English as a spoken language


The English language has the largest vocabulary of any language, with between 600,000 and 1,000,000 words in the largest dictionaries. English language is the most widely spoken language in the world and is used as either a primary or secondary language in many countries. Today, English is the international language of science and technology. In addition, the English language is used throughout the world in business and diplomacy.

During the sixteenth century, fewer than 2 million people spoke English. All of them lived in what is now Great Britain. Through the centuries, as the result of various historical events, English spread throughout the world. Today, about 400 million people speak English as their native language. Most of them live in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

Another 100 million people, chiefly living in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and in many African countries, speak English in addition to their own language. With an additional 200 million people who probably know at least some English.

For people learning English as a second language, speaking English can be far more difficult than learning the basic rules of English gramma. This is not only due to the sometimes difficult, combinations of sounds but more due to the differences in spoken English from the different English speaking Nations.

History of the English Language

As most people would realise, the English language evolved over many years in the country we know today as England. The reason I say ‘evolved’, is because the English language as we know it today, has changed significantly over those years. To this day the language is still changing with new words being introduced and old words being dropped from everyday use or their meanings being changed.

Much of what we know as English comes from a variety of other languages, the languages of people or cultures that influenced the history of the British Isles over its past.

The English language originated from what is known as the ‘Indo-European’ (formally known as ‘Aryan’) language group, a family of languages stretching from Iceland to India. Modern scholars refer to the earliest form of this language group, as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE was probably spoken about 5,000 years ago by people who lived in the region north of the Black Sea, in southeastern Europe. These people migrated through the centuries and gradually developed new languages.

The European branch of this language group subdivided into five main groups:
Balto-Slavonic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic and Italic.

Of these five groups, it was the Celtic, Germanic and Italic that had the greatest bearing on the formation of the English Language.

Celtic, the most endangered of the great Indo-Germanic groups, is now almost exclusively spoken in the remoter parts of the British Isles and Brittany and includes Breton, Irish and Scottish Gaelic and Welsh.

The Germanic languages include Dutch/Flemish, English, German and the Scandinavian tongues, Danish. Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish.

The most successful of the Italic group was Latin, from which the Romance languages of French, Italian, Portuguese, Rumanian and Spanish developed.

Language development in Britain

The earliest known language in what is now Britain was spoken by the Celts. Beginning in A.D. 43 the Romans started to conquer the Celts, ruling much of Britain until the early 400's. It was during this time that the Latin language was first introduced to the country.

Then during the mid-400's, the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons; Germanic people who lived along the North Sea invaded Britain. These tribes spoke their own Germanic dialect, but probably still understood one another. The word England came from a word meaning the Angle folk or land of the Angles, which was used by the late 800's to refer to all the Anglo-Saxon people and their lands. The language of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes became known as English.

The history of the English language can be divided into three main periods. The language of the first period, which began about 500 and ended about 1100, is called Old English. During the next period, from about 1100 to 1485, the people spoke Middle English. The language of the period from about 1485 to the present is known as Modern English.

Old English

This was mainly a mixture of the Germanic languages of the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons. Old English resembles modern German more than it does modern English. Old English had many inflections, as does modern German, and its word order and pronunciation resembled those of modern German.

The vocabulary of Old English was chiefly Germanic, though some words came from the language of the Celts. The Germanic people had learned some Latin words while they lived on the European continent and brought some of those words to the British Isles and added them to Old English. More Latin words were added during the 500's and the 600's, when Christianity spread in England.

During the late 800's, Viking invaders from Denmark and Norway settled in northeast England. As a result, many words from Scandinavian languages became part of Old English. Gradually, many inflections of Old English were dropped. People also began to put words into a more regular order and to use more prepositions to indicate relationships between words.

Middle English

In 1066, England was conquered by the Normans, a people from the area in France that is now called Normandy. Their leader, William the Conqueror, became king of England. The Normans took control of all English institutions, including the government and the church.

Most of the English people continued to speak English. However, many of the members of the upper class in England learned Norman French because they wanted influence and power. The use of French words eventually became fashionable in England. The English borrowed thousands of these words and made them part of their own language. The French-influenced language of England during this period is now called Middle English.
The Normans intermarried with the English and, through the years, became increasingly distant; socially, economically, and culturally from France. The Normans then began to speak English in daily life and by the end of the fourteenth century; the French influence had declined sharply in England. English once again became used in the courts and in business affairs, where French had previously replaced it.

Modern English

By about 1485, English had lost most of its Old English inflections, and its pronunciation and word order closely resembled those of today. During this period, the vocabulary of English expanded by borrowing words from many other languages.

The Spread of the English Language

From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries the English language began to spread from the British Isles, to a number of other countries as the English explored and colonized Africa, Australia, India, and North America.

Most of the countries that now speak English as their primary language were either part of what was once known as the British Empire or were part of the British sphere of influence during that time. Most of these countries either had a very small population of Indigenous people, or comprised of many small groups or tribes that did not share a common language. This enabled the establishment of English over the Indigenous languages as the primary language in these areas.

