English is estimated to be spoken by 1.5 billion people around the globe, making it the world’s third most widely spoken language. Around 60 million of those speakers are concentrated in the UK. Whilst many people have some knowledge of English in one of its many forms, some of the intricacies of British English are unknown to many people outside of the isles.
As it has come into contact with so many other languages over time, English has taken in loanwords from all over the world. Many English words (perhaps as many as one third) have their roots in Norman or French: both languages derived from Latin. As the ruling class spoke Norman, and later French, many words and phrases passed into the language of the people.
However, what we don’t necessarily realise is that there was significant influence from Viking settlers. As they didn’t infiltrate the religious establishment or aristocracy – the main centres of education at the time – much of their influence never found its way into the written language and was lost. Their legacy in English is limited to vocabulary, and some say accent.
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In north-east England and Scotland, you might use the word bairn for a child, a word which is actually borrowed from the language of the Viking settlers. This word still exists in Scandinavian languages as barn. Whilst it’s hard to accurately judge how those settlers would have spoken, it’s believed that the characteristic accents of north-east England and Scotland were influenced by the pronunciation of the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings.
In Standard English, we’ve done away with a unique second-person plural pronoun common in many other languages (e.g. Swedish ni, French vous and German ihr) when addressing more than one person, instead of just opting for you which can refer to either one person or a group. This sometimes causes misunderstandings, as it’s unclear if the speaker is talking to an individual or a group.
However, in some areas of the UK, English speakers have found new ways to distinguish between the singular and plural. In north-east England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, yous is commonly heard to refer to a group (or ye in other areas), and then there’s y’all in parts of America! Finally, there’s you lot, probably used most often to grab the attention of a group of kids.
Ye comes from Anglo-Saxon and was one of four options, depending on number and formality, between you, ye, thou and thee. As these fell out of favour and you took over as the dominant second-person pronoun, English speakers started to create unofficial alternatives to signify number.
3. The word for ‘bread roll’
It’s not just external forces that have shaped the English language of the British Isles: plenty of quirks have evolved on their own. Everywhere you go around the UK, you’ll stumble across a regional term for a small round bread item that you might put your burger in.
The name for this food is a big topic of conversation at British universities (other than actual academic subjects) – often people refuse to believe barm cake (Greater Manchester and Lancashire) is the same as a bread roll. Someone will jump in with cob (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire), and someone else will claim it has to be wider and flatter before it can be a cob. These are more or less all regional variations on the same item. There are other options too such as teacake, muffin, batch, bun, roll…
Perhaps the most infamous and often divisive language debate in England is the bath vs barth debate, which centres on whether to use a ‘short a’ or ‘long a’ in words like bath, ask and grasp (the ‘long a’ sometimes being written as ‘ar’). It seems like a classic north–south divide, but both sides do have a case.
Surely, it’s grass with a short ‘a’, like in sand? It’s an ‘a’ in the middle of the word, there’s no ‘r’. And yet, we say drama with the long ‘a’, which is rooted in Latin, which would in modern French and Spanish be pronounced close to the short ‘a’ sound anyway.
Then there are the fringe words – in which only speakers of a handful of dialects in the south of England would opt for the long ‘a’ – such as transport or plastic. There are other slight variants too, such as in the west of England which is a longer ‘a’ without the ‘r’ sound, which is closer to the modern-day American pronunciation.
Swearing is very common in all the languages I have any knowledge of, and I’m sure it’s common in all the others too. The English language has a special relationship with swearwords and frequent use of them has become part of the British English stereotype.
But what is a swearword? Some linguists believe that certain swearwords – I won’t specify which – can be viewed as their own word class. You could fit a certain word almost anywhere in a sentence, to emphasise a different part of the phrase.
The only place a swearword couldn’t be used would be before an article like ‘a’ or ‘the’, or a pronoun like ‘I’. Certain words have been used so frequently in colloquial contexts that they have been given their own grammar rules and place in a sentence, distinct from any other word category in English.
English has evolved hugely across many places, leaving behind many different locales. This is important to bear in mind in translation. As we’ve seen, amongst the English speakers in the UK alone, there is a great deal of variety, which can be problematic when translating for a UK audience.
Finding a suitable term that will work for all areas in the target market can be challenging and requires a dedicated linguist who is aware of all the possibilities and connotations. Luckily, we’ve got our own in-house native English speakers to guide you every step of the way and make sure your translation cuts the mustard.
Daniel Field is one of our Account Managers. With a background in modern languages and project management, he’s keen to connect with people and build strong working relationships with professionals across the world.