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 '13 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. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 18 '13 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.) – Bradd Szonye Oct 18 '13 at 20:27
  • @Cerberus You should post that as an answer. That's a much better explanation than mine. – adj7388 Oct 18 '13 at 20:40
  • 2
    @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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 19 '13 at 5:44

(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 – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Oct 18 '13 at 21:40
  • 1
    @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 '13 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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 19 '13 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. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 19 '13 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 '13 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.


The position historically is a good deal more complicated than is described variously here. Prior to the 'Thirty Years War' in Europe nation states as we know them today did not exist. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 represents the beginning of the idea of nations which are synonymous with language ,and folk regions. Prior to that time most of Europe had been ruled by two major families, the Habsburgs out of Vienna and the Bourbons out of Paris. But the Habsburg Empire included not only modern Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, but vast areas of the Balkans, and also Spain, where a Habsburg occupied the throne. The Habsburg Emperor was also Holy Roman Emperor, and in that capacity held influence over all the states which make up modern Germany. The Bourbons governed most of present-day France, but perhaps less than half that region spoke a language which in any way resembled the French spoken in Paris. The Popes were also influential in greater or lesser degrees either side of the Reformation over the whole of the continent. The idea of 'nationhood' where you have a state of like peoples, speaking the same language, and with the same national icons and sense of identity starts to emerge after 1648 and reaches its apotheosis in the French Revolution: 'Allons enfants de la patrie'. In the 19th century great nations like Italy and Germany , previously only collections of Dukedoms etc were founded. The British Isles stands a little bit outside of this, and one can trace elements of an emerging national identity, for example, in the writings of Chaucer in the 14th century. But the English and Scottish monarchs intermarry with their European cousins, and George I who ascends the British throne in the early 18th century, as the first Hanoverian monarch is a German, whose first language was German.

Now languages are far older than this. Scores of languages were spoken in the old Habsburg Empire. To a large extent nations, when they began to be formed, were fitted around language groups. But there were many misfits, some of which would lead to the world wars of the twentieth century. The Balkans was a particularly difficult area, which has many national identities and had at different times come under the control of the Austrians, and the Turks, with Russia always having a claim to the Slavic areas like Serbia.

The whole scenario was completely turned upside down again following the First World war. At the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, a lot of new countries were created out of the old Austro/Hungarian Empire, with names like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia etc. But these were just arrangements of convenience which have not stood the test of time since they held different linguistic groups and different religious confessions.

So whilst today it is convenient to think of France and the French, Germany and the Germans, Netherlands and the Dutch, England and the English, Spain and the Spanish etc, it has taken a long time to get here, and much of the appearance simply papers over large cracks in the structures. On top of all this we now have the European Union which in some ways, if it eventually works, may take us back to something like the Holy Roman Empire with multitudes of languages, founded by Charlemagne in the 8th century (i think).

Hope this may help those of you who are Chinese and have not done much western history.

  • 3
    I don't think this has anything to do with the OP's question, which was why do we use the same word for English (language) and English (people). He might equally have asked why we use the same word for Vietnamese (language) and Vietnamese (people), and it would have been obvious that European history had nothing to do with it. It's a purely linguistic question. – Colin Fine Oct 18 '13 at 23:30
  • Yes, it's interesting history, but the question doesn't touch on nationalism. – Bradd Szonye Oct 18 '13 at 23:38
  • @Colin Fine On the contrary. Among the ideals emerging out of the European Enlightenment was the idea of nationalism. Diverse populations needed to have identifiers that brought them together into succinct national groupings. A lot of national tradition was invented in the 18th and 19th centuries (see Eric Hobsbawn 'The Invention of Tradition). But foremost among those national identifiers was a national language. Languages had to be unified. What passed for 'German' in the states of the Holy Roman Empire was vastly more disparate than modern German which emerged (Cont'd) – WS2 Oct 19 '13 at 6:11
  • @Colin Fine This was equally the case with French, Spanish, and especially Italian. In the 1840s Metternich, the Austrian chancellor, described 'Italy' as a 'mere geographical expression'. When the nation was proclaimed some of the crowd thought the name 'Italia' must be that of Victor Emmanuel's wife. Much of the population in the 1870s had never heard the name Italia before! The 19th-century history of Europe was one of compressing diverse peoples into consolidated language groupings, answering the OP's question'Why use the same word for two different things?'. – WS2 Oct 19 '13 at 6:19
  • @Bradd Szonye It is about nothing but nationalism. see subsequent posts. – WS2 Oct 19 '13 at 6:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.