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25 maps that explain

the English language

by Libby Nelson on March 3, 2015

English is the language of Shakespeare and the language of Chaucer.

It's spoken in dozens of countries around the world, from the United
States to a tiny island named Tristan da Cunha. It reflects the
influences of centuries of international exchange, including conquest
and colonization, from the Vikings through the 21st century. Here are
25 maps and charts that explain how English got started and evolved
into the differently accented languages spoken today.
The origins of English
Minna Sundberg

Where English comes from

English, like more than 400 other languages, is part of the Indo-
European language family, sharing common roots not just with
German and French but with Russian, Hindi, Punjabi, and Persian.
This beautiful chart by Minna Sundberg, a Finnish-Swedish comic
artist, shows some of English's closest cousins, like French and
German, but also its more distant relationships with languages
originally spoken far from the British Isles such as Farsi and Greek.

Where Indo-European languages are spoken in Europe

Saying that English is Indo-European, though, doesn't really narrow it
down much. This map shows where Indo-European languages are
spoken in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia today, and makes
it easier to see what languages don't share a common root with
English: Finnish and Hungarian among them.


The Anglo-Saxon migration

Here's how the English language got started: After Roman troops
withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, three Germanic peoples
the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes moved in and established
kingdoms. They brought with them the Anglo-Saxon language, which
combined with some Celtic and Latin words to create Old English. Old
English was first spoken in the 5th century, and it looks
incomprehensible to today's English-speakers. To give you an idea of
just how different it was, the language the Angles brought with them
had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neutral). Still, though the
gender of nouns has fallen away in English, 4,500 Anglo-Saxon words
survive today. They make up only about 1 percent of the
comprehensive Oxford English Dictionary, but nearly all of the most
commonly used words that are the backbone of English. They include
nouns like "day" and "year," body parts such as "chest," arm," and
"heart," and some of the most basic verbs: "eat," "kiss," "love," "think,"
"become." FDR's sentence "The only thing we have to fear is fear
itself" uses only words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

The Danelaw
The next source of English was Old Norse. Vikings from present-day
Denmark, some led by the wonderfully named Ivar the Boneless,
raided the eastern coastline of the British Isles in the 9th century. They
eventually gained control of about half of the island. Their language
was probably understandable by speakers of English. But Old Norse
words were absorbed into English: legal terms such as "law" and
"murder" and the pronouns "they," "them," and "their" are of Norse
origin. "Arm" is Anglo-Saxon, but "leg" is Old Norse; "wife" is Anglo-
Saxon," but "husband" is Old Norse.


The Norman Conquest

The real transformation of English which started the process of
turning it into the language we speak today came with the arrival of
William the Conqueror from Normandy, in today's France. The French
that William and his nobles spoke eventually developed into a
separate dialect, Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman became the language
of the medieval elite. It contributed around 10,000 words, many still
used today. In some cases, Norman words ousted the Old English
words. But in others, they lived side by side as synonyms. Norman
words can often sound more refined: "sweat" is Anglo-Saxon, but
"perspire" is Norman. Military terms (battle, navy, march, enemy),
governmental terms (parliament, noble), legal terms (judge, justice,
plaintiff, jury), and church terms (miracle, sermon, virgin, saint) were
almost all Norman in origin. The combination of Anglo-Norman and
Old English led to Middle English, the language of Chaucer.


Olaf Simons

The Great Vowel Shift

If you think English spelling is confusing why "head" sounds
nothing like "heat," or why "steak" doesn't rhyme with "streak," and
"some" doesn't rhyme with "home" you can blame the Great Vowel
Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long
vowels changed. "Mice" stopped being pronounced "meese." "House"
stopped being prounounced like "hoose." Some words, particularly
words with "ea," kept their old pronounciation. (And Northern English
dialects were less affected, one reason they still have a distinctive
accent.) This shift is how Middle English became modern English. No
one is sure why this dramatic shift occurred. But it's a lot less dramatic
when you consider it took 300 years. Shakespeare was as distant
from Chaucer as we are from Thomas Jefferson.
The spread of English



