The Standardisation of English


This history of the standardisation of English can be thought of in terms of a first, abortive, stage; a lull; and finally a fuller stage whose effects are still with us.


The abortive stage

Remember that standardisation makes sense only in the context of a more established society where there is rule and order. The early centuries of the settlement of the Germanics in Britain was marked by warring tribal factions trying to establish themselves in various parts of the island. Not surprisingly, therefore, the notion of a standard was irrelevant up until the 8th century. In the 7th and 8th centuries, England was known as the heptarchy – that is, a country with seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex (see map below). OE manuscripts suggest there were three or four dialects: Northumbrian and Mercian, which are called Anglian together; Kentish and West Saxon (or Wessex). Anglian derived from the dialect of the Angles; Kentish from the Jutes and West Saxon from the Saxons.

The Heptarchy

After years of continuous war, Alfred (or Ælfred) king of Wessex (‘Afred the Great’) finally defeated the Danes (Vikings) and negotiated treaties with them. He restored the tradition of letters which had decayed during the war when many monasteries were destroyed. The revival of learning and writing and the conditions of relative peace meant that conditions were ripe for standardisation. Also significant was the fact that Alfred encouraged writing in English, rather than Latin, so that he could appeal to the people’s sense of Englishness.


Manuscripts were written, and it is no surprise that the majority of them employed the Wessex dialect, and this dialect was beginning to be regarded as the Standard of the time.


The lull

This development of the standard was stopped rather suddenly with the Norman Conquest when the languages used for more formal settings changed from English to either French or Latin. English was regarded as the language of the menials – hardly ever written, and spoken with a great deal of variation in different parts of the country – and in such a situation, it is not surprising that the notion of Standard English was an irrelevant notion. (Remember that the notion of a standard is closely tied to the written, rather than spoken, language.)


A fresh start

When French (and eventually Latin as well) receded, it was time to pick up the pieces for English.


The social, political and economic systems were also underwent a great sea change.


  • Economy: there was a shift from a static, self-sufficient feudal economy to a more competitive economy through commerce and industry and notions of profit and the like.
  • Religion: the Mediaeval Period was characterised by a very strong notion of Christendom, with the European nations united by allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This began to be questioned, and the Protestant Reformation opened the way to the development of national economies. In the Protestant nations, this was also accompanied by the translation of the Bible to the vernacular languages.
  • Society: social mobility gave rise to the middle class; and the sense of a divinely-ordained social order based on birth was on its way out.
  • Politics: this period saw the emergence of nation states and nationalism; the political centre was now London, rather than Wessex.
  • Education: there was an emerging schooling system; and the old universities Cambridge and Oxford had been established – Oxford University is the oldest English-speaking university in the word, being established in the 11th century, and Cambridge began later in the 13th century.
  • Psyche: notions of the individual (as opposed to the collective whole) begin to be emphasised more; the rise of the rationalist modes of thought (which questioned notions, and asked for evidence for claims) took over from the old scholastic modes of thought (based on faith).



Variation in spelling, grammar and pronunciation – which was previously accepted as a fact of life – began to be seen as a problem to be solved.


Al the longage of the Northumres and speicialliche at York is so sharp slittynge and frontynge and vnshape, that we southern men may that longage vnnethe [= hardly] vnderstonde (John de Trevisa, 1385)


Oure language is also so dyuerse in it selfe that the commen maner of spekynge in Englysshe of some contre can skante [= scarcely] be vnderstondid in som other contre of the same lond (Lydgate, 1530)


