McArthur begins with an introduction to the idea of English as a plurality. A rapid tour covers regional standards, dialects such as Scots (recognised as a minority language by the European Union), creoles such as Tok Pisin, hybrid languages such as Singapore and Malaysian English, "decorative" English (such as the Japanese use of English texts on consumer goods), and English as a practical tool for international communication. Chapter two compares English to other international languages (French, Spanish, and Portuguese) and explores its variation using de facto/de jure and native/second/foreign classification schemes. Systematic information about the status of English in the world's territories is provided in an accompanying "panel" (chapter appendix).
The English Languages is as much about changing conceptions of English as it is about English. Chapter three describes recent moves, in academic circles, away from a monolithic view of English. Accompanying panels include a chronology of key books on English and a sample of quotes suggestive of multiple "English languages". Chapter four presents some of the models and metaphors that have been applied to English: chronological (the basic Old/Middle/Modern division and refinements thereof), biological (trees and mother-daughter relationships), and geopolitical (mostly "radial", with World English at the core, regional standards around that, and dialects and then creoles further out). And chapter five explores the etymology of "standard" and the history of its use, popular and scholarly, in reference to languages.
McArthur then returns to his favourite example in more detail, delving into the history and status of Scots and debates over whether it is a language or a dialect — and whether there is any need to force such a decision. This is illustrated with a selection of quotations in which Scots is presented as a distinct language. Another chapter returns to pidgins and creoles, to the origins of the terms and to their history (including possible connections to Sabir and Lingua Franca). Special attention is paid to hybrid languages in Ireland, Scotland, and England, and to arguments over whether it is useful to think of Middle English as a creole.
One of the most interesting chapters looks at "the Latin analogy" — geopolitical parallels between English now and Latin historically — and the possible development of a family of English languages comparable to the Romance languages. This chapter also surveys the lexical contributions of Latin and Greek to English during the early modern period and parallels with the current and ongoing influence of English on other languages. In the final chapter of The English Languages McArthur fits in a miscellany of topics: the Ebonics debate, the politics of language more generally (Spanglish and Serbo-Croat), a comparative glance at other "world" languages (Sumerian and Arabic), and a look at common Anglophone responses to the "immense and intricate reality" of English worldwide.