The colonization of America

The British settlers coming to different parts of America in the 17th
and 18th centuries were from different regional, class, and religious
backgrounds, and brought with them distinctive ways of speaking.
Puritans from East Anglia contributed to the classic Boston accent;
Royalists migrating to the South brought a drawl; and Scots-Irish
moved to the Appalaichans. Today's American English is actually
closer to 18th-century British English in pronunciation than current-day
British English is. Sometime in the 19th century, British pronunciation
changed significantly, particularly whether "r"s are pronounced after


Early exploration of Australia

Many of the first Europeans to settle in Australia, beginning in the late
1700s, were convicts from the British Isles, and the Australian English
accent probably started with their children in and around Sydney.
Australia, unlike the US, doesn't have a lot of regional accents. But it
does have many vocabulary words borrowed from Aboriginal
languages: kangaroo, boomerang, and wombat among them.


Metro News

British Loyalists flooded into Canada during the American Revolution.
As a result, Canadian English sounds a lot like American English, but
it's maintained many of the "ou" words from its British parent (honour,
colour, valour). There's also some uniquely Canadian vocabulary,
many of which is shown in this word cloud. Canada is undergoing a
vowel shift of its own, where "milk" is pronounced like "melk" by some
speakers. But unlike British and American English, which has a variety
of regional accents, Canadian English is fairly homogenous.


Maps of India
English in India
The British East India Company brought English to the Indian
subcontinent in the 17th century, and the period of British colonialism
established English as the governing language. It still is, in part due to
India's incredible linguistic diversity. But languages from the
subcontinent contributed to English, too. The words "shampoo,"
"pajamas," "bungalow," "bangle," and "cash" all come from Indian
languages. The phrase "I don't give a damn" was once speculated to
refer to an Indian coin. This probably isn't true the Oxford English
Dictionary disagrees but it shows that language exchange during
the colonial era was a two-way street.

Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha is the most remote archipelago in the world: it's in
the South Atlantic Ocean, more or less halfway between Uruguay and
South Africa. It's also the furthest-flung locaction of native English
speakers. Tristan da Cunha is part of a British overseas territory, and
its nearly 300 residents speak only English. Tristan da Cunha English
has a few unusual features: double negatives are common, as is the
use of "done" in the past tense ("He done walked up the road.")

English around the world



Countries with English as the official language

Fifty-eight countries have English as an official language. This doesn't
include most of the biggest English-speaking countries the United
States, Australia, and the United Kingdom don't have official
languages. This map shows where English is either the official or the
dominant language. Particularly in Africa, it also doubles as a fairly
accurate map of British colonial history.

Jakub Marian

Which countries in Europe can speak English

English is one of the three official "procedural languages" of the
European Union. The president of German recently suggested making
it the only official language. But how well people in each European
Union country speak English varies considerably. This map shows
where most people can and can't have an English conversation.

Where people read English Wikipedia

English dominated in the early days of the Internet. But languages
online are getting more diverse. In 2010, English no longer made up
the majority of the text written online, as advancements in technology
made it easier for non-Roman alphabets to be displayed. Still, English
is the dominant language of Wikipedia both when you consider the
language articles are written in, and where people use the English-
language version, as is shown in this map.
Oxford English Dictionary

Where new English words come from

This fascinating chart based on data from the Oxford English
Dictionary shows where words originally came from when they first
started to appear in English. Most words come originally from
Germanic languages, Romance languages, or Latin, or are formed
from English words already in use. But as this screenshot from 1950
shows, words also come to English from all over the world.


Mike Kinde

How vocabulary changes based on what you're writing

Borrowing words from other language didn't stop when Old English
evolved into Middle English. The Enlightenment brought an influx of
Greek and Latin words into English words for scientific concepts
that moved into broader use as science developed. Scientific
vocabulary is still usually based on Greek or Latin roots that aren't
used in ordinary conversation. On the other hand, Mark Twain, master
of the American dialect, relied heavily on good old Anglo-Saxon words
in his work, a reflection of the endurance of those very old words for
the most ordinary concepts in everyday life.