And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre [far] from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne. For we Englyssche men ben [are] borne vunder the domynacyon of the mone [moon], which is neuer stedfaste but euer wauerynge, wexynge one season and waneth & dyscreseath another season. And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so much that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a shippe in tamyse [Thames] for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande [in Holland], and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond  [forelandie in Kent], and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named sheffelde, a mercer, cam into an hows and axed [asked] for mete [= food], and specyally he axyd after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wold haue hadde egges, and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vunderstod hym wel. Loo what sholde a man in thyse days now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly, it is harde to playse [please] eurey man by cause of dyuersite & chaunge of langage. For in these dayes euery man that is in ony reputacyon in his countre wyll vtter his commynycacyon and matters in such maners & terms that fewe men shall vunderstonde theym. And som honest and grete clerkes haue been wyth me and desired me to wryte the most curyous termes that I coude fynde. And thus betwene playne, rude & curyous I stande abasshed. But in my iudgements the comyn terms that be dayli vused ben lyghter to be vnderstonde than the olde and auncyent englysshe. (Caxton (the printer), 1490 – also note: to be accused of being French or even speaking French was not a pleasant thing to say at the time: France remained the ‘enemy’ for a long time! Eyren is the original English form; egg came from Norse.)


Early Modern English dialectsThe variety that became the basis of the Standard was the one spoken by the merchant class in London – this was the East Midland dialect (see map on the right). We must remember that this is not the dialect spoken by the lower class – they spoke a south-eastern dialect which eventually gave rise to Cockney (the street talk of London today). We must also remember that Standard English isn’t pure East Midland – there was, to a certain point, influences from the other dialects. Indeed, some suggest that Standard English is partly a result of dialect levelling. (The term is frequently also applied to American English and Australian English. What is meant is that there were mixed groups with different dialects and accents, and that out of this variation there eventually came a fairly uniform variety that had features of these various groups.) As Puttenham, in his Art of English poesie [1589] put it, the model for correct English was ‘the usuall speach of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. [= 40] myles, and not much above’.


Why then did this get selected?


  • The Chancery Hand. In the 15th century, the City of Westminster (two miles (3 km) away from London) was the centre of government administration. The Chancery was the Court of the Lord Chancellor, and the produced many documents written in English (rather than French).
  • Printing. This period marked the beginning of the printing press, and the influence of the selected variety was accelerated by the copies of texts that were new made available more easily and at a lower cost.
  • The London-Oxford-Cambridge Triangle. Oxford and Cambridge were only about 60 miles (100 km) from London. Students from all over England mixed in the two universities. London, as the capital, also had a mixed population. In the very influential triangle, much East Midland speech would be heard, and this could have been used as a kind of lingua franca among a mobile group. The fact that the group is mobile meant that they would take the variety to different parts of the country as well. It is also important to remember that the triangle represents the centres not only of learning and government, but also of the arts (Shakespeare, example, had to move to London to escape the label of being provincial) and commerce.
  • A Mixed Dialect. The fact that the East Midland speech was a mixed dialect might have qualified it to a greater degree for selection.
  • A Happy Mean. The fact that it was spoken in a geographically central location (rather than in the extreme north or south) might also mean that more people would be familiar with it.



By the middle of the 15th century, the East Midland dialect became accepted as the written norm for official documents, regardless of the native dialect of the scribe. This wasn’t the case earlier, for example, in the time of Chaucer. It is true that he wrote in the East Midland dialect as it was spoken in London; but when his manuscript was copied by different scribes in different parts of the country, the dialect was silently altered – there was no sense of a literary norm.

            However, by the time of Shakespeare in the 16th century, non-standard use was already associated with simplicity or buffoonery. Characters speaking a non-standard variety would not be taken seriously. For example, in King Lear, the high-born Edgar disguises himself as a ‘base peasant’ and affects Kentish speech:


OSWALD: Let go, slave, or thou diest!

EDGAR: Good gentleman, go your gait, and let poor volk pass. An chud ha’ bin zwaggered out of my life,
twould not ha’ bin zo long as ’tis by a vortnight. Nay, come not near th’ old man; keep out, che vor
ye, or ise try whether your costard [head] or my ballow [cudgel] be the harder: ch’ill be plain with you.

OSWALD: Out, dunghill!

EDGAR: Ch’ill pick your teeth, zir: come; no matter vor your foins [a thrust in fencing]. (Lear IV, vi)


Edgar uses <v> for <f> (volk for folk, vortnight for fortnight) and vice versa (vor for for); <z> for <s> (zo for so; zir for sir, zwaggered for swaggered) ; chud for I would (remember that ‘I’ comes from OE ic, and in ME, this was i or ic or ich) and so on. (You might also note that Oswald uses thou to Edgar, and Edgar uses you to Oswald.)

