Learn English – Reasons for using the same word for people and language of a country


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.

Best Answer

(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.