Standardization of the English LanguageThere are several important events before 1500 that when listed together show aseries of steps in the struggle for English language supremacy. These steps aremainly governmental, legal and official events that pushed English usage.
In1356 The Sheriff’s Court in London and Middlesex were conducted in English forthe first time. When Parliament opened in 1362 the Statute of Pleading wasissued declaring English as a language of the courts as well as of Parliament,but it was not until 1413 that English became the official language of thecourts everywhere. Thirteen years later in 1423, Parliament records start beingwritten in English. 1400 marks date that English is used in writing wills, aseemingly small step, but one that impacted many people and began a legacy ofrecord keeping in English. In 1450 English became the language used in writingtown laws and finally 1489 saw all statutes written in English. But it was notuntil 1649 that English became the language of legal documents in place of Latin.
The formal rules intended to keep the use of French in official capacities werenot enough to combat the effects of the Black Death and the Hundred Years Warbetween France and England, which both contributed greatly to the rise ofEnglish and fall of French. By the fourteenth century, English was again knownby most people, although French was not forgotten, and the people who spokeFrench were generally bilingual. The Statute of Pleading made it law thatEnglish and not French would be used in the courts. However, it needs to beemphasized that at the end of this statement, it says that after the pleadings,debates, etc.
in English were finished, they should be entered and enrolled inLatin. English became the official language of the court in 1413, but French waspermitted until the eighteenth century. More than the official bureaucratic changes in rules and law were the changes inthe use of the language by the everyday speakers. The changes that distinguishEarly Modern English from Middle English are substantial. The rules for spellingwere set down for the first time.
The key is the new consistency used byteachers, printers and eventually by the general populace. The sign of maturityfor English was the agreement on one set of rules replacing the spelling free-for-all that had existed. Out of the variety of local dialects there emerged toward the end of thefourteenth century a written language that in course of the fifteenth centurywon general recognition and has since become the recognized standard in speechand writing. The part of England that contributed most to the formation of thisstandard was the East Midland type of English that became itst basis,particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London.
East Midland district wasthe largest and most populous of the major dialect areas. There were also twouniversities, Oxford and Cambridge. In the fourteenth century the monasterieswere playing a less important role in the spread of learning than they had onceplayed, while the two universities had developed into important intellectualcenters. So far as Cmbridge is concerned any ist influence was exerted insupport of the East Midland dialect.
That of Oxford is less certain becauseOxfordshire was on the border between Midland and Southern and its dialectshows certain characteristic Southern features. Written London English of the close of the fourteenth century as used by anumber of Middle English authors, such as John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, hadnot achived the status of a regional standard but was soon to become the basisfor a new national literary standard of English. It was the language of thecapital. Geographically, it occupied a position midway between the extreme Northand the extreme South.
Already by 1430, this new standard had assumed arelatively mature form. It was spread throughout England by professional clerksin the administrative apparatus of the country and also became the model forbusiness aand pri-vate correspondence in English. It was this Chancery standard,the normal language for all official written communication by the time whenCaxton set up his Printing Press in West-minster (1476), which became the directancestor of Modern Standard English. As a result of this developments, the useof regional dialects in writing receded more and more in the course of thefifteenth century until, in the Early Modern English period, writing came to beexclusively done in the standard literary language.
The language of Chaucer’s late fourteenth century and of the fifteenth wereoften describe as Late Middle English. It could as well be called Early ModernEnglish. Ich and I ran side by side in Chaucer’s language, and the distinctionbetween ye and you was still that of nomina-tive versus accusative. Northernthey had replaced the earlier Anglo-Saxon hie, but hem was still alive.
Suchbecame the preferred Chancery form which had ousted sich, sych, seche and swiche. Which was replacing wich. The auxiliary verbs appear more regularly in theirmodern forms: can, could, shall, should and would. A standardised spelling wasdeveloping which was divorced from the phonetic environment so that sound andspelling were becoming two separete systems. An important linguistic change was also in syntax. Syntax governs the structureof a sentence as well as the structure of verbs.
