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Words: Why English Is the World’s Greatest Language

Updated on February 3, 2017
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Catherine Giordano is the author of a book of essays and her poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in magazines and anthologies.

There are many reasons why English is the world's greatest language.
There are many reasons why English is the world's greatest language. | Source

4 Reasons English Is the Greatest Language

There are about 2,700 languages spoken on Earth, and English may be the greatest of all of them.

English is literally the greatest language in the world if by great you mean ...

  1. Most widely spoken: English is the official language of 79 countries and territories.
  2. Having the most words: 615,000 words are included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
  3. Having the most speakers: over 1.5 billion people speak English when you include non-native speakers. (It is third most-spoken language, behind Chinese and Spanish, if you count only native speakers.)
  4. Being dominant: Over 80% of everything on the internet is written in English; English is the official language for aviation and navigation.

Take this poll and explain your answer in the comments.

Do you agree that English is the greatest language in the world?

See results
English has a very rich vocabulary.
English has a very rich vocabulary. | Source

How Did the Vocabulary Get So Large?

The English language contains so many words because it is a stew of borrowings from other languages, neologisms (invented words), and corruptions (misspelled or otherwise altered words), duplications (words that replace an early term, but both remain in usage (cease and desist for example).

Many English words are “blend or “port-manteau” words—two words that have been mashed up to form one word, kind of like the modern trend of blending the two names of a couple (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie become Brangelina).

Some common examples are

  • “Brunch” -- breakfast and lunch are combined to mean a late breakfast, and at my house, “drunch” – dinner and lunch combined to mean an early dinner

  • “Motel" -- motor car and hotel are combined to mean a small hotel convenient to the highway, sometimes called a “motor inn.”

  • “Guesstimate” -- guess and estimate are combined to mean an estimate based on inadequate information. (It differs from an “estimate” in that an estimate is an educated guess and is thus a more precise guess.)

In addition to blends, English has thousands of compound words. These words may have begun with a hyphen, but eventually butted up against each other and became one word. These are words such as playground, teenager, blackboard, darkroom, seaside, and website.

English is a very rich language because of prefixes and suffixes and the common use of modifiers. For instance, the word "up" can be added to many other words to enhance the meaning. There is "sit up," speak up," "write up," "look up," "talk up," "up do," "up side," and many more.

English has a high information density. It is scored as .91. (1.0 being the highest score.) This means it takes fewer syllables to convey information compared to languages with a lower information density. You can readily see this if you look at an instruction manual written in several languages side by side. The English text is always shorter.

English is constantly growing. Approximately 4,000 new words are added to the English dictionary every year. That works out to be one new word every two hours.

Dr. Samuel Johnson compiled the first English dictionary in 1755.
Dr. Samuel Johnson compiled the first English dictionary in 1755. | Source

What Is the History of the Language?

Modern English, as we would recognize it today, came into use a relatively short time ago—in the 16th century—it is the language of Shakespeare (1564-1616). It is a mix of Old High German, Old Norse, and Anglo–Norman.

The earliest form of the English langage dates back to the fifth century when Germanic tribes from the European continent—Jutes, Saxons, and Angles—invaded the area now known as England.

Middle English developed following the Norman invasion of 1066. (It is the English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)

When the Pilgrims landed in the “New World”, American English began to diverge from British English. There are currently differences in pronunciation, spelling, meaning, usage, and slang.

English grammar and spelling became standardized in 1755 when Dr. Samuel Johnson published his dictionary, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. The sub title reads as follows: A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar.

There are many variations of English. In just the United States there are 24 different dialects of English.

William Shakespeare invented about 10% of the words in his body of work.
William Shakespeare invented about 10% of the words in his body of work. | Source

What Was Shakespeare’s Contribution to the Language?

William Shakespeare is considered greatest writer in the English. It may be not just because of his great insights into human nature and his remarkable poetry; it may be because he practically invented the modern English language.

Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his work--the plays, the sonnets and the narrative poems. Shakespeare invented 1,700 of those words. Ten percent of the words he used were his own inventions-- words that had never been recorded before.

He often invented words because he needed words that would fit into the iambic pentameter rhyme scheme.

