The English language

This page contains information about the English language as the basis for a comparison with the other languages on this section of the site.


The pages on this subsite give an overview of the major differences between English and other world languages. The comparisons can only be fully understood if the reader knows something about the nature of the English language. The information below provides the necessary background.

It is important to state at the outset that there are several English dialects or varieties. The grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of American native speakers of English are not identical to the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of British speakers of English. Indeed, within Britain itself there are varieties of spoken English that are to some extent mutually unintelligible.

The variety of English that is the basis of comparison in these web pages is that used by educated, middle-class people from the south of England. This variety is sometimes called Standard English or BBC English or Oxford English. The phonology of this variety is called Received Pronunciation (RP).


English is a member of the Germanic language family, which in turn belongs to the Indo-European language family. There are over 350 million native speakers in several countries across the globe, from Canada to New Zealand. It is the joint or second official language in many more.

@ English is the language of international business and politics, and by far the most commonly-learned second language.~


The English alphabet consists of 26 Roman letters. There are no diacritics such as the umlaut in German or the circumflex in French. The exception is words imported from other languages, e.g. rôle, naïve from French. However, these words are increasingly written without the diacritic, even in formal English.

Although the varieties of spoken English sound very different, all native-speakers use the same writing conventions.


Standard English has about 20 vowel sounds (12 pure vowels / 8 diphthongs) and about 24 consonant sounds. Speakers of languages which have fewer vowel sounds often have difficulty making a distinction between words like sit / seat; pull / pool; food / foot. The same applies to the consonants clusters in many English words: strength; splash, chronicle. Non-native speakers may say such words with an extra vowel sound or leave out the syllable altogether.

The pronunciation of English words such as this, thin, clothes, thirteenth, months inevitably causes problems for learners who do not need to use the tip of the tongue to produce words in their own language.

Further difficulties for learners attempting to produce spoken English that sounds natural are the unpredictability of English word stress, the elision of weak syllables and the insertion of consonants (liaison). Examples:

  • yesterday - tomor row (word stress)
  • What sa time? - Quart' t' four! (elision)
  • more (r) and more / not (t) at all (liaison)

English is a stress-timed language. Its intonation patterns, therefore, are different from those of syllable-timed languages like French, Spanish or Hindi. This accounts for the heavy English accents that many native speakers of those languages retain even after years of speaking English and the acquisition of flawless grammar.

English is a non-tonal language. Thus it sounds very different from tone languages such Chinese or Vietnamese. In tone languages pitch is used to distinguish word meaning. So a word said with high pitch may have a different meaning than the same word said with a low pitch.

In English, changes in pitch are used to emphasize or express emotion, not to give a different word meaning to the sound. It is not surprising that native speakers of tone languages often have strong accents when speaking English.

Note: There is a controversy as to how many English diphthongs there are. Click the button below for a detailed discussion on this issue.

The assertion that English has 8 diphthongs applies to standard British English pronunciation (also called Received Pronunciation ). For example, David Crystal, on page 239 of the second edition (2003) of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language in the section named Types of diphthong states:

- The eight diphthongs are usually grouped into three types, depending on the tongue movement involved.

However, native English speaker pronunciation varies considerably across the English-speaking world, and the assertion about diphthongs does not apply to Standard American English. Indeed, Swan and Smith in the introduction to their Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems have a section with the title: Note for teachers of American English . In it they state, among other things:

- The British vowel charts given in some of the chapters will appear complicated to Americans.

An American visitor to this site has kindly provided some references to American sources on the issue, which are reproduced below:

Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, in the 10th edition of An Introduction to Language , write the following about diphthongs:

A diphthong is a sequence of two vowel sounds 'squashed' together. Diphthongs are present in the phonetic inventory of many languages, including English. The vowels we have studied so far are simple vowels, called monophthongs. The vowel in the word bite [baɪt], however, is the [a] sound of father followed rapidly by the [ɪ] sound of fit, resulting in the diphthong, [aɪ]. Similarly, the vowel in bout [baʊt] is [a] followed by the [ʊ] sound of put, resulting in [aʊ]. Another diphthong that occurs in English is the vowel sound in boy [bɔɪ], which is the vowel [ɔ] of bore followed by [ɪ], resulting in [ɔɪ]. The pronunciation of these diphthongs may vary from our description because of the diversity of English speakers.
To some extent the midvowels [e] and and [o] may be diphthongized, especially in American English, though not in other varieties such as Irish English. Many linguists therefore denote these sounds with [eɪ] and [oʊ] in a narrower description. In this book we will stay with [e] and [o] for these vowel sounds (p. 207-8).

