If you speak English, you're a master of many tongues

How many languages do you speak? One, maybe two, you say? Wrong! If you speak English, you use words from at least 35 foreign languages. Want proof? Read the next two sentences out loud:

"Jane saw a baby squirrel eating ketchup left out after yesterday's barbeque. Although she was still wearing her cotton pajamas, she hurried outside to chase the creature away."

There. You just spoke seven languages - counting English!

"Baby" comes from a Dutch word spelled the same way. "Squirrel" is French. "Ketchup" originated in Malay. "Barbeque" was borrowed from Caribbean Indians. "Cotton" was first an Arabic word. And "Pajamas" was taken right from the Urdu language of India. Surprised?

You shouldn't be. Tim Morris is an English professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. He says that when we speak English, we're using bits and pieces of many languages.

Loaned, but not returned

Dr. Morris asks his college English classes to count "loan words." These are words we use that were taken directly from other languages. He jokes about the term "loan words." "It's not like we're going to give these words back after we're done with them," he says. "Imported words" might be a better term.

Simple sentences may contain 15 percent or less of these Complex sentences may be 50 percent or more "imports." Scientific papers might use mostly loan words. "We use imports constantly," Morris says, "generally without any idea we are using them."

Was there ever a time when people spoke just plain English? No.

Scholars estimate that one-third of the world's languages are of Indo-European origin. These include English, French, Latin, German, Dutch, Celtic, and Slavic tongues.

Back around AD 450, when Julius Caesar was alive, English as we know it didn't exist. English is relatively young. Its roots go back 1,500 years, to Britain. People there spoke Celtic. Then came Anglo-Saxon invaders.

These conquerors spoke a language closely related to older forms of Dutch, Morris says. Dutch words like "woord," "gras," and "man," became the English equivalents "word," "grass," and "man." Anglo-Saxon "Anglish" became "English."

But our story doesn't end there. English continued to grow and change.

When Norman French invaded Britain in 1066, the English vocabulary got an enormous boost. Scholars say that nearly half of all English words are French in their origin. Words like art, orange, taxi, train, and surprise are a few examples.

When English colonists came to America in the 1700s, they encountered native Americans and their languages. Words like wigwam, teepee, chipmunk, possum, and tomahawk settled into the colonists' vocabulary.

Centuries later, in the early 1900s, immigrants streamed to America's shores. Italians taught us to say broccoli, macaroni, opera, and studio. Spanish speakers added mosquito, mustang, tortilla, and alligator. Bagel, kosher, and pastrami came from those who spoke Yiddish. And yam, gorilla, and jitterbug were taken from African languages.

Just how big is English?

Elizabeth Jewell is very interested in words. She's managing editor of the United States Dictionaries Department at Oxford University Press. She says that today's electronic communication makes it easy for new words, expressions, and usages, "to spread around the world very quickly." New technological developments add new English words "at an astonishing rate," she says.

It's impossible to say exactly how big the English language is. Even counting all the words in a dictionary won't give you an accurate figure. But you may be interested to know that college-size editions like Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate contain about 90,000 "headwords."

Headwords are main entries in bold print. Under a headword are plurals and various forms of that word, along with definitions. For example, under the headword "wild" you might find "wildness," "wild wind," and "wild cherry."

In a larger dictionary, like the Oxford English Dictionary, are more than 250,000 headwords. Some say the true number of English words is twice that.

That's a lot of words! But even a highly educated person uses only about 10 percent of them.

Exporting our words

Don't get the idea that English is a greedy language. It doesn't just take words - it gives them away, too. Foreign countries have adopted many of our words. English-language books, magazines, movies, songs, and TV shows popularize English words around the globe. E-mail and the Internet are strong influences today, too.

For example, Italians call using the TV remote "il zapping," and say they are going "jogging." The French use English computer terms like "interface," and "semiconductor." They also say "le shampooing" (which was first a Hindi word) and "le golf."

But just because it sounds English doesn't mean it is. For example, a German giving you a "gift" is giving you poison! And in Italian, "ape" means "bee."

No one is certain how many languages exist in the world today. One recent book describes 6,703 languages. But scholars still debate about what is a separate language and what is simply a variation (or dialect) of that language.

English is arguably the most important language in the world today. It is widely used for scientific and technological writing. Businesses worldwide rely on English as their common language.

English may be important, but it's not the No. 1 language spoken in the world.

Of the top 100 languages, English is No. 3 - or maybe No. 2, or maybe No. 4, depending on whom you ask. Experts can't agree. It's hard to count everyone who speaks a particular language.

In any case, Chinese is widely thought to be No. 1, with 885 million speakers. Spanish is a distant second, with 332 million. A recent estimate has 322 million individuals speaking English.

But if English isn't first, why do so many people want to learn it?

"English is very flexible," says Dennis Baron. He's chairman of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana. "This is why it survives and has done so well." And our vocabulary continues to grow rapidly. Each year, he estimates, 3,000 to 5,000 new words are added. Of these, "a couple hundred" will become "general lingo," he says.

What will the year 2001 hold for our language? Arthur Bicknell is a spokesman for dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass. He says about 100 new words will be in their 10th edition, copyrighted 2001.

A complete list of new words is never given out ahead of time, but Bicknell was willing to share a few of them with Monitor readers. As of 2001, these will become "official" English words, according to Merriam-Webster: "eye candy," "flatline," "foosball," "dot-com," and "gotcha."

How do you say ... uhh ...?

YOU HEAR PEOPLE SAY "uh," "ah," or "um" all the time. Sometimes it's every few words: "I would like to ... uh ... speak about ... uh....."

Linguists (people who study languages) call these words "hesitation sounds." Different languages and cultures use different sounds.

David James Silva is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington. He says all those "uhs," we make are to "buy time when we speak to others." People don't like "dead air" in their conversations. So they use filler words.

The French can be heard to say "er." Only they don't pronounce American English's hard "r" sound. It comes out like a nasal "euh." They may also fill a pause with "bah" or "alors" (pronounced ah-LOHR).

Spanish speakers have a wide range of hesitation sounds. Silva mentions "eh," "este" (ess-TAY) and "bueno" (BWAY-noh). Alvin Martin works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. His organization has evaluated hesitation sounds in Spanish. The NIST list includes "pss," "shh," "oy," "ah," and "uf."

Like French speakers, Mr. Martin says Germans might say "bah." They may also punctuate conversations with "ha," "uh," "ho," "uff," or "huh."

Koreans say "chuh" or "chuhgi.". When Japanese speakers hesitate, they might say "ano...." (ah-no).

And when a Mandarin (Chinese) speaker "is stuck for a word or person's name," Martin says, they may say "nei ge."

Peter Ford is the Monitor's Paris-based writer. Before that, he was based in Moscow. He says Russians say "noo" as a hesitation sound. It's a drawn-out version of their word for "but."

What would English speakers think if foreign hesitation sounds started popping up in conversation? Well, I ... chuh ... just don't know!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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