Some of the Words Invented by William Shakespeare

Single words:

aerial / addiction / aggravate / assassinate / brittle / bump / castigate / countless / cranny / critical / dawn / dwindle / eventful / excellent / eyeball / fitful / fragrant / frugal / gnarled / gust / hint / homicide / hurry / inaudible / laughable / lonely / majestic / manager / monumental / obscene / pageantry / pendant / pious / radiance / road / submerge / summit / swagger/ torture / uncomfortable / unreal / zany

Compound words

arch-villain / bare-faced / blood-stained / cold-blooded / fancy-free / fore-father / green-eyed / hot-blooded / ill-starred / leap-frog / lily-livered / snow-white

The sound "ee" can be pronounced seven different ways.
The sound "ee" can be pronounced seven different ways. | Source

Why Is English a Difficult Language?

English is one of the most difficult languages on Earth. Due to the fact that it was built upon a coalescence of different languages. Also, because of its many borrowings from other languages, the rules have lots of exceptions and the words are hard to spell.

Additionally, many words and letter combinations are pronounced differently even when they are spelled the same.

  • The following sentence contains seven different spellings of the sound “ee”: He believed Caesar could see people seizing the seas.

  • The letters "ough" are pronounced nine different ways. The following sentence contains them all: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed."

  • “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” is considered to be the toughest tongue–twister in English language.

On the positive side, English is very rich in meaning. There are so many synonyms and antonyms that the word with exactly the right connotations can be chosen.

The letter "e" is the most common letter in the  language.
The letter "e" is the most common letter in the language. | Source

Some Interesting Facts About the Alphabet

The word “alphabet" is a compound word using two borrowed words. It comes from the Greek names of the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, “alpha” and “beta.”

The most common letter in English is "e". One in eight of all the letters written in English is "e."

The most common vowel in English is “e”, followed by “a.”

The most common consonant in English is "r", followed by "t".

More English words begin with the letter "s" than with any other letter.

"The" is the most common word in the language.
"The" is the most common word in the language. | Source

Some Interesting Facts About English Words

English has more words than you can ever use. In fact, most of these words are seldom used.

In order to come up with a count of words used in English, the folks who compile the Oxford Dictionary often use the term “lemma” instead of word. A lemma is the base form of a word, so “writes,” writing,” “written” would all be part of the lemma, “write.”

They use the Oxford English Corpus-- all the text collected from the web and other sources-- to serve as a basis for analysis of the English language. The Corpus currently contains more than 2.5 billion words. They have found

  • Just ten different lemmas--the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I--account for 25% of all the words used in the Oxford English Corpus.

  • Only about 1000 lemmas make up 75% of all English words in common usage.

Every syllable in English must have a vowel or vowel-like sound like “y” Not all syllables contain consonants.

“The" is the most common word in English. The word “the” is included in approximately 80% of all paragraphs.

“Time” is the most common nouns in English.

“Be” is the most common verb.

“Good” is the most common adjective in the English language.

The most commonly used word in conversation is "I."

The oldest word is “town.”

"I am" is the shortest English sentence.
"I am" is the shortest English sentence. | Source

The Long and Short of English Words

The longest English words with just one syllable are “screeched”, “scratched,” and “stretched,” with 9 letters each.

“Almost" is the longest word in the English language with all the letters in alphabetical order.

The shortest word containing all five main vowels is “eunoia.” (It means beautiful thinking or a state of normal mental health.)

The longest word with only one vowel is ‘strengths’ (It is 9 letters long.)

The longest word without any of the five true vowels is “rhythms.”

The word "uncopyrightable" is the longest English word in normal use that contains no letter more than once.

“Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” with 45 letters, is the longest word in the English language. It is a type of lung disease caused by inhaling ash and sand dust.

The shortest English sentence with both a subject and a verb is “I am.”

"Dord" was in the dictionary for several years. It has no meaning. It was a typo.
"Dord" was in the dictionary for several years. It has no meaning. It was a typo. | Source

Some Weird Words

Only two English words in current use end in "-gry". They are "angry" and "hungry."

There are only four words that end with “dous”: tremendous, stupendous, hazardous, and horrendous.

The only words in English that ends with the letters "-mt" is "dreamt" (which is a variant spelling of "dreamed") and "undreamt."

