35 Interesting Facts About English That Can Help You Understand the Language Better
English is a beautiful, complicated, fun and infuriating language all at once.
But that’s what makes learning English such a rewarding experience!
From difficult spelling to words that describe the intense feeling you get when you see a cute kitten, every aspect of English has its own story.
Below are 35 interesting facts about English that’ll both surprise you and help you better understand the beautiful language you’re learning!
- Remarkable English History Facts
- 1. Shakespeare added over 1,000 words to the English language.
- 2. Most English words come from French or Old English (use this to your advantage!).
- 3. The United States doesn’t have an official language.
- 4. English used to have grammatical gender.
- 5. English uses the Latin alphabet.
- 6. The British Empire and the iPhone are some of the biggest reasons English is so widespread today.
- 7. English used to have 29 letters instead of the current 26.
- 8. English is the official language of the air.
- 9. You can blame confusing English spelling on a guy named William Caxton.
- Did You Know There’s a Word for That?
- Surprising Statistics You Can Count On
- 19. A new English word is added to the dictionary every two hours.
- 20. There are approximately 1.5 billion English speakers in the world.
- 21. English has more words than most languages.
- 22. The average English speaker only knows between 20,000 and 30,000 words.
- 23. The most commonly used letter in English is “E.”
- 24. The longest English word is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
- 25. The shortest, non-elliptical sentence is “I am.”
- 26. Some of the oldest words in the English language are still very common today.
- 27. The most commonly used adjective is good.
- 28. The most commonly used noun is time.
- 29. The closest living language to English today is Frisian.
- Amusing Alphabet Tricks and Their Names
- 30. Two English words can combine into one.
- 31. You can fit every letter of the alphabet into a single sentence.
- 32. Some English words look the same backward or forward.
- 33. Some English words look the same upside down.
- 34. There’s a name for words and phrases where each letter is used the same number of times.
- 35. Some English words repeat to make a new word.
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Remarkable English History Facts
1. Shakespeare added over 1,000 words to the English language.
Almost everyone in the world has heard of the great William Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright of the 16th century. From love sonnets to plays like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” Shakespeare has greatly influenced English literature.
But did you know that the English language itself wouldn’t be the same without Shakespeare?
Shakespeare invented over 1,000 words, which he incorporated into his writing. Today, native English speakers still use these words in everyday speech.
Just some of the fantastic words and phrases invented by this famous poet include:
Addiction — Being psychologically or physically dependent on something, usually a drug.
Bedazzled — Blinded by something incredibly wonderful.
Cold-blooded — Either an animal with cold blood (like a reptile) or a way to describe someone who’s cruel and indifferent to emotion.
Swagger — To walk in a way that shows you’re boasting or disrespectful.
Break the ice — To relieve the tension or silence in a conversation by talking.
To see some of the other interesting sayings and words Shakespeare invented, check out these articles from Mental Floss and The Intrepid Guide.
2. Most English words come from French or Old English (use this to your advantage!).
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, French became the language used by the nobility in Britain. Meanwhile, the peasants and lower classes continued to use Old English, which was made up of Germanic vocabulary.
Eventually, inter-marriage brought about a mixing of the two languages, and Middle English—which is much closer to today’s English—was born.
Why’s this matter to English learners?
Well, this history can help you figure out when to use certain words. The words that came from French are often considered more formal or sophisticated, while words that came from Old English are more informal.
Take the words commence and begin, which both mean “to start.” Commence is a much fancier word. Native English speakers would only use it in more formal settings.
For example, you could use it while discussing business affairs: “The marketing team commenced work on the project.”
On the other hand, begin is a more casual word that native speakers use frequently.
Can you guess which word comes from French and which one comes from Old English?
Commence is basically the same word that the French currently use: commencer (to start). The word begin comes from the (now unused) Germanic word beginnan, which also meant “to start.”
3. The United States doesn’t have an official language.
Technically, the U.S. doesn’t have an official language at the federal level, though some states have declared English their official language.
While English is the most common language spoken in the U.S., it’s by no means the only one. America is made up of people from many diverse backgrounds who speak lots of wonderful languages!
That means if you visit or move to the U.S., you can find many other non-native speakers just like yourself.
4. English used to have grammatical gender.
Many languages have “grammatical gender.” For example, Spanish speakers use the gender articles el and la (the) depending on whether a noun is masculine or feminine.
English used to have grammatical gender, but doesn’t anymore. The book “Gender Shifts in the History of English” explains how English lost its grammatical gender system over time.
It actually may make it easier for learners that the English language doesn’t have these gender rules today. You only have to memorize a word’s meaning, not its gender!
5. English uses the Latin alphabet.
The Latin alphabet originally comes from the Etruscan alphabet. It happens to be the most widely used alphabet in the world, which is a great help to many English learners!
6. The British Empire and the iPhone are some of the biggest reasons English is so widespread today.
Some of you may wonder why English is such a popular language worldwide today. While there are many reasons, here are some of the biggest.
The British Empire refers to the period between roughly the late 15th to 17th century and the 1960s, when England had vast territories and colonies all over the world. Essentially, this was when England controlled large portions of Europe, North America, Africa and the West Indies.
You can imagine how English would’ve spread globally with such an enormous empire.
The second big English boost occurred with the rise of the U.S. in the 20th century, when the country became one of the biggest international players in social, economic and political affairs.
Lastly, many of the recent technological and scientific advancements have come from English-speaking countries. Just consider international words like internet and iPhone.
7. English used to have 29 letters instead of the current 26.
The English alphabet has actually gotten smaller over the years!
To find out which letters were added and omitted, take a look at this New York Post article.
8. English is the official language of the air.
This means that English is the official language of airplane travel.
