Ever since my first days of learning English I have been puzzled by this simple phenomenon:

Why the word "English" can both mean the English language, and the English people?

Is there any historical reason for this? By "historical", I mean, is the usage already like this a long time ago?

I am asking this because "people" and "language" are two related but very different concepts. Why use the same word for two different things? (Well, of course a single word can have two or more completely different and unrelated meanings, but that's not what I am asking here.)

I am a Chinese. In Chinese the words for people of a country and the language of that country are different. For example, for English people, we would just say "English people", and for the language, we would say "English language". I don't know what is the case in other languages.

  • 1
    The same is true for French, German, Spanish, and, as you so aptly demonstrated, Chinese. The Chinese people speak Chinese. In Japan, 日本人 speak 日本語. Such languages require an explicit declaration of subject. English does not. The subject is understood from context. "Do you speak French?" "The French like red wine with meals."
    – Robusto
    Oct 18, 2013 at 20:16
  • Words like English but also Latin and most other names of languages refer historically primarily to the people or their land; so Latin means "of Latium", the region in Italy; and English means "of the Angles", the Germanic tribe. The name of the language they speak is based on that. I believe it was historically rather "the English language" and "lingua Latina": leaving out the word "language/lingua" is technically or etymologically ellipsis, I believe. And this occurred/occurs in most European languages. So that's why it is the way it is now. Oct 18, 2013 at 20:19
  • Note that while we generally use the same adjectives to refer to languages and people, we don't generally use the same nouns. The language of the English people is English, but the people are Englishmen. (There are exceptions, like Germans, Greeks, and Italians.) Oct 18, 2013 at 20:27
  • @Cerberus You should post that as an answer. That's a much better explanation than mine.
    – adj7388
    Oct 18, 2013 at 20:40
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    @FJDU, not exactly like that. If ‘English’ is a noun, it can refer to either the people (“The English have the worst dental hygiene in Europe”) or the language (“English is tough stuff!”); there's usually a definite article before it when it's the people. When it's an adjective, it can refer to absolutely anything because an adjective needs to modify something: “The English language/parliament/Patient”, “Ge is English”, etc. It doesn't refer specifically to people or language, but it can refer to both, if they happen to be the nouns it is modifying. Oct 19, 2013 at 5:44

2 Answers 2


(Note: I actually wanted to post this as a comment, not an answer, but for some reason it doesn't seem to do anything when I try—simply does not react.)

FJDU, you are missing the fact that in Chinese, you do not really say English language/people, since Chinese does not have a way of morphologically deriving adjectives from nouns. What you really say is England language and England people. Different languages derive words from each other in different ways; in English, an adjective can be derived from country (and similar) names, and these adjectives can then, like so many other, be used as nouns. If you simply make a noun out of an adjective that means ‘of England’, it makes sense that that will most often refer to either the people of England or the language of England.

There are languages where simple adjectives, nouns for people, and nouns for languages have three different forms (Irish and Scottish Gaelic work like this, and I have some vague memory of reading somewhere that Turkish does too?); there are languages where two are the same and one is different (English is partly one of these, at least for some languages/countries; Germanic languages in general share the same distribution of adjective + language being the same and people being a different word; Finnish has a slightly different model where adjective + people are the same word, but language is simply the name of the country/place itself, underived); and there are languages where all three are the same (such as Chinese).

There is no real ‘reason’ as such for all this. It is just part of what makes languages different from each other.

  • I know how you feel, it can be really frustrating when you can't post an answer as a comment. +1 Oct 18, 2013 at 21:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I don't understand why you say that in Chinese all three are the same. For the adjective, we may say "英国的" (of England, or of UK), for the people, we say "英国人" (=England people or UK people, as you said), and for English language the word is "英语", which may be seen as an abbreviation of "英国的语言" (=the language of England). BTW, the word "英国" always refers to UK (=联合王国), though "英" is obviously a phonetic translation of "En" in England (while 英格兰=England).
    – FJDU
    Oct 19, 2013 at 1:56
  • Note that I said morphologically. Chinese does not possess morphology (unless you count tone sandhi and 儿化), so basically there is no way to make different forms. Instead, you simply use the name of the country as an attributive noun, with or without the specific attribution marker 的. This does not make a new, unique word as such, but simply creates a compound. Oct 19, 2013 at 5:28
  • The UK is not a good example because it's abbreviated in different ways; but take Sweden/Swede/Swedish as an example: 瑞典/瑞典人/瑞典语. You could also say 瑞典狗 or 瑞典航空公司 (except there isn't one), the construction would be exactly the same—no special adjectival or demonymic form, just country name + (optionally 的) + head noun. Oct 19, 2013 at 5:31
  • @Janus Thanks. I don't know much about these "academic" issues. I don't see much difference between changing England into "English" or into "England-ish" (maybe the first requires the Backspace key why the second does not?). Namely, you don't consider changing "英国" into "英国的" as a morphological change, while I can't see the importance of this. Chinese do have a word "英式", which means, well, the adjective English (not for people),and a word "英制",which means Imperial (referring to things like "inch").
    – FJDU
    Oct 19, 2013 at 17:56

It's often frustrating to ask 'why is it this way' in any language. The most common answer is 'it's that way just because that's the way it is' :)

In English, though, part of the answer to your question is that we can tell from context whether you're referring to an English person or the English language.

For example, if I say 'He is English', you would know that I'm not talking about the language because a person cannot be a language.

Likewise, if I say 'She speaks English', you would know that I'm not talking about an English person, because a person cannot be spoken.

So context is the key. That's how we know the difference. As to 'why', well, that's just the way it is :)

By the way, in French the same phenomenon occurs: a 'French person' is a 'français', and the language is also 'français'. Also in French, an English person is an 'anglais', and the language is also 'anglais'. I suspect it is like this in many other Romantic languages. And you can tell the difference from context.

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