            This new standard seems to have been first accepted by government functionaries, then groups of literati, so that by the end of the 16th century, this was now the accepted printed standard (Leith 1998: 44). As mentioned earlier, the beginning of printing and the publication the AV Bible of 1611 meant that this standard was spread more easily. We need to remember though that at no time was this standard universal in the UK, then or today, and widespread variation still exists. Where it was most influential was with those in realms of power.


Elaboration of function

Another reason the non-standard dialects lost their status was to do with the fact that the standard itself received a lot of attention and began to be developed for a range of functions – it began to take on a greater functional load. The non-standard could cope with informal purposes – the language at home or in the market; but it was difficult to employ it for literary purposes, for government publications or for learned treatises. Academic and scientific writing became increasingly important in the light of the changes in society (mentioned elsewhere) with the new scientific, rationalist and empiricist perspectives. Naturally, when English came to be developed to cope with this, it was the standard variety that was developed.


What the new metropolitan variety had to cope with was with domains (= situations of use) previously associated previously associated with Latin and French – and this included law, government, literature, religion, scholarship and education (Leith 1998: 44). The goal of standardisation has always been: maximal variation in function, minimal variation in form. In other words, the standard should be the variety that can be used in the maximum number of domains (all, if possible) and that variation (in vocabulary, spelling, grammar, etc. – but perhaps we should exclude phonology because the standard is largely to do with the written variety) should be kept minimal.


Government and Law

Although English was used in government and law again in 1362, it wasn’t until 1731 that an Act was passed to limit the use of French and Latin. Given the history of French and Latin in these domains, it would not be surprising to find that legal English is, to some extent, Frenchified and Latinate. We still talk of the Attorney General (with the adjective coming after the noun as in French – and of course attorney is derived from Old French atorné, aturné or atourné); thus a writ requiring a body to be brought in court is a habeas corpus, Latin for ‘thou [shalt] have a body [ie in court]’.



The literati were still very familiar with the great classics of Rome and Greece – written in Latin and Greek – such as Virgil’s Æneid, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad; other notable names include Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Cicero, Euripides, Plato, Plutarch and Sophocles. In many European and North American universities, it is still possible to take a degree in the Classics where these authors would hold important positions in the curriculum. If we therefore imagine how everyone that is educated in the 16th and 17th centuries would know at least some of the Latin and Greek classics, we could well appreciate their dissatisfaction with the English language as a literary vehicle. English was described as ‘coarse bread’, ‘homespun cloth’, ‘rough’, ‘rude’, ‘simple’ and the like. English lacked the eloquence associated with the classical languages.


The classically trained – the classicists – were in favour of injecting more Latin loan-words and structures into English. However, those who were not so adept in the classical languages were generally more in favour of an English that was kept pure, without so many loan-words or borrowed structures – these were the purists. It must also be remembered that women at that time were also not trained in the classics. The classicists introduced many style manuals to guide writers of English, and introduced new words. Look at these words used by Crispinus in Ben Johnson’s Poetaster: furibund (furious); lubrical (smooth, slippery, wanton); oblatrant (carping , reviling); turgidous (swollen, puffed up). These were sometimes labelled inkhorn terms. But note that some of these new words are now accepted as normal, including the following: defunct, reciprocal, retrograde, spurious, strenuous.


This resulted in the core and non-core distinction in English. Angelo in Measure for Measure is described as ‘A forted residence ’gainst the tooth of time / And razure of oblivion’ (Act 5, sc. 1). Notice Shakespeare now mixes the Anglo-Saxon elements with the Latin elements: ‘tooth of time’ is wholly Anglo-Saxon, and ‘razure of oblivion’ is latinate. Angelo is eventually found to be corrupt, and Mariana pleads for his life, and when she speaks from her heart, interestingly, every item is from the Anglo-Saxon: ‘O my dear lord, / I crave no other, nor no better man’ (Act 5, sc. 1).



