Listening to Dick Leith reading the Caedmon extract aloud, (U210 Audio Cassette 1 Band 3 “The sounds of Old English”), we can appreciate the consonant stress and the “truncated” style. Comparing this with the verse above shows us that although the piece is influenced by the Normans literary styles as speech communities do take time to adopt and change. The Reformation was seen as a time of science and order in Britain and Europe. English benefited from this as it was steered from being a vernacular language to a national one largely through advances in printing.
William Caxton was central to introducing a national standard in printing to Britain. After printing his first translation in 1473, the course was set to print newspapers using a standardized East Midlands English. Up to now consistent spelling wasn’t considered important and written English became largely phonetic with no “standard” to observe. This would have helped regulate such irregular spellings like “blau” and “blaw” as in this verse dated 1272 from York: wel qwa sal thir hornes blau haly Rod thi day
nou is he dede and lies law was wont to blaw thaim ay Source: (Graddol, Leith & Swann P124). Much was made of standard English brought about by Caxton. Educators became aware of the need for a “prescriptive” grammar as they considered the relationship between written and pronounced English. Puttenham tells us from his extract in 1579, (Graddol, Leith & Swann PP146/7), that while northern speech is “the purer English Saxon”, deference should be shown to “courtly” current “Southern English” that developed around London’s power base.
Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary completed in 1755 helped fill the void, making rules for language based on “reason” rather than whims of writers. For example, Caedmon’s Old English text contains a line Ne con ic noht singan (I don’t know how to sing). This used double negatives ne and noht, so according to Johnson “illogical therefore incorrect”: Given the French negative construction n’ and pas and the influence that French had on the English Language, Johnson’s comments could be seen as correct yet directed against French influence.
However, in modern colloquial English double negatives appear, as in colloquial French today /pas/ occurs alone. American lexicographer Noah Webster sought to get rid of what he saw as the “class bound perspective of Dr Johnson” , (Graddol, Leith & Swann P198) developing a “classless” dictionary, and in 1828 produced “The American Dictionary of the English Language” to correct Johnson’s “faults”.
Webster saw Johnson’s dictionary using the “same letters often representing different sounds and the same sounds often expressed by different letters” (Graddol, Leith & Swann P91): Spellings such as tire, tonite and sidewalk replace tyre, tonight, and path getting rid of redundant silent letters and words replacing them with, in Webster’s view, something more phonemically correct or reinventing the word anew as in the sidewalk example.
When considering the development of English from Anglo Saxon to Chaucerian times that scribes were not consistent and English was randomly evolving as there were no strict rules to follow as in Latin or Old English. English transformed from being largely inflectional to language that altered syntax to convey written “meaning”. Borrowings from Scandinavian and French invaders regionalized vocabulary, changed spelling; vowel and consonant sounds, yet some Old English “sounds” still remain. Printing technology and scientific thinking helped English truly progressed to develop into a language that was “manageable” and could be regulated.
In recent times the American influence has challenged the “standard” along with various “Englishes” worldwide, but the historic thread running through the English Language is strong, arguably keeping the cohesion of a standard from unravelling and regressing back to the unregulated language of the middle ages.
References: Graddol et. al : 1996 English history diversity and change. Routledge in association with the OU. U210 Study Guide. Graddol et. al : Describing Language 1994. OU Press. Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language Second Edition 2003 Cambridge University Press. Open University Audio Cassette 1 2067 words.