The Evolution of Standard English

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This is the eighth part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Evolution of Standard English

Whenever ‘Standard English’ is mentioned a host of voices are raised in opposition under the mistaken impression that to have standard English is to standardize speech.  There is not and never can be a standardized English; but there is such a thing as standard English.  It is not easy to define it, but it is easy to recognize it.  It is not rigid or inflexible within its framework.  There is room for a certain amount of variation and variety  and even of local and personal colouring.  Though, it does not impose strict uniformity, it does stand above the various regional dialects and people who speak it are intelligible to each other as they would not be if they spoke in their local variants.

This Standard English is not a mere arbitrary invention of a class/clique that wish to impose their own way of speaking on others.  It has come about mainly as a natural product of certain historical, cultural and social factors – it has evolved.

As far back as the Anglo-Saxon period, the dialect of Wessex gradually became the pre-eminent one and attained to something of the dignity of a literary dialect, chiefly because Wessex had a cultured and scholarly king Alfred the Great, who encouraged letters and was himself both author and translator.  In the Middle English period, Chaucer and  a number of contemporary writers gave the East Midland dialect a literary prestige, and the fact that Caxton used the same dialect for his early printed works established it more firmly still.  The invention of printing, in fact was one of the most important factors for making for the emergence of Standard English.  Dialects of others areas were still in use, but they came to be regarded as an inferior sort of English when compared with the official dialect of printing.

The East Midland dialect was also that spoken, with slight modifications in London, the political and commercial capital of the country that was becoming more and more national minded.  The influence of the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) was not in anyway small.  About a century and a half later, Dr. Johnson’s dictionary performed a double service (a)  it reduced a rather chaotic spelling system to something like order (b) it distinguished between ‘reputable’ and ‘low’ words (arbitrarily at times) and as such it established the notion of a cleavage between what was good English and what was not.

Amongst later influences must be counted the increased social contact which modern methods of travel have brought in their train, the spread of reading and of education amongst all classes with a consequent elevation of Standard English, at the expense of regional varieties and the advent of the Radio.  And with Democracy came the idea that to ‘get on in the world’ people of  all classes must take care to speak good English.
Standard English always had with it an idea of social prestige.  As Professor H.C. Wyld defines it Standard English was originally that which was “spoken within certain social boundaries” with uniformity all over the country.  Daniel Jones’ definition also brings out the idea of respectability that the Standard English enjoys.  His definition of it is that it is the language of the cultured and educated classes of the Southern Region.  Even today those who speak the Standard English form an ever widening and respected class in society.

As early as 1589, George Putlenham in his ‘Art of English Poesie’ advised poets to confine themselves to the usual speech of “the Court and that of London and Shires lying about London within 60 miles and not much above”.  He was speaking specifically of the written mode of language but where literature led, the polite society followed and from there it percolated through to the lower strata.  It was, of course, influenced in subtle ways by political, religious and social developments and each age has made its own contribution.

By setting itself against courtly affectation, the Commonwealth period helped to evolve a dignified mode of speech and thus helped to mould the character of the language for over two hundred years.  The emphasis placed on the study of the Bible did  a great deal to combat the earlier tendency towards Latinism and to ensure a predominantly Saxon basis for the mother tongue.

England has never had an Academy of Letters as France has to set standards in an authoritative manner.  However, the 18th century, with its imitation of the classical age, attempted to standardize English under the impression that the classical tongues of antiquity, by which they set such store, had remained static and fixed.  Therefore, the positive contribution of the 18th century to the development of Standard English was in spite of itself.

The 19th century was an age of individualism and laissez faire, when Mathew Arnold who flirted with the idea of an Academy finally rejected it in favour of “influential centres of correct information”, an ideal which to some extent has since been established.

During the period of empire building when English came into contact with a number of native colonial languages, there was a two-fold effect on the language which was at once broadening and restrictive.  The abstract element in English became more marked’  this was the age when so many ‘isms’ were born.  But side by side there was the national consciousness aided by the increased study of the Bible as a result of which there was a movement favouring a purer English.  Tennyson and William Morris were advocates of the purist movement which had a sobering influence on the development of the language, in so far as it helped to check the unnecessary recourse to foreign terms.  However many of the movements, revivals and coinages of a ‘pure’ nature proved abortive and with very few exceptions have failed to survive.

For obvious reasons, English attained a standard in vocabulary, spelling and grammar at an early stage in its evolution.  It is only recently that pronunciation has become more or less uniform.  The conservative and progressive tendencies  will always be opposed to each other, but from this conflict emerges a balanced appraisal of the language while admitting that ultimately precept is determined by practice, grammar by usage, and not vice versa, the attitude to language at present is conservative in an enlightened way.

There is no reason to suppose that evolution and change have been confined to the past and are no more operative.  The Standard English of today will not be that of a century hence, probably more uniform and more widely spoken even than it is today for the ability to express oneself in Standard English is a practical necessity, as well as a social accomplishment.