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100 Questions Answered: English Language and Literature (Q56-Q63)

Q56. Where can I get information about English courses?

A list of private language schools which have been recognised by the British Council is available from the British Council in your country or in Britain. The British Council also publishes English Studies Information Service (ESIS) sheets on English language learning. Contact:

The British Council Information Centre
Bridgewater House, 58 Whitworth Street, Manchester M1 6BB
Tel.: +44 (0) 161 957 7000 Fax: +44 (0) 161 957 7111
Education Information Service
The British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN
Tel.: +44 (0) 171 930 8466 Fax: +44 (0) 171 839 6347

More information about the British Council can be found on their website Education at Your Fingertips.

Q57. How many people speak English worldwide?

World piechart design

English is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Recent estimates suggest that over 337 million people speak English as their first language, with possibly some 350 million speaking it as a second language. America has the largest number of English speakers - over 226 million speak the language as a mother tongue. English is an official language in India, alongside Hindi, and some 3,000 English newspapers are published throughout the country. English is also the favoured language of the world’s major airlines and international commerce. Over 80 percent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English and two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. English is an official language, or has a special status in over 75 of the world’s territories.

If the rest of the world isn’t talking English, they’re borrowing English words to add to their own language: the Japanese go on a "pikunikku" (picnic), Italians program their computers with "il software", Germans talk about "ein Image Problem" and "das Cashflow" and Czechs say "ahoy!" for "hello" - a greeting traditionally used by English sailors, which is interesting as there’s no sea in the Czech Republic!

Q58. Why are many English words pronounced differently from the way they are spelt?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead,
For Goodness’ sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.
The Chaos

English spelling is unpredictable at the best of times, and occasionally totally chaotic - an opinion no doubt shared by British schoolchildren and those studying English around the world alike. However, studies of the language claim that there are only about 400 words in English whose spelling is wholly irregular. Unfortunately many of them are among the most frequently used in the language.

The problems with the English spelling system came about as the language developed over a period of 1,000 years. Some complications arose early on, when the Romans tried to write down Old English using the 23 letter Latin alphabet. Old English contained nearly 40 vowels and consonants.

The influence of French after the Norman Conquest also made an impact on English spelling. French scribes introduced "qu" where Old English had used "cw" e.g. queen, and "gh" instead of "h" e.g. night, amongst other changes.

The introduction of the printing press in 1476 meant that a standard spelling system began to emerge. The system reflected the speech of the London area. The pronunciation of vowels underwent further changes during the 15th century, but because of the advent of the printing press, spelling never caught up.

Previously, scribes would have simply written down a new spelling to reflect the new pronunciation. Thus modern spelling in many ways reflects outmoded pronunciation of words dating back to the Middle Ages.

Despite many attempts to reform the English spelling system, so far no changes have been made since the 16th century - mainly because nobody can agree on what the best alternative may be!

Q59. Do Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own languages?

At the start of the 20th century half of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh, a language belonging to the Celtic family. However, the numbers of Welsh-speaking people have steadily declined, and today only about a fifth of the population of Wales speak the language.

Both the government and voluntary groups have taken steps to revive the use of Welsh. Bilingual education in schools is encouraged, and there has been an extended use of Welsh for radio and television programmes.

Gaelic, also a language of Celtic origin, is still spoken by some 70,000 people in Scotland, with the greatest concentration of Gaelic speakers in the islands of the Hebrides. The word "whisky", the famous Scottish alcoholic drink, is derived from Gaelic uisce beatha or "water of life"!

People in the Lowlands of Scotland have for centuries spoken Scots, a dialect derived from the Northumbrian branch of Old English and a completely separate language from Gaelic. This has its own recognised literary tradition as in the poetry of Robert Burns and has seen a revival in poetry in the 20th century.

Gaelic is also the language of the Irish people. It is still taught in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland at the time of the 1991 census there were 142,000 speakers of Irish Gaelic.

Q60. Why is English spoken with different accents?

Most British people can recognise where someone was brought up by their accent. Every region has its own way of pronouncing the words and sentences of English that identifies the speaker with that particular geographical area. Differences arose from the time when English was spoken in a variety of different forms during the Middle Ages - Northern (developed from Northumbrian Old English), West and East Midlands (diverging from Mercian Old English), South Western (West Saxon) and South Eastern (Kentish).

After 1500 the language of London gradually emerged as the most dominant form, and today the London or Southern accent is usually accepted as Standard English. This is sometimes referred to as BBC English since at one time all announcers on BBC radio and TV were required to speak it.

Regional accents have persisted and diversified over the centuries. Today the identification of an accent can place the speaker in a general area of Britain - such as West Country or South Wales, or be quite specific, referring to individual counties or cities; e.g. Liverpool, Yorkshire or Glasgow accents.

Although Standard English was once the accepted form of English for public speaking or broadcasting, today regional accents are widely used on television and radio.

Q61. What is cockney rhyming slang?