Matt Daniels

Vocabulary of Shakespeare vs. rappers

Designer Matt Daniels looked at the first 35,000 words of artists' rap
lyrics and the first 35,000 words of Moby-Dick, along with 35,000
words from Shakespeare's plays to compare the size of their
vocabularies. He found that some have bigger vocabularies than
Shakespeare or Melville. Of course, vocabulary size isn't the only
measure of artistry. But it's an interesting look at how English has

Learning English as a second (or third)


Where English learners speak the language proficiently

English is the second most-spoken language in the world. But there
are even more people learning English (secondary speakers) than
people who claim English as their first language. Here's where people
tend to score well and poorly on tests of English from Education First.
Green and blue countries have higher proficiency levels than red,
yellow and orange ones. Scandinavian countries, Finland, Poland, and
Austria fare best. The Middle East generally lacks proficient English

Scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is required for
foreign students from non-English-speaking countries to enroll at
American universities, among other things. Here's where students
tend to perform well. (English-speaking countries are included on the
map, but the test is only required for people for whom English is not a
first language.) The Netherlands gets the top score: an average of 100
points out of a possible 120.


Claude S. Fischer, Mike Hout, Aliya Saperstein

Immigrants to the US are learning English more quickly

than previous generations
Concerns about whether immigrants are assimiliating in the US often
focus on criticisms that they're not learning English quickly enough
(think of outrage over phone systems that ask you to select English or
Spanish). But in fact immigrants to the US today are learning and
using English much more quickly than immigrants at the turn of the
20th century. More than 75 percent of all immigrants, and just less
than 75 percent of Spanish-speaking immigrants, speak English within
the first five years, compared to less than 50 percent of immigrants
between 1900 and 1920.

Dialects and regionalisms



Where Cockneys come from

The traditional definition of a Cockney in London is someone born
within earshot of the bells of St.-Mary-le-Bow church -- the area
highlighted in tan on this map. (The smaller circles within it are where
the bells can be heard more loudly in the noisier modern world.) The
distinctive Cockney accent or dialect is best known for its rhyming
slang, which dates back to at least the 19th century. The slang starts
as rhymes, but often the rhyming word is dropped "to have a
butcher's," meaning "to take a look," came from the rhyming of
"butcher's hook" with "look." The phrase "blow a raspberry" which
has spread far beyond London originally comes from the rhyming of
"raspberry tart" with "fart.")

Siobhan Thompson/Anglophenia

Dialects and accents in Britain

There are three general types of British accents in England: Northern
English, Southern English, and the Midlands accent. One of the most
obvious features is whether "bath" is pronounced like the a in "cat" (as
it is in the US and in Northern English dialects) or like the a in "father"
(as it is in Southern English dialects). The generic British accent,
meanwhile, is known as "Received Pronunciation," which is basically a
Southern English accent used among the elite that erases regional
differences. Here's a video of one woman doing 17 British accents,
most of which are shown on the map.

North American vowel shift

There's another vowel shift going on in American English right now. In
the Great Lakes region, short vowel sounds are changing. This is
remarkable because short vowel sounds (think of the short "a" in "cat,"
rather than the long a in "Kate") actually survived the Great Vowel
Shift in the 17th century. Short vowel sounds haven't changed for
hundreds of years but now they are, in Milwaukee, Chicago,
Cleveland, and other cities and even small towns around the Great
Lakes, at least among white speakers. "Buses" is pronounced like
"bosses." "Block" comes out like "black." Nobody's sure why, but it
appears to have started as long ago as the 1930s. The map shows
which areas have adopted various stages of the vowel shift.


Robert Delaney
American dialects
Here's a detailed map of how Americans talk. The bright green
dialects are all subsets of "general Northern" a generic American
accent used by about two-thirds of the US, according to linguist
Robert Delaney, who built this map. But it includes many subsets. The
Eastern New England accent is the "pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd"
accent. In the South, you can see how English has and hasn't
changed over generations. The South Midland accent retains some
words from Elizabethan English. And the Coastal Southern accent
retains some colonial vocabulary, like "catty-corner."


Joshua Katz
You guys vs. y'all
One thing that English lost over time is the useful second-person
plural. "You" became standard sometime in the 1500s, and unlike
French (which differentiates between talking to one person and talking
to several, and between talking to someone you're intimate with and
someone you're not), it's pretty much a catchall. But American English
has found plenty of ways to fill the gap. There's the Southern "y'all,"
the Pittsburghian "yinz," and the Bostonian "youse." Here's how
people in the US address more than one person, from the invaluable
dialect maps from North Carolina State's Joshua Katz.