Historical Linguistic

The English language has an increasingly influential position in the world, but accurate statistics are difficult to provide. It is impossible to give a satisfactory answer to the question ‘How many countries use English as their first language’? As the definition of ‘first language’ differs from place to place, according to each country’s history and local circumstances. The following examples illustrate the complexities:

Australia, Botswana, the Commonwealth Caribbean nations, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Ireland, Namibia, New Zealand, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have English as either statutory or de facto official language – but it is often the second or third language of the majority of citizens

In Cameroon & Canada, English shares official status with French, as does English and each main local language in the Nigerian states.

In Fiji, English is the official language with Fijian; in Lesotho with Sesotho; in Pakistan with Urdu; in the Philippines with Filipino; and in Switzerland with Siswati.

In India, English is an associate official language (after Hindi) and in Singapore English is one of four statutory official languages.

In South Africa, English is the major language of communication – but it is just one of 11 official languages.

In all, English has official or special status in at least 75 countries (with a combined population of two billion people). It is estimated that one out of four people worldwide speak English with some degree of competence.

Where, When and How Did World Englishes Develop?

The English language took root as English settlements were established: in the Middle Ages in southern Ireland and south-west Scotland; in the 17th & 18th centuries in North America, the Caribbean and northern Ireland and in the 18th & 19th centuries in Australasia and Africa.

A widely differing range of contexts and histories affected the development of these varieties of English. It is difficult and (dangerous!) to generalize about the varieties: each variety of English has developed its own particular characteristics according to the circumstances encountered in the different regions. Colonization patterns, demography and politics have all played a role.

Factors which shaped the varieties of English

From the time at which each new area was colonized and the settlers were separated from their mother country (i.e. at various times from the early 17th century until the late 19th century), the English spoken there began to evolve its own characteristics.

Isolation reinforced the differences developing in each region and meant that the regional Englishes increasingly differed both from each other and from British English. Certain vocabulary items tended to remain in use in a colony after they vanished from British English because of the isolation of the colony from the mother country. For example, the older word faucet (tap in British English) survived in American English, as did the use of guess, meaning ‘think, imagine’, as in I guess so. Bioscope (a word for the cinema dating from the early 1900s in Britain) and geyser, meaning ‘water-heater’, lived on as common terms in South African English. In Bangladesh, India and Malta, the word Stepney is still used for a spare wheel.