Orange, month, silver, angel, purple, and bulb have no words that are an exact rhyme.

There are some words that exist only in the plural form: scissors, binoculars, and tongs.

The word "bookkeeper" (along with "bookkeeping") is the only unhyphenated English word with three consecutive double letters.

There are 10 words in the 7-letter word "therein" that can be found without rearranging any of its letters. They are: the, there, he, in, rein, her, here, ere, therein, herein.

The word “set” is the word in the English language with the most definitions.

There is no word that means the exact opposite of “exceed.” The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are considering the possibility inventing "deceed," which would mean "to be less than."

“‘Queueing” is the only word with five vowels in a row. The word “queue” is pronounced the same when the last four letters are removed.

Due to a printing error, there was a word in the English dictionary from 1932 to 1940 which didn’t have a meaning. The word was “dord" and it became known as a ghost word.

A logophile is someone who loves words.
A logophile is someone who loves words. | Source

What Is a Logophile?

The word “logophile” means “a lover of words.” It is derived by combining the Greek words logus which means word of speech with the Greek word phile which means lover or friend.

I hope I have entertained and informed you and proven my own logophile bona-fides.

Ten Foreign Words Without English Counterparts

Even with all the words in the English language, there are still a few in other languages that have no counterparts in English.

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 6 months ago from Orlando Florida

      kimjongun: I'm sure most people find their own native language to be the greatest language. I clearly stated that I was biased in the very first paragraph. I also stated four facts to substantiate my claim about English being the greatest if, and only if, you use the four measures I mentioned--for instance most widely spoken, has the most words, etc. and these claims are substantiated. I also stated that English has some negatives--like spelling and pronunciation. And I did not claim that English was the most "beautiful" language. Finally, you took the title of the article too literally; it certainly was not meant to be a scientific. It was hyperbole and opinion.

    • profile image

      Kimjongun 6 months ago

      As a native English speaker who has studied and speaks 5 other languages, I REALLY resent the idea of arguing for the superiority of any one language. All languages are beautiful in their own right, and all have their own disadvantages and disadvantages. If you have studied other languages, I am sure this would be obvious. But the fact that this article was most likely written by a native English speak who doe not speak any tower languages means that it is clearly biased and unfounded. Please reconsider before making superlative and unscientific claims that discount great swathes of human culture and civilization. Thanks

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Achini: It is so nice of you to comment. I hope your English language abilities continue to grow. I demonstrated some of the things that make English a difficult language for people who do not speak it as a first language (and even for those who do).

    • profile image

      Achini 2 years ago

      I too think English is a great language . In my opinion I think I like that bcuz it is easy to undersand it and FUN . I really don't know how to speak or even the tenses.And at many times and in many moments I got the bad feeling about not knowing English.So ,cuz of tht I teach my daugter and son English in numerous ways and they are keeping up their good-work. I type this comment by the hand of my daughter too. Not by myself and I am so happy bout tht.SO I SAY THAT EVERYBODY MUSST LEARN THIS DOMINANT LANGUAGE.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Larry Rankin: Thank you for your comment. I got to set the criteria for "the greatest language," so I rigged the game in favor of English. I do agree the English is a mutt of a language and the rules of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are so arbitrary. But "Why English is a Pretty Good Language" just didn't have the same pizazz.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      English the world's greatest language? I'd have to cast my vote in the not sure pile:-) So many influences, it is certainly a mut of a language. As a result there really are no true rules, just partial rules that prove themselves to be inaccurate at some point.

      Very interesting hub.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      LOL :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Trish M: French is lovely, but I am biased an English speaker to prefer English. Anyway, I got to decide what the qualifications were for the title of "World's Greatest Language" and I rigged it in favor of English. Thanks for commenting.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 2 years ago from The English Midlands

      Great subject, Catherine. :)

      I love studying the origins of words, place-names, surnames, etc, and I enjoy learning new languages (or, at least I did when I was younger and my brain worked better). It's a fascinating subject so I really enjoyed this.

