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English in the world today
English in the world today

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English through history (Part 4)

The extent to which English is made up of words of foreign origin was satirised during the diplomatic row between the United States and France over support for the Iraq war in 2003. The newspaper article below plays on the idea that some factions within the United States were so displeased with the French for not offering support for the war that they tried to remove all influence of French culture from their everyday lives.

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If the journalist had been even more rigorous with the linguistic analysis, he or she might also have put a line through level, percentage, cultural and captives, all of which have their etymology based partly in French. The point is well made though, that if we wish to remove all French influence from English we have to step well back into the history of the language. In the article, this earlier form of English is symbolised by the popular twelfth-century song, Sumer is icumen in, which appears a great deal more ‘foreign’ to us now than many of the loanwords that have become part of our vocabulary.

Figure 4 Manuscript of Sumer is icumen in

For the time being, the point to make is simply that English has, over its lifetime, absorbed influences from countless sources – and so just as English is now a presence in diverse contexts all across the globe, so diverse contexts from across the globe also have a presence in the language itself.