There are a variety of different versions of English, versions that have their own words, pronunciation and even different spellings on some words. The English language is spoken and spelled differently in the USA, Australia, Belize, Canada, England, the Philippines, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zeeland, Singapore, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago and Zimbabwe. Many local versions of English are difficult or impossible for ordinary English people to understand. Many English speaking countries actually want to have their own version of English for nationalistic reasons.

In Sweden and many other countries, we are mainly taught what is called Received Pronunciation (RP) in school. This is also called Oxford English, the Queen’s English or BBC English. This form of English is only spoken by 3-5% of England’s population. Moreover, there are different kinds of RP. More common kinds of English on the British Isles are Cockney, Estuary English, Welsh English, Northern English, Irish English and different Scottish varieties.

General American

There are at least three dialects spoken in the USA: Eastern (spoken in the north-east, New England and New York), Southern (form Virginia to Texas and everything south of the Mason-Dixon line) and General American which is spoken in the rest of the country.

English, this language of difficult spelling, this language of grammatical irregularities and exceptions. How many of those who do not have English as their first language can express themselves well enough in speech and writing to be able to discuss f ex political and emotional issues in English? At most a few percent, all of them with a talent for languages. How many can understand and follow what the president of the USA says in his speeches? Not many. A contributing factor that makes English difficult is the rapidity with which it changes, whilst it is becoming increasingly common that writings in English contain slang expressions, which is even the case in political and technical texts.

The person who has tried to get around in Europe with only English, Spanish and French has swiftly been disappointed.


The letters –ough can be pronounced in seven different ways. Compare the pronunciations of the words though, tough, through, plough, cough, ought and hiccough.

As in the 17th Century

English is spelled more or less as it sounded in the 17th century. Is there no possibility of reforming English spelling? Unfortunately this is impossible, as there is no system of spelling in which a certain sound is represented by a single letter. The five vowels in English are insufficient to denote the existing twenty vowel sounds. A reformed spelling would thus require a new and expanded alphabet or an entirely new pronunciation of English; both unthinkable options. Since the pronunciation of English varies so widely across the world, it would be near impossible to agree on one dialect on which to base the new spelling. Beyond that, there is no superior authority with enough clout to bring about a general spelling reform in English.

If the EU was to decide on having English as their sole working language, which variety would be preferable? General American has a lot going for it. It is spoken by more people than any other dialect of English and has greater international influence than English English. Moreover, it represents the dominant economical, scientific and political forces. Furthermore, it lays claim to being quite neutral socially, as it is not identified with a particular social class.

111 Doctors

In a study from 2000, 111 Danish, Norwegian and Swedish GPs were set to read the same review article for ten minutes. Half of the subjects read it in their mother tongue and half in English. Immediately afterwards they filled in a form responding to questions about the text. All Danish, Norwegian and Swedish doctors are well acquainted with English from an early stage in their education, through television and films as well as from the fact that the languages are related to English. They also read a large part of their medical course in English and many subscribe to medical journals written in English. The doctors in the study stated that their general understanding of English was good. 42% read medical information in English every week.

The results showed that those who had read the article in their mother tongue had significantly better results than those who had read it in English. Those who had read the article in English had understood 25% less of the information than those who had read it in their mother tongue. (from Läkartidningen issues 26-27, 2002, a Swedish specialist magazines for Doctors).

Literature in Translation

Most Swedish academics that I know read English fiction in translation, despite having been taught English for many years.

When average Swedish students leave secondary school (after nine years of compulsory schooling) their active English vocabulary can be appreciated to about 1000 words and their passive vocabulary to about 1500-2000 words.

500 000 words

English has a larger vocabulary than any other language. This is because the vocabulary is “double”, being derived both from Germanic and Romance words (since the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century). The largest dictionary in the world, Oxford English Dictionary, lists 500 000 words, but in reality there are many more, as new words are made all the time. The central vocabulary in English contains about 15 000 words. If you know these, you understand about 95% of the words in English texts and can handle most language situations. A reader has difficulty understanding a text if he or she is unfamiliar with more than 5% of the words used.

In his very interesting book The Language Instinct, the American professor Steven Pinker cites research by William Nagy and Richard Anderson, according to which the average American High School graduate (after a total of 12 years of schooling and at the age of 18) has a vocabulary of 45 000 words. This did not include different inflected forms of words, nor names, foreign words, acronyms (words built from initials that are pronounced according to general rules, such as NATO or UNESCO) and many compound words that cannot be easily separated. If such words had been included, the figure would probably have landed around 60 000 words. This means that the students had learnt ten new words a day, everyday, since their first birthdays.

Royal Mail

English is a difficult language even for the English. A recent survey estimated that U K business lose £6 billion every year through badly written business letters alone. 31 percent of the subjects of the study said that they had sought other business partners when their communication had revealed too many grammatical mistakes. That’s just on the letters.

© Hans Malv, 2004