      As an English-speaker, I know most about English, of course, and I appreciate it, but I have to say that I really like the French language.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      MelRootsNWrites: Thanks for your comment. I think something like 5,000 new words are added to the English language every year. Words are fun.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 2 years ago from California

      Wonderful article, Catherine! It is nice to know that others enjoy words as much as I do. I love the fact that English is always evolving. Some of those made up words end up being part of our lexicon.

      I also find it fascinating to see how much of it is derived from other languages. Now that I am getting into foreign research for my family tree, I can see the word roots in Latin, French, and Portuguese. My 11th grade English teacher would be proud! LOL

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I feel so lucky to have been born into an English speaking country. I have never been good at learning other languages. I'm sure I would have not been able to learn English. It would be a real disadvantage given the widespread use of English all over the world.

    • ReviewsfromSandy profile image

      Sandy Mertens 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      I agree that it is the greatest language. It is also one of the hardest for those who have it as a second language.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Of course you are right cam8510. I can't conclusively say that English is the greatest language since I don't know any other languages. At the beginning of this essay, I gave 4 reasons for saying English is the greatest language. As you say, it is mainly great for economic and political reasons. However, it is also great for its expressiveness.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Is English the greatest language? It is the most spoken language because of economics and politics. I think there are more eloquent languages. I suppose it depends on the definition of great as it is used in this sense. If not for politics and economics, it would not be so widely used and would not be growing as it is. I love English. It is the only language I speak with fluency. Up and shared.

      Great hub, full of helpful and interesting information. Thanks for sharing.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks for your praise and your votes. I think Shakespeare invented words and expected people to figure out their meanings by the context. It is so admirable that in India everyone learns to speak more than one language. I have to call English the greatest language because it is the only one I know.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 2 years ago from India

      A great and informative hub about the English language. Every Indian is at least a bilingual and some of us are multilingual, but one thing is common that every educated Indian reads and writes English. I enjoy reading literature in English as I do in Hindi. I love and admire English.

      This language has mesmerized the whole world. It is an interesting fact how Shakespeare coined so many words ! How people knew their meanings, did he give their definitions also ? It is really an interesting hub. Loved reading the whole stuff. Voted up.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks CrisSp: English is indeed crazy--crazy great. Thanks for your comment and support.

    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 2 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      English indeed is one interesting, crazy language! I'm glad I speak more than that. :)

      Great, informative and very useful hub.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you PS. I'm glad you liked my choice of words. I am quite persnickety about finding just the right word. I appreciate your comment.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Our language is definitely colorful and varied for sure.

      This was interesting as you chose your WORDS carefully and used them 'judiciously.'

      Well done.

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank Jodah for your praise and votes. It means a lot coming from you because you yourself are a great logophile as demonstrated by yur poetry and mastery of words.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What a wonderful hub and response to Marilyn's challenge Catherine.You are undoubtedly a true "logophile". This was interesting, entertaining and informative. I learnt so much about the English language. Your research was incredible. I knew Shakespeare invented a lot of words but many of those he did surprised me. Great job, voted up.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks for your comment billybuc. Of course, I don't speak any other languages either so I'm not in a position to know. I will stipulate that French is easier on the ears.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's real hard to argue with your points, but then I don't speak any other language and I'm a bit biased. Beautifully presented and I'm with you 100%.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      travmaj: Thank you for your comment. I agree that the English language is fascinating. I'm glad you enjoyed this tribute to the greatness of the English language.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 2 years ago from australia

      Hi Catherine, what a well documented hub, so much information and words and knowledge to ponder - all these new words too - how do we cope?

      Just fascinating - thank you

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Exactly right cliveWwilliams. According to my research, a new word enters the vocabulary every two hours and that statistic probably excludes arcane technical terms. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • clivewilliams profile image

