Skip to main content

Words: Why English Is the World’s Greatest Language

I'm an author of a book of essays. My 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Related Articles