WORD OF THE DAY: Describing Nationality, Race & Languages

ZakWashington playing guitar in London street

In today's mini-lesson we explain a complicated area of the English language. We teach you how to use words that describe the nationality, groups of people and their adjectives.

The basics

Notice the use of Englishmen to describe the nationality. Many students mistakenly think that it is possible to talk about someone from England as an English. It isn’t. Following the same rule, a woman would be called an Englishwoman. If you want to generalize, you’d have to refer to the English. 


The same rule applies to many other nationalities. France, Frenchmen/Frenchwoman, the French. In cases like these, it is also possible to refer to a generalised mass of people as English people, or French people. The reason for this is probably political correctness –before Frenchmen meant men and women- now we tend to call them French people. This causes problems, as students think that this rule applies to every nationality.


Students often say things like; American people always speak really loudly. This is not really correct, (well the part about them speaking loudly probably is!) or I should say, not really grammatically correct, as there is already a standard way of talking about their race. They need to be referred to as Americans, not American people. Similarly, Mexicans, Indians, Egyptians etc, that follow the same structure.


The complications

Things can get pretty complicated as some countries have the same name for their language, and a different adjective to describe things from their country. Take, for example, Scotland. A person can be called a Scot, or a Scotsman. Not a Scottish. The plural should be Scotsmen, but again has been politically corrected to Scottish peopleScottish can only be used as an adjective to describe things from that country: Traditional Scottish customs. There is also the adjective Scotch, which is old-fashioned, and is only used in traditional expressions to describe things like Scotch whisky, and recipes like Scotch eggs. Thus, their languages are Scottish Gaelic or EnglishScotsmen have it lucky in the English language! Some lesser known countries don’t get given a name for their individual people.


The irregularities

There are, unfortunately, so many irregularities relating to countries, nationalities, adjectives for describing national nouns, and the differences between describing male/female/singular/plural, etc, that it is impossible to mention all. What you must do though, is learn by heart the vocabulary for different English speaking countries. Also, other countries come up commonly in conversation. Here is a basic guide to the most common of these, and also examples that are so irregular that they need to be learnt. There are many more, but most follow the same pattern as one of those below. Just remember that us native speakers often get confused too. Don’t hurt yourself!

Indian woman with a jewel on her forehead and a gold tooth. From ZakWashington

Country    Language/Adjective Nationality singular The race/Nationality plural.

England    English (lang. & adj.) Englishman/woman The English/ Englishmen/ Englishwomen/ English people

Britain    British (adj. Only) Briton/Brit (m/f) The British/Brits/Britons (again there is no difference made between masculine or feminine)

Ireland    Irish (lang. & adj.) Irishman/Irishwoman The Irish/Irishmen/Irishwomen

Wales    Welsh (lang. & adj.) Welshman/Welshwoman The Welsh/ Welshmen/ Welshwomen

Scotland    Scottish (adj. only) Scotsman/Scotswoman/Scot Scotsmen./Scots.

Africa    African (adj. only) African (m/f) Africans

America    English (lang.) American (adj.) American (m/f) Americans

Denmark    Danish (lang. & adj.) Dane  (m/f) Danes

Germany    German (lang. & adj.) German  (m/f) Germans

Greece    Greek (lang. & adj.) Greek (m/f) (The) Greeks

Holland     Dutch (lang. & adj.) Dutchman/Dutchwoman The Dutch/Dutchmen

Japan    Japanese (lang. & adj.) Japanese  (m/f) The Japanese

Norway    Norwegian (lang. & adj.) Norwegian (m/f) Norwegians

Poland    Polish (lang. & adj.) Pole  (m/f) (The) Poles

Spain    Spanish (lang. & adj.) Spaniard  (m/f ) Spaniards 

Switzerland Swiss (adj. only) Swiss  (m/f) (The) Swiss

Sweden    Swedish (lang. & adj.) Swede (m/f) (The) Swedes 


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