Ever noticed that no matter where you’re flying in the world, your pilot and flight attendants always know English? This is why!
9. You can blame confusing English spelling on a guy named William Caxton.
Well, not just William.
You can’t entirely blame weird spelling on just one person—especially not with English’s long and complicated history—but there are a few folks who made some huge differences.
During the Middle Ages, scribes (people who write documents) tried their best to copy down words as they sounded. However, with so many different regional dialects, this produced many inconsistencies.
Then there’s William Caxton, a famous Englishman who started a printing press. He hired Flemish workers who simply spelled some words according to what they were used to.
Others like Noah Webster had their hands in English spelling as well. Webster was a dictionary publisher who was largely responsible for American spelling differing from British spelling.
I’m sure you’ve already noticed how some English words are spelled completely differently than they sound. Unfortunately for learners, this convoluted spelling system is something you’ll just have to find creative ways to master (here are some ideas to get you started).
Did You Know There’s a Word for That?
English is a language rich in vocabulary, but some words may surprise you—and may be just what you were looking for!
10. Cute Aggression
“Cute aggression” is the term for wanting to hug something cute very hard—almost violently. Ever want to just squeeze your kitten because she’s so darn adorable?!
Your puppy is so adorable that I have cute aggression!
Ze and hir are gender-neutral pronouns that’ve slowly been gaining popularity. These are different from the gendered pronouns “he/him” (masculine) and “she/her” (feminine).
My friend is so excited that ze is coming to the party later.
Genderlect is a style or type of speech used by a specific gender.
Whether or not men and women speak different genderlects is a subject of recent debate.
Heuristic is used to describe something that’s taught or learned from experience.
The professor applied a heuristic teaching method so that her students would learn by trial and error.
Here’s Shakespeare again! Bardolatry refers to someone who’s obsessed with Shakespeare. (Shakespeare is sometimes referred to as “The Bard.”)
Shakespeare is still celebrated so much today that Bardolatry is alive and well.
Boffola is a joke that’s met with extremely loud laughter.
That was the comedian’s best boffola all night!
16. Mouse Potato
Ever heard the term couch potato (someone who watches a lot of TV)? Well, mouse potato refers to someone who works on the computer a lot.
Ever since Susan started her online company, she’s been such a mouse potato.
Snollygoster refers to a person without principles.
The politician is a snollygoster who lies and steals to get what he wants.
Petrichor is a word to describe the way it smells after it rains.
I love the petrichor of a summer thunderstorm.
Surprising Statistics You Can Count On
19. A new English word is added to the dictionary every two hours.
Editors from the Oxford English Dictionary have estimated that about 4,000 new words are added to the dictionary every year.
That means a new word about every two hours!
20. There are approximately 1.5 billion English speakers in the world.
That’s 20 percent of the world’s population!
About 600 to 700 million of those are non-native speakers. Find out more at St George International.
21. English has more words than most languages.
There are currently about an estimated one million words in the English language.
But don’t let this scare you, because…
22. The average English speaker only knows between 20,000 and 30,000 words.
While this statistic from Twinword still seems daunting, it should be a comfort to learners that you’re not going to have to memorize all of the million English words out there.
You’ll still be understood!
23. The most commonly used letter in English is “E.”
According to Oxford Dictionaries, “E” is the most commonly used English letter, and “Q” is the letter used the least.
To put it in perspective, “E” is 56 times more common than “Q.”
24. The longest English word is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
It’s a medical term that refers to a lung disease caused by inhaling sand dust or ash.
25. The shortest, non-elliptical sentence is “I am.”
A non-elliptical sentence is a sentence that doesn’t leave anything out.
For example, the command “Go!” may seem like the shortest sentence, but it’s elliptical. It leaves out the pronoun “you.” Technically, it would be “You go!” which is two letters longer than “I am.”
26. Some of the oldest words in the English language are still very common today.
They include I, love, black, mother, fire, hand and hear.
Many of these words date back from before the year 900.
Check out more of the oldest words at Dictionary.com. Some of them might surprise you!
27. The most commonly used adjective is good.
Of course, different sources come up with different answers for this, but “good” is usually listed among the most common adjectives.
Syllable Count gives it the number one spot on their list, while Word Frequency Data places it below a few adjectives such as other and new.
28. The most commonly used noun is time.
The Oxford English Dictionary has identified time as the most frequently used noun.
Person received second place, followed by year in the third spot.
29. The closest living language to English today is Frisian.
Frisian is a language currently spoken in just three small areas of Germany and the Netherlands.
Amusing Alphabet Tricks and Their Names
30. Two English words can combine into one.
A portmanteau is a word that blends the sounds of two English words to make a new word that combines their meanings.
For example, hangry means hungry and angry.
31. You can fit every letter of the alphabet into a single sentence.
A pangram is a sentence that contains every letter from the alphabet.
A very famous English pangram is: “The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.”
32. Some English words look the same backward or forward.
A palindrome is a word or phrase that’s spelled the same whether you read left-to-right (like normal) or right-to-left.
An example word is madam.
33. Some English words look the same upside down.
An ambigram is a word that looks the same upside down as right-side up.
A great example is the word “SWIMS” with all capitalized letters.
34. There’s a name for words and phrases where each letter is used the same number of times.
An isogram is a word or phrase in which each letter appears the same number of times.
For example, the word dialogue uses each letter once.
35. Some English words repeat to make a new word.
A tautonym in linguistics is a word that consists of the same word twice. You might also hear this referred to as reduplication.
The common English word so-so is the perfect example of a tautonym. It means “just okay; fine.”
Now that you know all about the English language, it’s time to get back to learning the language itself!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)