language and literature
56 Where can I get information about English
56 Where can I get information about English courses?A list of private language schools which have been recognised by the British Council is available from the British Council in your country or in Britain. The British Council also publishes English Studies Information Service (ESIS) sheets on English language learning.
The British Association of State English Language Teaching publishes a handbook which gives details of English language courses offered throughout Britain. Contact:
57 How many people speak English worldwide?
English is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Recent estimates suggest that over 337 million people speak English as their first language, with possibly some 350 million speaking it as a second language. America has the largest number of English speakers - over 226 million speak the language as a mother tongue. English is an official language in India, alongside Hindi, and some 3,000 English newspapers are published throughout the country. English is also the favoured language of the world’s major airlines and international commerce. Over 80 per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English and two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. English is an official language, or has a special status in over 75 of the world’s territories.
If the rest of the world isn’t talking English, they’re borrowing
English words to add to their own language: the Japanese go on a
‘pikunikku’ (picnic), Italians program their computers with ‘il software’,
Germans talk about ‘ein Image Problem’ and ‘das Cashflow’ and Czechs say
‘ahoy!’ for ‘hello’ - a greeting traditionally used by English sailors,
which is interesting as there’s no sea in the Czech
58 Why are many English words pronounced differently from the way they are spelt?
English spelling is unpredictable at the best of times, and occasionally totally chaotic - an opinion no doubt shared by British schoolchildren and those studying English around the world alike. However, studies of the language claim that there are only about 400 words in English whose spelling is wholly irregular. Unfortunately many of them are among the most frequently used in the language.
The problems with the English spelling system came about as the language developed over a period of 1,000 years. Some complications arose early on, when the Romans tried to write down Old English using the 23 letter Latin alphabet. Old English contained nearly 40 vowels and consonants.
The influence of French after the Norman Conquest also made an impact on English spelling. French scribes introduced ‘qu’ where Old English had used ‘cw’ e.g. queen, and ‘gh’ instead of ‘h’ e.g. night, amongst other changes.
The introduction of the printing press in 1476 meant that a standard spelling system began to emerge. The system reflected the speech of the London area. The pronunciation of vowels underwent further changes during the 15th century, but because of the advent of the printing press, spelling never caught up. Previously, scribes would have simply written down a new spelling to reflect the new pronunciation. Thus modern spelling in many ways reflects outmoded pronunciation of words dating back to the Middle Ages.
Despite many attempts to reform the English spelling system, so far no changes have been made since the 16th century - mainly because nobody can agree on what the best alternative may be!
59 Why is English spoken with different accents?
Most British people can recognise where someone was brought up by their accent. Every region has its own way of pronouncing the words and sentences of English that identifies the speaker with that particular geographical area. Differences arose from the time when English was spoken in a variety of different forms during the Middle Ages - Northern (developed from Northumbrian Old English), West and East Midlands (diverging from Mercian Old English), South Western (West Saxon) and South Eastern (Kentish). After 1500 the language of London gradually emerged as the most dominant form, and today the London or Southern accent is usually accepted as Standard English. This is sometimes referred to as ‘BBC English’ since at one time all announcers on BBC radio and TV were required to speak it.
Regional accents have persisted and
diversified over the centuries. Today the identification of an accent can
place the speaker in a general area of Britain - such as West Country or
South Wales, or be quite specific, referring to individual counties or
cities; e.g. Liverpool, Yorkshire or Glasgow accents. Although Standard
English was once the accepted form of English for public speaking or
broadcasting, today regional accents are widely used on television and
60 Do Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own languages?
At the start of the 20th century half
of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh, a language belonging
to the Celtic family. However, the numbers of Welsh-speaking people have
steadily declined, and today only about a fifth of the population of Wales
speak the language.
Gaelic, also a language of Celtic
origin, is still spoken by some 70,000 people in Scotland, with the
greatest concentration of Gaelic speakers in the islands of the Hebrides.
The word ‘whisky’, the famous Scottish alcoholic drink, is derived from
Gaelic uisce beatha or ‘water of life’! People in the Lowlands of Scotland
have for centuries spoken Scots, a dialect derived from the Northumbrian
branch of Old English and a completely separate language from Gaelic. This
has its own recognised literary tradition as in the poetry of Robert Burns
and has seen a revival in poetry in the 20th century.
61 What is cockney rhyming slang?
True cockneys traditionally come from a very small part of London.
Some people complain that rhyming slang is simply spoken to give the
cockney an unfair advantage over strangers - the wily cockney spots an
attentive or enquiring stranger and lapses into rhyming slang so that he
or she can’t be understood! However, numerous colloquial expressions
derive from rhyming slang, and have even been heard in use in the House of
Commons, such as ‘let’s get down to brass tacks’ means ‘lets talk
62 What are the main ethnic minority languages?
Britain’s Afro-Caribbean population does not have its own language, although many second and even third-generation West Indians speak a dialect of Standard English described as Creole, or Jamaican Creole (patois).
Britain’s Asian population speaks a variety of languages, often using different languages for writing and speaking. The national languages of India and Pakistan are Hindi and Urdu. Northern Indian languages are also widely used in Britain - Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali. These three languages have a common derivation in Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, but are not necessarily mutually intelligible. There are more Asian speakers of Punjabi in Britain than any other language, followed by speakers of Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.
Two of the main Chinese dialects spoken by the Chinese in Britain are
Cantonese, the language of urban Hong Kong and Guangdong province, and
Mandarin, spoken by those from mainland China.
63 Who are the most popular British writers?
The playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and the novelist
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) remain two of the most popular and widely
known British writers the world over. In addition to writing 35 known
plays, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and sometimes acted in small parts in
his own plays - he is known to have played the Ghost in ‘Hamlet’. His best
known plays include: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’ and
The novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817) are known for their subtlety of
observation and irony, together with their penetrating insights into the
provincial life of the middle-classes in the early part of the 19th
Many distinguished works of contemporary fiction have been awarded the Booker Prize, given annually to the best novel published in Britain. Novels must be written in English by a citizen of Britain, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The winner of the Booker Prize in 1997 was Arundhati Roy for her novel ‘The God of Small Things’.
Bernice Rubens is a contemporary Welsh-Jewish writer who grew up in
Cardiff. She has received much critical acclaim for her novels, among them
Booker Prize winner ‘The Elected Member’.
One of the most widely known English poets is remarkable because his
work has been continuously transcribed, published, read and commented on
since his death. That he lived over 600 years ago is no less remarkable.
He is Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1345-1400).
The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (1914-53) is perhaps best known for his
play ‘Under Milk Wood’. This was first written as a radio drama and
broadcast by the BBC in 1954, before being adapted for the stage.