Screeched’ is the longest one-syllable word in the English language.
  • Try and pronounce this word – it is the longest word in English with 45 letters:
  • ‘Floccinaucinihilipilification’ is the longest word in English that does not contain the letter ‘e’.
  • The Zulu word ‘ibhabhalazi’ was absorbed into the Afrikaans language as ‘babalaas’, and has subsequently found its way into the Oxford Dictionary. It means: The after-effects of drinking an excess of alcohol.
  • The adjective ‘abracadbrant’ describes something that has happened ‘by magic’, and unsurprisingly is in the lower 50% of commonly used words in the Collins dictionary.
  • The interesting word ‘cumberground’ means: any totally worthless object or person; something that is just in the way.
  • A word we surely use all the time comes from the German: ‘Schadenfreude’ and means one who delights in the misery of others.
  • Another very useful word for us to remember is ‘gowpen’ meaning: the bowl formed by cupping your hands together.

Finally, if we had to spell potato ‘correctly’ it would look like this:

P GH as in ‘hiccough’
O OUGH as in ‘dough’
T PHTH as in ‘phthisis’
A EIGH as in ‘neighbour’
T TTE as in ‘gazette’
O EAU as in ‘plateau’                GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU = POTATO!

To quote that wonderful author Bill Bryson, from his book Mother Tongue:

“Because English had no official status, for three centuries it drifted… And yet it survived… It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Bryson, Bill.  Mother Tongue, 1990, Penguin Books, p. 48.)





The many way to pronounce ‘ough’ – The Phrase Finder https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/





Fact Monster.
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15 Aug. 2018 https://www.factmonster.com/features/speaking-language/language-trivia/

What word in the English language has the most meanings? – Quora




Bryson, Bill.  Mother Tongue, 1990, Penguin Books, p. 48.

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