English language in Europe

English language in Europe

The English language in Europe, as a native language, is mainly spoken in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland. Outside of these countries, it has a special status in Jersey and Guernsey (two of the three Crown Dependencies), in Gibraltar (one of the British overseas territories), Malta and Cyprus (two former British colonies). In other parts of Europe, English is spoken mainly by those who have learned it as a second language, but also, to a lesser extent, natively by expatriates from the English speaking world.

The English language is the official language of Gibraltar and one of the official languages of Wales, Republic of Ireland, Malta, Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man and the European Union.

13% of EU citizens speak English as their native language. Another 38% of EU citizens state that they have sufficient skills in English to have a conversation. [Europeans and their Languages (2006) [http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_sum_en.pdf] ]

History of English in England

English is descended from the language spoken by the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around 449 AD, Vortigern, King of the Britons, issued an invitation to the "Angle kin" (Angles, led by Hengest and Horsa) to help him against the Picts. In return, the Angles were granted lands in the southeast. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). The Chronicle documents the subsequent influx of "settlers" who eventually established seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex.

These Germanic invaders dominated the original Celtic-speaking inhabitants. The dialects spoken by these invaders formed what would be called Old English, which was also strongly influenced by yet another Germanic dialect, Old Norse, spoken by Viking invaders who settled mainly in the North-East. English, England, and East Anglia are derived from words referring to the Angles: "Englisc", "Angelcynn", and "Englaland".

For the 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Anglo-Norman language was the language of administration and few Kings of England spoke English. A large number of French words were assimilated into Old English, which also lost most of its inflections, the result being Middle English. Around the year 1500, the Great Vowel Shift transformed Middle English into Modern English.

The most famous surviving work from Old English is "Beowulf", and from Middle English is Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales".

The rise of Modern English began around the time of William Shakespeare. Some scholars divide early Modern English and late Modern English at around 1800, in concert with British conquest of much of the rest of the world, as the influence of native languages affected English enormously.

Classification and related languages

English belongs to the western sub-branch of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest undoubted living relatives of English are Scots and the Frisian languages. Frisian languages are spoken by approximately half a million people in the Dutch province of Friesland (Fryslân), in nearby areas of Germany, and on a few islands in the North Sea.

After Scots and Frisian, the next closest relative is modern Low German of the eastern Netherlands and northern Germany. Other less closely related living languages include Dutch, Afrikaans, German and the Scandinavian languages. Many French words are also intelligible to an English speaker, as English absorbed a tremendous amount of vocabulary from the Norman language after the Norman conquest and from French in further centuries; as a result, a substantial share of English vocabulary is very close to the French, with some slight spelling differences (word endings, use of old French spellings, etc.) and some occasional lapses in meaning.

The spread of English in Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man


The English language was spread through Europe, as indeed throughout the world, by British colonial expansion. Unrelated to that is the matter of what some claim is the oldest of the English colonies after Cornwall: Wales. In 1282 Edward I of England defeated Llywelyn the Last, Wales's last independent prince, in battle. Edward followed the practice used by his Norman predecessors in their subjugation of the English, and constructed a series of great stone castles in order to control Wales, thus preventing further military action against England by the Welsh. With ‘English’ political control at this time came Anglo-Norman customs and language; English did not displace Welsh as the majority language of the Welsh people until the anti Welsh language campaigns, which began towards the end of the 19th century (54% spoke Welsh in 1891; see Welsh language). The Welsh language has been enjoying support from the authorities for some decades, resulting in a revival, and is in a healthy position in many parts of Wales.


Some say the second oldest English dominion was Ireland. With the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169, Anglo-Norman King Henry II of England gained Irish lands and the fealty of many native Gaelic nobles. Initially, English (or rather Anglo-Norman) rule was largely limited to the area around Dublin known as the Pale, but this was expanded in the 16th century by the Tudors, with the collapse of the social and political superstructure (see the Brethren Laws) at the end of the 17th century. The Flight of the Earls in 1607 paved the way for the Plantation of Ulster, bringing with it a deepening of the English language culture in Ireland. The Cromwellian Plantation and suppression of Catholicism (including both native Irish and Anglo-Irish (of Anglo-Norman descent)) further cemented English influence across the country.

As the centuries passed and the social conditions in Ireland deteriorated, culminating in the Great Irish Famine, many parents refused to speak Irish to their children as they knew that the children might have to emigrate and Irish would be of no use outside the home country, in Britain, the US, Australia or Canada.

In addition, the introduction of universal state education in the late 19th century proved a powerful vector for the transmission of English as a home language, with the greatest retreat of the Irish language occurring in the period between 1850 and 1900.

By the 20th century, Ireland had a centuries-old history of diglossia. English was the prestige language while the Irish language was associated with poverty and disfranchisement. Accordingly, some Irish who spoke both Irish and English refrained from teaching their children Irish, or, in extreme cases, feigned the inability to speak Irish themselves.

Despite state support for the Irish language in the Republic of Ireland after independence, Irish continued to retreat, the economic marginality of many Irish speaking areas (see Gaeltacht) being a primary factor.

For this reason Irish is spoken as a mother tongue by only a very small number of people on the island of Ireland. Irish has been a compulsory subject in schools in the Republic since the 1920s, and proficiency in Irish is required for a number of government jobs.

It may be noted, however, that certain words (especially those germane to civic life) in Irish remain features of Irish life and are rarely, if ever, translated into English. These include the names of legislative bodies (such as the Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann), government positions (such as Taoiseach and Teachta Dála), and political parties (such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael).

The Republic of Ireland's law-enforcement community, the Garda Síochána, are referred to as "the guards" for short. Irish appears on government forms, currency, and postage stamps, in traditional music and in media promoting folk culture. Irish place names are still common for houses, streets, villages, and geographic features. But other than these few exceptions, and despite the presence of Irish loan words in Hiberno-English, Ireland is today largely an English-speaking country.

Ireland is also the only member State in the eurozone that has English as a co-official language (with Irish on a par), and the only English-speaking country to use the euro. In Ireland, the plural of "euro" is "euros" and the plural of (euro)"cent" is "cents" - like the plural of (dollar) "cent", which is "cents".

The only area of Northern Ireland which was predominantly Irish-speaking at partition, the remoter areas of the Sperrin Mountains, had become entirely English-speaking by 1950. There were however older segments of the population in Southern Armagh an also in the Antrim Glens. In recent decades, some Catholics in Northern Ireland have used it in slogans promoting an Irish identity . The amount of interest from Protestants remains low, particularly since the 1960s. Certain members of the Republican movement have attempted to forward their cause by using Irish since the late 1980s (see "The Troubles"), though this has been viewed with skepticism by many as to their genuine motives. Now Irish is only spoken by about 165,000 people in Northern Ireland who have predominantly learned it as a second language. Otherwise, except for place names and folk music, English is effectively the sole language of Northern Ireland.


Anglic speakers were actually established in Lothian by the 7th century, but remained confined there, and indeed contracted slightly to the advance of the Gaelic language. However, during the 12th and 13th centuries, Norman landowners and their retainers, were invited to settle by the king. It is probable that many of their retainers spoke a northern form of Middle English, although probably French was more common. Most of the evidence suggests that English spread into Scotland via the burgh, proto-urban institutions which were first established by King David I. Incoming burghers were mainly English (especially from Northumbria, and the Earldom of Huntingdon), Flemish and French. Although the military aristocracy employed French and Gaelic, these small urban communities appear to have been using English as something more than a "lingua franca" by the end of the 13th century. English appeared in Scotland for the first time in literary form in the mid-14th century, when its form unsurprisingly differed little from other northern English dialects. As a consequence of the outcome of the Wars of Independence though, the English of Lothian who lived under the King of Scots had to accept Scottish identity. The growth in prestige of English in the 14th century, and the complementary decline of French in Scotland, made English the prestige language of most of eastern Scotland.

Thus, from the end of the 14th century, and certainly by the end of the 15th century, Scotland began to show a split into two cultural areasndash the mainly English or Lowland Scots lowlands, and the mainly-Gaelic speaking highlands (which then could be thought to include Galloway and Carrick; see Galwegian Gaelic). This caused divisions in the country where the Lowlands remained, historically, more influenced by the English to the south: the Lowlands lay more open to attack by invading armies from the south and absorbed English influence through their proximity to and their trading relations with their southern neighbours.

In 1603 the Scottish King James VI inherited the throne of England, and became James I of England. James moved to London and only returned once to Scotland. By the time of James VI's accession to the English throne the old Scottish Court and Parliament spoke Lowland Scots. Lowland Scots developed from the Anglian spoken in the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia, which in the 6th century conquered the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin and renamed its capital of Dunedin to Edinburgh. Lowland Scots continues to heavily influence the spoken English of the Scottish people today. It is much more similar to dialects in the north of England, than to 'British' English, even today. The introduction of King James Version of the Bible into Scottish churches also was a blow to Lowland Scots, since it used Southern English forms.

In 1707 the Scottish and English Parliaments signed a Treaty of Union. Implementing the treaty involved dissolving both the English and the Scottish Parliaments, and transferring all their powers to a new Parliament in London which then became the British Parliament. A customs and currency union also took place. With this, Scotland's position was consolidated within the United Kingdom.

Today, almost all residents of Scotland speak English, although many speak various Lowland Scots dialects which differ markedly from Scottish Standard English. Approximately 2% of the population use Scottish Gaelic as their language of everyday use, primarily in the northern and western regions of the country. Virtually all Scottish Gaelic speakers also speak fluent English.

Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is a Crown Dependency. English and Manx Gaelic are the two official languages.

English in other British or formerly British territories

Channel Islands

The bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are two Crown Dependencies. Besides English, some (very few) inhabitants of these islands speak regional languagesFact|date=November 2007, or those related to French (such as Jèrriais, Dgèrnésiais and Sercquiais).

All inhabitants of the populated Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark) speak English.


Gibraltar has been a British overseas territory since an Anglo-Dutch force led by Sir George Rooke seized "The Rock" in 1704 and Spain ceded the territory in perpetuity to Great Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.

The small territory's Gibraltarian inhabitants have a rich cultural heritage as a result of the mix of the neighbouring Andalusian population with immigrants from Genoa, Malta, Portugal, Morocco and India.

The vernacular language of the territory is Llanito. It consists of an eclectic mix of Andalusian Spanish and British English as well as languages such as Maltese, Portuguese, Italian of the Genoese variety and Haketia. Even though Andalusian Spanish is the main constituent of Llanito, it is also heavily influenced by British English, involving a certain amount of code-switching into English.

However, English remains the sole official language, used by Government. It is also the medium of instruction in schools and most Gibraltarians who go on to tertiary education do so in the UK. Although Gibraltar receives Spanish television and radio, British television is also widely available via satellite. Whereas a century ago, most Gibraltarians were monolingual Spanish speakers, the majority is now naturally bilingual in English and Spanish.


In 1914 the Ottoman Empire declared war against the United Kingdom and France as part of the complex series of alliances that led to World War I. The British then annexed Cyprus on 2 November, 1914 as part of the British Empire, making the Cypriots British subjects. On 5 November, 1914 the British and the French declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Cyprus gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, with the UK, Greece and Turkey retaining limited rights to intervene in internal affairs.

The British colonial history of Cyprus has left Cypriots with a good level of English but it is no longer an official language in either the Greek south side of the island, formally known as the Republic of Cyprus or the Turkish north, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Since the effective partition of the island in 1974, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have had little opportunity or inclination to learn the other's language, and are more likely to talk to you in English if you do not try to speak to them in their language.

Knowledge of English is also helped by the large Cypriot migrant communities in the UK and Australia, leading to diffusion of culture and language back to their country of origin. There is a large British expatriate population, in addition to the British military presence in the Sovereign Base Areas, plus the UN buffer zone, whose peacekeepers usually use English as a "lingua franca". All this maintains an English-speaking presence on the island.


In 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire, under the terms of the Treaty of Vienna. Prior to the arrival of the British, the language of the educated Maltese elite had been Italian, and all legal statutes, taxation, education, and clerical discourses were conducted either in Italian or in Latin.

However, this was increasingly downgraded by the increased use of English. The British began scripting and codifying Maltesendash hitherto an unscripted vernacularndash as a language in or around 1868. From this point on, the Maltese language gradually gained currency as the main language on the islands, its grammars and conventions evolving in a mix between Italian, Arabic, and English.

Between the 1870s and 1930s, Malta had three official languages, Italian, Maltese, and English, but in 1934, English and Maltese were declared the sole official languages. The British associated Italian with the Mussolini regime in Italy, which had made territorial claims on the islands, although the use of Italian by nationalists was more out of cultural affinities with Italy than any sympathy with Italian Fascism. With the outbreak of the war, the Maltese lost their sense of fraternity with the Italian world, and there was a decline in Italian spoken in Malta.

English remains an official language in Malta, but since independence in 1964, the country's cultural and commercial links with Italy have strengthened, owing to proximity. Italian television is widely received in Malta and is highly popular.

Other countries in contemporary Europe

There are also pockets of native English speakers to be found throughout Europe, such as in southern Spain, France, the Algarve in Portugal, the Netherlands as well as numerous U.S. and British military bases in Germany. As well as some English speaking Caribbean, African, Asian and Oceanic communities who live throughout Europe. There are communities of native English speakers in all the main European cities, e.g. Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Barcelona, Paris and Milan.

Sectors of tourism, publishing, finance, computers and related industries rely heavily on English due to Anglophone trade ties. Air traffic control and shipping movements are almost all conducted in English.

In areas of Europe where English is not the first language, there are many examples of the mandated primacy of English: for example, some companies, such as RenaultFact|date=July 2008, have designated English to be the language of communication for their senior management, and many universities in the Netherlands teach only in EnglishFact|date=July 2008. The language is also a required subject in most European schoolsFact|date=July 2008.

While shown grey on the map at the top of the page, as they are outside the European Union, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway also have high percentages of English speakersFact|date=July 2008.

English as lingua franca

English is a lingua franca in parts of Western and Northern Europe. ["Europeans and their Languages". "Special Eurobarometer 243" of the European Commission (2006) [http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf] , p. 144] In the EU25, working knowledge of English as a foreign language is clearly leading at 38%, followed by German and French (at 14% each), Russian (6%), Spanish (6%) and Italian (3%). [including native speakers, the figures are: English 38%, German 14%, French 14%, Spanish 6%, Russian 6%, Italian 3%. "Europeans and their Languages". "Special Eurobarometer 243" of the European Commission (2006) [http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf] , p. 152] Working knowledge of English is particularly high in Scandinavia (Denmark 86%, Sweden 89%) and the Netherlands (87%). In Eastern and Southern Europe, working knowledge of English is lower, around 20-29%. On average, 38% of citizens of the European Union (excluding the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland) stated that they have sufficient knowledge of English to have a conversation. ["Europeans and their Languages". "Special Eurobarometer 243" of the European Commission (2006) [http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf] , p. 144]


ee also

*History of the English language
*History of the Scots language

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