True cockneys traditionally come from a very small part of London. In fact, only those born within the sound of Bow Bells, which ring out from the church of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside in the City of London, could by tradition consider themselves "cockneys". In reality the cockney heartland lies in the East End of London.

Like many other small communities, cockneys had a large number of words and phrases which had special meanings for them, but they took this to extremes by inventing a whole new dialect - rhyming slang - which has been in use since the mid 19th century. Rhyming slang uses a phrase that rhymes with a word, instead of the word itself - thus "stairs" becomes "apples and pairs", "phone" becomes "dog and bone" and "word" becomes "dicky bird"! To add to the confusion for the uninitiated, the rhyming part of the word is often dropped: thus "daisies" are "boots" (from "daisy roots").

Some people complain that rhyming slang is simply spoken to give the cockney an unfair advantage over strangers - the wily cockney spots an attentive or enquiring stranger and lapses into rhyming slang so that he or she can’t be understood! However, numerous colloquial expressions derive from rhyming slang, and have even been heard in use in the House of Commons, such as "let’s get down to brass tacks" means "lets talk facts"!

Q62. What are the main ethnic minority languages?

Spot books

Britain’s Afro-Caribbean population does not have its own language, although many second and even third-generation West Indians speak a dialect of Standard English described as Creole, or Jamaican Creole (patois).

Britain’s Asian population speaks a variety of languages, often using different languages for writing and speaking. The national languages of India and Pakistan are Hindi and Urdu. Northern Indian languages are also widely used in Britain - Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali. These three languages have a common derivation in Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, but are not necessarily mutually intelligible. There are more Asian speakers of Punjabi in Britain than any other language, followed by speakers of Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Two of the main Chinese dialects spoken by the Chinese in Britain are Cantonese, the language of urban Hong Kong and Guangdong province, and Mandarin, spoken by those from mainland China.

Q63. Who are the most popular British writers?

Photo of Shakespeare

The playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) купить произведения Уильяма Шекспира and the novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) купить произведения Чарльза Диккенса remain two of the most popular and widely known British writers the world over. In addition to writing 35 known plays, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and sometimes acted in small parts in his own plays - he is known to have played the Ghost in "Hamlet". His best known plays include: "Romeo and Juliet", "King Lear", "Hamlet" and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream".

Dickens began his writing career as a journalist, and all his novels were first published serially in periodicals. Many of his works highlight the injustice of 19th century social institutions and the inequalities between the rich and the poor. His most famous works include "Oliver Twist", "A Christmas Carol" and "David Copperfield".

The novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817) купить зарубежную литературу 17-19 вв. are known for their subtlety of observation and irony, together with their penetrating insights into the provincial life of the middle-classes in the early part of the 19th century. Her works include "Emma", "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility" - all recently dramatised on film and TV to critical acclaim.

The Bronte sisters, Charlotte (1816-55) купить произведения Шарлотты Бронте, Emily (1818-48) купить произведения Эмили Бронте and Anne (1820-49) купить произведения Энн Бронте, were three talented 19th-century women novelists whose works are regarded as classics today. Charlotte is best known for her novel "Jane Eyre" and Emily for "Wuthering Heights" - both novels feature strong, independent heroines.

Many distinguished works of contemporary fiction have been awarded the Booker Prize, given annually to the best novel published in Britain. Novels must be written in English by a citizen of Britain, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The winner of the Booker Prize in 1997 was Arundhati Roy for her novel "The God of Small Things".

Bernice Rubens is a contemporary Welsh-Jewish writer who grew up in Cardiff. She has received much critical acclaim for her novels, among them Booker Prize winner "The Elected Member".

Glasgow-born James Kelman is a leading contemporary writer from Scotland whose writing echoes the rhythms of the Glaswegian dialect. His books include "A Disaffection", which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1989 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

One of the most widely known English poets is remarkable because his work has been continuously transcribed, published, read and commented on since his death. That he lived over 600 years ago is no less remarkable. He is Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1345-1400) купить произведения Джеффри Чосера. His best known work is "The Canterbury Tales", a collection of tales by a group of pilgrims bound for the shrine of St.Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (1914-53) is perhaps best known for his play "Under Milk Wood". This was first written as a radio drama and broadcast by the BBC in 1954, before being adapted for the stage.

One of the liveliest poets writing in Britain today is Ted Hughes. Hughes was made Poet Laureate in 1984. The Poet Laureate is a member of the Royal Household, appointed by the Royal Warrent, who composes odes in celebration of State occasions. The appointment dates from the time of King James I (1603-1625). The Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) купить произведения классической зарубежной поэзии was Poet Laureate from 1843-1850.

Another popular contemporary poet is Seamus Heaney born in Northern Ireland. His early poems reflect Irish rural life and work and can be found in the collections "Death of a Naturalist" (1966) and "Wintering Out" (1972). His language is often weighty, making use of clusters of consonants an monosyllables.

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