Unlike in literary writing or in scholarship, it was not possible to isolate the language of the Bible from the ordinary people. At the same time, there had to be an air of dignity to the language there. Interestingly, therefore, when it came to the language that was to be used for the English translations of the Bible, the dignity and distancing was achieved not by French or Latin models, but by archaism. The AV of 1611 employed language that reflected usage a couple of generations earlier. Long borrowed words are avoided and clauses are joined paratactically, on the whole. Look at the beginning of John’s gospel in the AV: ‘In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (compare this with the New English Bible: ‘When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God …’).



Codification involves the defining and prescription of the form of the language to be used with the aim to minimise variation. This is usually undertaken by a small group of scholars. In the face of variation, they need to decide which are to be seen as ‘correct’ and which are to be seen as ‘wrong’. They looked back to Latin and also to the model of France and Italy which had set up Academies which made pronouncements about the language. The English never succeeded in setting up an Academy though, so that the codification of English has been a less centralised affair than in France. So, recommended usage did not lie in the hands of committees, but of particular books by scholars or the literati.


The production of these guides and grammars were also party motivated by a concern about the flux of language. Here is Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) on the matter:


How then shall any man, who hath a genius for history equal to the best of the ancients, be able to undertake such a work with spirit and cheerfulness, when he considers that he will be read with pleasure but a very few years, and in an age or two shall hardly be understood without an interpreter? The fame of our writers is usually confined to these two islands [Britain and Ireland], and it is hard it should be limited in time as much as place by the perpetual variations of our speech. (British Education, 1756, p. xvii)


The answer seemed to be to try to ‘fix’ the language – ‘if it [English] were once refined to a certain standard, perhaps there might be ways found out to fix it for ever, or at least till we are invaded and made a conquest by some other state’. He adds, ‘I see no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing; for we find many examples to the contrary’ (Swift, Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue, 1712 –  note that ‘ascertain’ here means ‘to establish a standard’).


Dr Samuel JohnsonAn important document of codification is Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). Previous to Dr Johnson, the dictionaries were ‘hard word’ dictionaries or bilingual dictionaries – and did not set out to record ‘ordinary’ English words. Accomplished by one man, his work was a feat of scholarship – although some of the definitions given by him might be a little quirky. Look at his definition of patron:


PA'TRON. n.s. [patron, Fr. Patronus, Latin.]
1. One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery.
            I’ll plead for you, as for my patron.            Shakesp.
            Ne’er let me pass in silence Dorset’s name;
            Ne’er cease to mention the continu'd debt,
            Which the great patron only would forget.        Prior.

We might understand this definition if we knew that his publisher advanced him enough to get started, but nothing more. When he asked Lord Chesterfield to be his patron, the man offered a token £10, so Johnson had to finance the work himself.


Many grammars were also written, and those by Bishop Lowth were well known. The aim was clearly to lay down the law and be highly prescriptive. Here is the aim, in Lowth’s own words:


The principal design of a Grammar of any Language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that Language; and to enable us to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not. The plain way of doing this is, to lay down rules, and to illustrate them by examples. But, beside shewing what is right, the matter may be further explained by pointing out what is wrong. (Robert Lowth, Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762)


Many ridiculously tried to constrain English into Latin grammar. Therefore, pronouncements about the ‘incorrectness’ of English constructions like It’s me, which had been around for centuries were made – because the Latin construction required the final pronoun in the subject form. The were also influenced by algebraic logic, so that double negatives (which had been available in Old English onwards) were deemed ‘incorrect’ (or, in Lowth’s words: ‘Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative’).


Here is another example of ‘what is wrong’ by Lowth:


It has been very rightly observed, that the Verb had, in the common phrase, I had rather, is not properly used, wither as an Active or as an Auxiliary Verb; that, being in the Past time, it cannot in this case be properly expressive of time Present; and that it is by no means reducible to any Grammatical construction. In truth, it seems to have arisen from a mere mistake, in resolving the familiar and ambiguous abbreviation, I’d rather, into I had rather, instead of I would rather; which latter is the regular, analogous, and proper expression.


A. Definitions

B. Processes of standardisation

D. The development of academic writing