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English language

Introduction

English language, member of the West Germanic group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Germanic languages). Spoken by about 470 million people throughout the world, English is the official language of about 45 nations. It is the mother tongue of about 60 million persons in the British Isles, from where it spread to many other parts of the world owing to British exploring, colonizing, and empire-building from the 17th through 19th cent. It is now also the first language of an additional 228 million people in the United States; 16.5 million in Canada; 17 million in Australia; 3 million in New Zealand and a number of Pacific islands; and approximately 15 million others in different parts of the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and Asia. As a result of such expansion, English is the most widely scattered of the great speech communities. It is also the most commonly used auxiliary language in the world. The United Nations uses English not only as one of its official languages but also as one of its two working languages.

There are many dialect areas; in England and S Scotland these are of long standing, and the variations are striking; the Scottish dialect especially has been cultivated literarily. There are newer dialect differences also, such as in the United States, including regional varieties such as Southern English, and cultural varieties, such as Black English. Standard forms of English differ also; thus, the standard British ("the king's English") is dissimilar to the several standard varieties of American and to Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Indian English.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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