English Language Day: 5 Surprising Facts About the English Language
  • 4-minute read
  • 23rd April 2021

English Language Day: 5 Surprising Facts About the English Language

The United Nations’ English Language Day is held every year on April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday, in case you were wondering). To help this year, we’ve picked five surprising facts about the English language that we hope you’ll enjoy.

1. English Is a Mixture of Languages

The English we speak today has influences from many languages, most notably:

  • Germanic languages – English is a Germanic language, with its roots in the Old English developed by Angle, Saxon, and Jute settlers in England. Later on, further Germanic influences were absorbed from Old Norse and the Vikings.
  • French languages – The development of Middle English was heavily influenced by Old French, especially the Norman dialect.
  • Latin and Greek – As well as words with Latin roots, English has adopted many Latin and ancient Greek terms more directly. This is because Latin was the language of religion, scholarship, and official records for a long time.

Not that we’ve stopped there! The bulk of English comes from Germanic and French languages, but we also have many words with origins in other languages, including Gaelic (e.g., slogan), Arabic (e.g., algebra), and Chinese (e.g., ketchup).

2. English Used to Have Grammatical Gender

Around a quarter of the world’s languages use grammatical gender. This means they class nouns as male, female, or sometimes neuter in some languages, which then determines the forms of other words, such as determiners and adjectives.

For instance, in English the only form of the definite article is “the.” We can therefore use this determiner in front of any noun. For instance:

The man, the woman, the bed.

But in German, there are three forms: der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter). The correct form in German thus depends on the word that follows:

Der Mann, die Frau, das Bett.

Old English was closer to German in this respect, with three genders. However, this began to decline in the 11th century. This is possibly because the mix of languages spoken in England used different genders for the same words, causing confusion.

Nowadays, English still has words that vary on the basis of “natural” gender (e.g., using “actor” for a man and “actresses” for a woman). But we no longer have grammatical gender, which is lucky given how complicated English is otherwise!

3. “E” Is the Most Commonly Used Letter in English

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the most common letter in English is “e.” They came to this conclusion by analyzing the 240,000 entries in their concise edition, finding that “e” appears in about 11% of all commonly used words.

This was 6,000 more words than featured “a,” the next most common letter. And spare a thought for poor “Q,” which is 56 times less common than the letter “e.”

4. English Contains a Lot of Contradictory Words

The English language has a number of confusing words called contranyms. These are words that can mean two opposite things depending on the context. For example, the word “left” can mean “remaining” or “departed”:

There are two sandwiches left on the table.

Elvis has left the building.

You can see some more examples of common contranyms below:

Contranym

Meaning 1

Example 1

Meaning 2

Example 2

Buckle

Connect two things

You need to buckle your shoes.

Break or collapse

The support is starting to buckle.

Fast

Quick or speedy

She’s a really fast runner.

Stuck or secure

The door is stuck fast!

Bolt

Secure or fasten

Make sure to bolt the door.

Run away

He bolted when he saw you.

Sanction

Approve

This technique is sanctioned by the government.

An official penalty

They imposed financial sanctions.

5. Pangrams Use Every Letter in the Alphabet

A pangram sentence is one that uses every letter of the alphabet. A perfect pangram is one that uses each letter only once, but these are difficult to construct without using abbreviations, so most use some letters more than once.

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Some famous examples of pangrams include:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

The five boxing wizards jump quickly.

When zombies arrive, quickly fax judge Pat.

Why not see if you can come up with your own?

Expert Proofreading Services

The English language is full of surprises, and we hope you learned something new from this post! Our expert editors are about more than just fun facts, though, so why not upload a free trial document for proofreading see how our services work?

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