      Clive Williams 2 years ago from Nibiru

      Guess what, words are still being added as many new terms are now being coined especially in the field of Technology, Slang and Medicine.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Margaret. I so glad you liked my inf0-packed hub on the English language. I admire you for your language skills. I was being a little provocative when I said English was "the greatest language." If someone wants to nominate another language for this title, I'd be happy to hear about it. Like you, I was amazed at all the words Shakespeare invented. I did not know this before I started researching Shakespeare. The list I provided is only a small sample. Thank you for you comment.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      Catherine, as a fellow linguaphile I enjoyed every word of this article! Who knew that Shakespeare contributed words like aerial and arch-villain to the English vocabulary? You've packed in so many fun and interesting facts about the English language here. I don't consider English to be "the greatest language," but only because I'm either fluent in or have a working knowledge of several languages and I find each of them to be fascinating in its own way. And you certainly make a strong case for what makes English one of the great languages.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Newjerusalem: As a lover of English, I was hoping to write what you called "a feast for English lovers." Thank you for letting me know that you enjoyed my collection of facts about the richness of the English language.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you so very much Venkatachari. It is always nice to get such an enthusiastic response for my efforts. Thank you for the votes and share.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Wow! Excellent work, Catherine! What a beautiful and awesome response to the challenge!!! I am dumbstruck at this. Enjoyed it reading each and every sentence.

      Thanks for producing such great work. Voted up and awesome. And sharing also.

    • newjerusalem profile image

      victor 2 years ago from India

      A well presented article. It's, undoubtedly,a feast to English lovers.

      It's packed with versatile and rare information.

      My appreciations for your hard work -- indeed, intelligent work.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Lorelei Cohen: The grammar and spelling of English is confusing, but I love the language nevertheless for the richness of vocabulary. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Marilyn and thank you for the challenge that got me started on this. I learned a lot of new things about English myself. For instance, I never knew that Shakespeare invented new words. (I invented a few myself in my poetry.)

    • Lorelei Cohen profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 2 years ago from Canada

      I love the written word as well. English though can indeed be a little confusing.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, Catherine; although I read it last night, I wanted to read it again. You've done an admirable job with the challenge. I learned several interesting facts about a favorite subject - words. I applaud your research and can see why you told me in your comment that this took you between 10 and 12 hours to find and effectively gather your facts. Wonderful job. I'm sure this will help others as well. ~Marilyn

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Jackie Lynnley: Thanks for your comments, votes, and praise. It is all much appreciated.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Some great information; outstanding job! I know I prefer it. ^+

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Great job. Your logophile credentials are secure. I think one thing most native English speakers aren't aware of is just how inconsistent, and therefore difficult to learn, our language is. I'm just glad that I don't have to learn it as a second language. In fact I consider myself incredibly blessed to have as a natural endowment what millions around the world struggle mightily to acquire.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Sunshine: Like you I may be a bit biased about English being great because it is the only one I can speak and write. I hope I hear from some other people who speak English as a second language and find out what they think. I feel I have made a good case for English being the best.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 2 years ago from Orlando, FL

      A fantastic tribute to the English language! I have to agree with you, it is the worlds greatest language...might be because it is the only one I use :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks tillsonitian for your comments and votes. English is a fascinating language. I'm glad I'm a native English speaker. I have a hard time learning foreign languages, and if English is one of the hardest to learn, I might never have learned it. Lucky for me, England did a lot of colonizing and made English the dominant language.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Don't worry! It's a common mistake. Thanks for understanding.

      Ann

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      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      You certainly covered your subject with so many interesting facts. Who would've ever known about dord?

      It's a hard language to learn but once learned you're in the majority.

      Very well written Catherine. I think it would be an interesting piece for a beginning college English class!

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks Ann. I'm so glad you liked this piece about the English language. And thank you for your geography lesson. I try hard to get things right, so I will fix this.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Me again! Hope you don't mind me mentioning it but England isn't an island. Scotland, Wales and England together make up the island of Great Britain (along with small islands along the coast) and with Northern Ireland we are the United Kingdom. Just about everyone thinks English and British is the same thing; it's not. We have our own nation and we're proud of it! Ok I've waved my flag now! As I say, I hope you don't mind but I couldn't find an email address for you and I don't do twitter or facebook.

      Thanks for a great hub, Catherine. Hope you have a great week.

      Ann

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      You've certainly packed a lot into this one, Catherine! Yes, English is an incredibly rich language as you've admirably demonstrated.

      I love English, its versatility and its range of meanings.

      I think the worst spelling for any foreign students to get their heads round is the '-ough' words; nightmare!

      Marilyn's challenge was a great one and not an easy one to do.

      Great hub! Informative and entertaining.

      Ann