Auxiliary verbs came into use,for example the use of do and have which extended the capability of expressionfor verbs. The subtle differences between I walk, I do walk, and I am walkingare not available in many other languages. This improvement assisted English indifferentiating itself from other languages. The use of do as a “helping” verbled the way for a host of other helping verbs: be, have, can, may, will and soforth. This significant innovation set in motion a new way for verbs to be used.
English now uses subject-verb-object (SVO), which was not always true, nor mustit be true. Other languages use SOV and some do not require a particular order. These languages use words such as particles, case endings or emphasis for orderselection criteria. In the year 1000, the beginning of the Middle English period,the direct object appeared before the verb in 52% of the sentences.
By 1500, itappeared before the verb in only 2% of the sentences. The biggest change wasbetween 1300 (40%) and 1400 (14%). The result is that today we use the sentenceorder established at that time. The important point was the establishment ofthe convention of word order that helped to structure the language for generaluse. The significant change in English sentences was the level of complexitywith new structures to support it. Science did not so much create the complexity,but rather used the available capability.
The changes in grammar during the early modern period were more far reaching theexamples given. In fact, they were so far reaching that the grammar of Englishhas changed very little since then. What changes have happened have been slight,gradual and not significant. The English language experienced a major upheavalin grammar followed by a stability for many centuries. The changes werefundamental and powerful enough to sustain tremendous change in science,literature, technology and all other facets of human existence.
Besides grammar,an unusual change in the 1300s occurred called the Great Vowel Shift. For noobvious reason the pronunciation of most vowels changed. There is a clearpattern of how they shifted, but not why. There is also no clear benefit to thelanguage, only that it was part of the overall, dramatic metamorphosis ofEnglish. Every known aspect of the language experienced change and growth. The Great Vowel Shift had also cosiderably increased the discrepancies betweenspelling and proununciation.
Therefore were the “spelling-reformers” first toappear on the scene, beginning with a book in Latin by Sir Thomas Smith,entitled: De recta et emendata Linguae Anglicanae Scriptione (1568). Soonfollowed on the same subject by John Hart An Orthographie (1569), WilliamBullokar and Richard Mulcaster’s book The right writing of our English tung(1582), Simon Daines Orthoepia Anglicana (1640). However, none of these achivedanything like the stabilizing effect on orthography which ultimately proceededfrom Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) whose spellinghas become the ‘normal’ spelling of Present-Day British Standard English. The orthographical reformers of the seventeenth century were soon joined bygrammarians. Aims at ‘regularizing grammar’ became more and more pronounced inthe latter part of the seventeenth century and completly dominated grammaticalthinking in the century to follow, and not ‘grammatical thinking’ in the narrowsense only. The laying down of rules about acceptable usage was now, andespecially in the latter half of the eighteenth century, extended to allcomponents of Standard English.
In the latter part of the fifteenth century the London standard had beenaccepted in most parts of the country. By the middle of the century a fairlycosistent variety of written English in both spelling and grammar had developed. With the introdution of printing in 1476 a new influence of great importance inthe spread of London English came into play. From the beginning London has beenthe centre of book publishing in England. Caxton the first English printer, usedthe current speech of London in his numerous translations, and the books theissued from his press and from the presses of his successors gave a currency toLondon English that assured more than anything else its rapid adoption.
In thesixteenth century the use of London English had become a matter of precept aswell as practice. From the time of Caxton on, English is not merely a series of related oraldialects, which are occasionaly written. It is a fully developed cultural tongue,the equal, in its own fashion, of the Latin and Greek of Classical antiquity. Itis a language with a numerous body of unified speakers and writers, a languagewith a vast potential and actual market.
The modern English that emerges fromthe era of Chaucer and Caxton is a tongue that still possesses vastpossibilities of change, channeled in the direction of vocabulary rather than ofsounds or grammatical structure. Bibliography1. Baugh, A. and Cable Thomas, A History of the English Language ( London, 1978)2.
Berndt, Rolf, History of the English Language ( Leipzig, 1982 )3. Blake, Norman, The Cambridge History of the English Language ( