ESL learners and teachers: Do you think you know the English language? Ten eccentricities of our West Germanic tongue

English language learners, teachers, bloggers and other wordsmiths, do you think you know the English language well? English is spoken as a first language by over 400 million people. And it’s a second or third language to over a billion people, which amounts to one-seventh of the world’s population (, 2022). Many people internationally have already learned English or are currently doing so.

But should we assume that many users are experts? English as a language has an interesting and “quirky” history, the blogging team at writes, in its fortnightly blog:  English is “sometimes frustrating, often confusing, but never boring.” The language is West Germanic and derives a lot of influence from Latin (using the Latin alphabet), French and Old Norse.

While it might appear that English has been standardized in common use, Tefl writers say that there are actually many variations, dialects and accents that cause English to vary between places where it’s used (spoken and written). Tefl recently shared 10 fun facts that many native speakers do not know about the language and which I adapt for today’s blog posting:

  1. English has words with contradictory meanings, called “contronyms.” For instance, you can have a “variety” as a particular type of something, and also, distinctly, as a “great number of something.” So there are many “varieties” of the Haskap Berry, while a “variety” of different fruit are studied at the University of Saskatchewan’s Fruit Breeding Program.

Similarly, we can “dust” a tabletop (to remove something from it) or “dust” (i.e. add) a layer of icing sugar to a dessert. Both are very different activities.

Newcomers need to rely on context to guide them on which way a specific word is being used. This takes much practice.

2. Shakespeare, as a poet and playwright, is credited for adding more than 1000 words to the English language! He created words like “swagger,” “uncomfortable” and “bandit,” as well as phrases like “break the ice,” and many more (as undergraduate readers of his oeuvre often discover for the first time).

3. English has “ambigrams,” words that look the same from various positions on the page and looked at from different angles. For instance, the word “swims” reads as “swims” even if you turn the page upside down! So too with “big,” and, depending on the handwriting involved, “awesome” and “blessing” may look the same, either way up!

4. Our alphabet used to be longer. Over history, letters like “ash” (æ) and “ethel” (œ) have been dropped, although they are still used in Scandinavian languages. Currently, our alphabet has 26 letters, but it once had more than 29 letters.

5. In 1066, the Norman Conquest of England permanently changed our language. The Normans added new words and phrases to English, from the old French. Many words with French origins (e.g. “niche”) are common to English (writing and speaking), including “parliament” and “banquet.” Many of the words we use to communicate about food, and the game of cricket, actually derive from Norman French.

6. We have some very long words in English. Tefl reports that some may think the longest word in the language is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” But in fact, it is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” Even seasoned learners might do a double-take at that! The world is the name of a lung condition that comes from inhaling sand or ash! Try that at your next, post-Covid dinner party!

7. The most commonly used noun in English is “time,” which outranks other, heavily used words like “person,” “year,” “way” and “day” (who round out the top five).

8. Some words that appear simple have very complex meanings. For instance, the word “set” has an entry in the Oxford English dictionary (OED) that is 40,000 words long and has over 430 definitions! As Tefl’s writer writes,” you can set a table for a set time, you can complete a set of something” and so on.

9. Other words have surprising origins. British English refers to people lining up in “queues,” which sounds French to some users. But it comes from the tail of a beast in medieval art, so that a queue (what Canadians call a “line” or “line up”) resembles the tail of such a creature, in “either single-file” or “snaking around bends.” 

10. Do you know what is the most commonly used letter in the English language? It’s the vowel “E!” “E” can be used as many as five times in a word, such as in “beekeeper,” “effervescence” and “teleconference.” Try combining those words in a single sentence!

These quirky eccentricities about English make it easier to see why non-native English speakers can sometimes get confused. And there are variations of English, including American, Canadian and Australian English. But it has become popular internationally and is often named as the “language of business worldwide.”

New words and phrases are added to the OED yearly, whereby pop culture has a strong influence on new words, idioms and terminology.

Sharing some of these truths can help learners to recognize that English is not only complex but also fascinating; its character cannot be contained within even our best dictionaries or grammar guides!

And now it’s your turn: Did you know some of these eccentricities of the English language? Please share your word wonders in English:  I’d be delighted to use them in an upcoming posting.