Peter Ladefoged, in A Course in Phonetics (3rd edition, 1993) writes the following about the last two sounds:

The diphthong [eɪ] as in ‘hay’ varies considerably in different forms of English. Some speakers have a diphthong starting with a vowel very much like [ɛ] in 'head.' Others (such as myself) have a much smaller diphthong, starting much closer to [ɪ] as in 'hid.' Yet others (including many Scots) have an even higher vowel that is a monophthong that can be written as [e]. Check your own pronunciation of 'hay' and try to decide how is should be represented on a chart as in Figure 4.2 {a vowel chart}.

The diphthongs [oʊ] as in 'hoe' may be regarded as the back counterpart of [eɪ]. But note that because it is mainly a movement in the low-high dimension, [oʊ] ends in vowel very different from [ʊ] as in 'hood.' In most forms of British English and in many forms of American English, this diphthong goes over a wider range of vowel quality than in Midwestern American English, as in Figure 4.2. It may start from about halfway between [ʊ] and [ɛ] and end a little higher than [ʊ] (p. 83).

John Lavar's Principle of Phonetics (1994), is an indication that British pronunciation has more diphthongs than SAE:

Centering diphthongs have articulatory trajectories which start nearer the periphery of the vocoid space, and move towards the central zone. Examples are the diphthongs in Received Pronunciation in British English, where post-vocalic ‘r’ has no rhotic pronunciation except before a vocoid, of pair [pɛə], pier [pɪə], and poor pʊə].

Grammar - Verb

@@In one respect English verb grammar is easy. It does not have a large number of inflections such as exist in French or Russian.~~ For example, there are only 4 forms of the regular verb to ask : ask, asks, asked, asking.

On the other hand, English does have a large number of possible tenses Some modern grammarians say that English has only two tenses: present (non-past) and past. (verb constructions). And their designations are not always helpful to the learner. The past simple tense, for example, can be used to talk about the future:

If I won a lot of money, I would buy a new house .

Many languages do not have a continuous tense form, so English learners may make mistakes such as: I had a bath when the phone rang.

Indeed, the most significant problem for learners is to decide which verb construction is required in English to correctly express the meaning that they wish to convey. [More on this in Tense selector.]

A further feature of verb grammar that causes difficulties is the correct choice of modal. Modal verbs are heavily used in English to convey shades of meaning in the areas of compulsion, ability, permission, possibility, hypothesis, etc. For example, learners have problems understanding the difference between: He must have done it and He has had to do it.

Grammar - Other

Not only are verbs largely uninflected in English, but also nouns, pronouns and adjectives. The articles and other determiners never change their form With the exception of this / that which change to these / those in the plural. . This makes it much easier to avoid mistakes in English than in, say, German which has large numbers of inflections in the various parts of speech.

Meaning in English is conveyed largely by word order. In the following sentences we know who is biting whom by the order of the words: The dog bit the man. / The man bit the dog. Compare this with German. Because German is a highly inflected language, a more flexible word order is possible. So, Den Hund biss der Mann translates as The man bit the dog.

Word order in English sentences becomes significantly more difficult when indirect objects or adverbials are added to the standard S ubject-Verb- Object syntax. Most learners of English have problems ordering words correctly in longer, more complex clauses.

@@@The article system is another feature of English grammar that causes some students enormous difficulties. This is particularly true, of course, for those whose native languages do not use articles.~~~


English has the largest vocabulary of any language. Depending on counting methods it has approaching one million words. The Anglo-Saxon lexical base has been supplemented by the influx of words from Latin and Greek, from French and the languages of countries colonized by England.

English shares cognates with most other languages, but a significant number of these are 'false friends'. For example, the German / English words Maus / mouse; Antenne / antenna; trink! / drink! are identical in meaning and virtually so in pronunciation.

The German word sensibel, however, translates as sensitive not sensible, and is stressed on the second syllable. Similarly, the German word also does not mean also, too as in English, but therefore. And it is pronounced to rhyme on the first syllable with shall (not all).

A significant feature of English vocabulary that can cause severe difficulties for learners are phrasal verbs. Sentences such as I put it down to the weather, or I made it up with my sister, are usually impenetrable to non-native speakers.

Unfortunately, phrasal verbs are extremely common in colloquial language, where they are inevitably preferred to their equivalents whose source is Latin or Greek ( put down to = attribute / make up with = reconcile).


A final feature of English that is very problematic for some native-speakers and non-native learners alike is the unpredictable In fact, a majority of English words do conform to spelling patterns. The difficulty for the learner, however, is that the words which don't are the most common words in the language, and thus the ones that learners encounter first. correspondence between word sound and word spelling.

Compared to 'phonetic languages' such as Turkish it is often very difficult for learners to predict the spelling of a word they first encounter in speech, or the pronunciation of a word they first encounter in writing.

Information sources

On the introduction page to this section of the website you can view the sources of the information on this page.