The Lord’s Prayer in the English of 1985:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be held holy,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test,
but save us from the Evil One.
English (500- ) is the most widely understood language in the world. It was the language of British Empire, which ruled a fourth of the world in the early 1900s. It is currently the main language of world business, science and the Internet. Like Latin 500 years ago, it is the preferred language of Dutch intellectuals and books of higher learning. It is taught at schools all over the world, even in countries that were never under British rule, like Ethiopia and Indonesia.
In 1800 English was a middling European language, like Polish. But the defeat of Napoleon and the growth of British and then American power has meant that for the past 200 years the top world power spoke English.
The rise of China could change all that, but sometimes imperial tongues outlast their rulers, like Latin, Greek and Aramaic – and even English itself in India and Nigeria. English is too useful to disappear quickly from the world stage.
In very rough numbers, about 1200 million have at least a working knowledge of English:
- 400 million as a native language in Britain, America, Australia, South Africa, Jamaica, etc.
- 300 million as a working second language in the countries of Asia and Africa that Britain once ruled
- 500 million as a language learned well enough at school to read this post. Mostly in Europe and China.
In 2010 there were about 300 to 450 million online whose English was good enough to edit the Wikipedia.
Words: Most of the commonly used words go back to Proto-Germanic, the ancient German of Roman times that English sprang from. The rest are mostly Latin and French, because until about 1600 most new things came from those who spoke Latin or French.
For most of its history, English was not considered a real language like Latin. Latin you learned at school, but English was just something you spoke at home.
Writing: like many others, the English were taught to write by Christian missionaries. And since these missionaries spoke Latin, English to this day is written with Latin letters. A bad fit: English has far more sounds than Latin.
But it gets worse: English is written the way it was spoken in London in the 1400s! That was back when sea did not rhyme with see and people still said the k and the e in knife!
But the hardest thing about English are its idioms: strange ways of putting things that if taken word for word mean little. Like “give up” somehow means “to lose all hope”. Much to the despair of all those schoolchildren in Ethiopia.