What is standard English?

One of our main discussions during the HSS was about standard and non-standard English and I clearly remember Professor Lynn Mario’s presentation on the 18th century movement to standardize the language.

If you are interested in the history of English, I’d recommend The Stories of English written by Professor David Crystal and which would help us to check some of our assumptions – as the one about the Great Vowel Shift.

The Great Vowel Shift began around 1400 (600 years ago), when Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales. A standard language began to emerge, but it was not a planned or institutionalized process. ‘The fundamental shift in the grammar of the language took place by the beginning of the same period and the pronunciation system too was greatly affected by changes in spelling. We can see consonants altering their values and new phonemes emerging.’ It didn’t happen overnight, though- it took over 300 years, with some linguists stating that it went on well into the 18th century – and it didn’t happen in the same way everywhere in the islands.

There was no governmental intervention – no official bodies – not even a classical English literature canon to look back to. It was no-one’s mission, but the result of multifarious linguistic changes taking place in the Middle Ages. The clear-cut distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ English didn’t exist at the time – it was much later development.

The first conscious attempts to standardize language come from the 18th century when some language ‘experts’ decided to take to themselves the task of ’stabilizing disorder’.  But even so, it was an individual driven effort. The English – thanks to their pragmatism and common sense  – never really bought the idea of an ‘Academia de Letras’ as there is in Brazil and there was in France at the time. It was up to Lindley Murray with his English Grammar (1795) to try to set grammar rules. John Walker then thought that all aspects of pronunciation should be properly tamed and Doctor Johnson eventually became the greatest authority on the language publishing his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.

A little bit of history may help us to change our perspectives a great deal.

Further reading

  • Crystal, D. (2005) The Stories of English. London: Penguin.
  • Mugglestone, L. (Ed) (2006) The Oxford History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


One thought on “What is standard English?

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for sharing this bit of history with us. I really liked reading it. It is really nice to confirm once nore that standard language is just an illusion, just a vain effort to stablish a rule that cannot and won´t be followed by anyone. It is so interesting to learn that history proves somehow that is impossible to normatize on human issues.

    Thanks for sharing

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