Posted by: Kristen Hicks | September 3, 2012

12 Fun Facts About the English Language

There are many technical, dry books to be written about the history and analysis of the English language, and many that already exist. Linguistics isn’t a subject known for its  ability to generate excitement.  Luckily, Bill Bryson, a modern day master at taking complex, hard to communicate subjects and weaving them into fascinating, entertaining stories that enrich readers, opted to pore through many of the drier tomes on the English language to cull fascinating facts and tales to fill his book on the subject, The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way.

1. Before the printing press, people saw little need for regularized spelling. People wrote words how they they sounded, so the same word would have any number of spellings according to the person writing it down and the pronunciation in their particular geographic location (which would often be different from the pronunciation of nearby towns and villages).

The reason many of our current spellings are so unintuitive, is that the push for a consistency in spelling that came with the printing press did not correspond with a push for regularity in pronunciation. Pronunciation continued to evolve after the spellings had become fairly stable. For example, the “k” ceased to be pronounced in words like “knee” and “know,” the “l” in words like “folk” and “would,” etc.

2. The number of words in the English language is subject for debate, but most agree it’s at

Bill Bryson

least 3 million (most dictionaries have somewhere in the range of 300,000 to 600,000). The vocabularies of individuals are much smaller, but the average number is even more debated than the total number in the language. Estimates have ranged from 300-250,000. These estimates are further complicated by the fact #3.

3. 43 words account for half of the words in common use. 9 words account for a quarter of those in use*. In other words, we each know far more words than we regularly employ.

4. Shakespeare never spelled his own name the way we spell it today. He also didn’t bother spelling it the same way twice in any of the examples we still know of.

5. O.K. is the most widespread of all English words, used in cultures and languages throughout the world. It’s also one of the most grammatically versatile, serving in different contexts as an adjective, verb, noun, interjection and adverb.

6. The differences in British and American English are often inexplicable. One strange example: in the UK the Royal Mail delivers the post, in the States the Postal Service delivers the mail.

7. English is considered an official language in 44 countries, more than any other (2nd is French at 27).

8.There is such a thing as a professional pronouncer, they’re called “orthoepists” (No, I don’t know how to pronounce that).

9. There’s a city called Eighty-eight in Kentucky. In 1948, 88 people from Eighty-eight voted for Truman, and 88 voted for Dewey.

10. Some cultures never curse – Japanese, Malayans, Polynesians and Native American languages have no swear words. But, most do. The Ancient Romans had 800 curses in their language.

11. Palindromes are at least 2,000 years old.

12. The citizens of Boonville, California invented a langauge called boontling that was used in the isolated town for at least 30 years.

*and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, you

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