English speaking countries include; The United States and Canada in North America, Australia, New Zealand in the Asia Pacific region, some of the African countries and a number of other countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

In all of these native English speaking countries, including regional differences within England and other countries within the British Isles themselves, the English language is spoken in a variety of ways. Something that makes speaking English as a second language, particularly in pronunciation and diction, difficult for non-English speakers.

So what form of spoken English should those who are learning English as a second language adopt? This is an interesting question and depending on where the native English speaker comes from, there will be a number of different answers. If we take population numbers as the deciding factor, then the USA, with over 300,000,000 English-speaking people, would be the obvious answer. However, even in the USA, spoken English has many different forms and accents.

On my part, I am biased towards speaking English the way it is spoken in England, because that is where I was born, even though I have spent over 30 years living in Australia.

As I have mentioned previously, even in England itself, spoken English takes many different forms, with people from some parts of England finding difficulty in understanding people from other parts. However, there is one form of English that is understandable by English speaking people the word over and that is the form known as ‘Received Pronunciation’ or sometimes as ‘The Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC (British Broadcast Corporation) English’, as used on BBC International News services. This is English as spoken by educated people in south-east England and has become institutionalised as the practical basis for giving information about the language

Because my father was in the British Armed Forces (the RAF), I spent a lot of time in my early years outside of England in a number of different countries. Because of this, I did not pick up one of the many English regional accents and speak, what I believe to be, a clear form of English with good diction and pronunciation. A version of spoken English that I hope you are not having too much trouble understanding today.

Diction and Pronunciation

Diction dic·tion n

1. the clarity with which somebody pronounces words when speaking or singing

2. choice of words to fit their context

Pronunciation pro·nun·ci·a·tion (noun)

1. the way in which a sound, word, or language is articulated, especially in conforming to an accepted standard

2. the act of articulating a sound or word

3. a phonetic transcription of sounds

Stress patterns

Most of the problems with pronunciation in spoken English are to do with stress, especially with longer words of more than three syllables. In these cases the stress is usually placed in the middle of the word, as in archaeology, contemporary, and personality. This is also generally true of words that are extensions or derivatives of words with an earlier stress. For instance photograph and photography, explore and exploration. Exceptions to this rule include matrimony, consequently and presidency and other nouns ending in –ency, and lamentable, which are all stressed on the first syllable.

There are a number of words that the stress had become unstable. Traditionally the stress was on the first syllable but more and more you will hear them stressed on a later syllable, most usually the second syllable. Some other words that were stressed on the second syllable are now also stressed on a later syllable.

Some examples are:





applicable applicable formidable formidable
centrifugal centrifugal harassment harassment
controversy controversy hospitable hospitable
despicable despicable kilometre kilometre
exquisite exquisite municipal municipal


To these words we can also add adverbs ending in –arily, in which the stress is moving to the end of the word due to the influence of American practice:





primarily primarily temporarily temporarily
necessarily necessarily voluntarily voluntarily

The stress is also moving to the end of some shorted words:





decade decade harass harass

There are another group of words where the stress is moving in the opposite direction, i.e. towards the beginning of the word:





dispute dispute research research
contribute contribute romance romance
distribute distribute    

In some of these cases, notably dispute and research, this trend may be influenced by the practice in other words that are used in the same form as both nouns and verbs (such as record, which is pronounced as record as a noun and record as a verb; also conflict, insult, protest, and others).

Controversial pronunciations

There are a number of words, not belonging to any particular type, with alternative pronunciations that are controversial, in these cases the traditional pronunciation may still be the best to use:




dissect disekt di-sekt
finance finanss finans
forehead forrid forhed
privacy privvesi privesi
project projekt projekt
zoology zo-olleji zoo-olleji

There is another group of words that are often mispronounced and you should be especially careful with these:



asphalt not ash-
deteriorate pronounce all five syllables
government pronounce the first n
mischievous not –ievious
ophthalmic of– not op-
prerogative pronounce the first r
pronunciation pronun- not pronoun-
secretary pronounce the first r
twelfth pronounce the f

Letter Combinations

There are some letter combinations in spoken English that are sometimes difficult for non-native speakers, most notably when the second letter of the word is ‘h’. These include: ch, ph, sh and th.

Of these the most unusual is the combination ph, which in English is pronounced in a similar way to the letter ‘f’.




pharmacist farmasist
phase faze

The ch combination is also unusual, as depending on the word used, it could be pronounced in any of three different ways, as ch, k or sh.




child child
chess chess
charisma kerizma
chrome krome
chardonnay shardonay
chassis shassi

Pronunciation Exercises

In English language there are some pronunciation exercises known as ‘Tongue Twisters’ here are some to try. The faster you try to say them the more difficult they become.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

She sells seashells on the seashore.

A proper copper coffee pot.

Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascals ran.

Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather.

The sixth sick Sheik's sixth sheep’s sick.
[Sometimes described as the hardest tongue-twister in the English language.]


Chronicle of the World. Penguin Books.

Word Power Dictionary. Readers Digest

World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. Macintosh Version

Encarta World English Dictionary. Microsoft Corporation

Note: This article was written as a subject for discussion at English Language Camps for Thai English Students, where I attended as a Native English speaking volunteer.

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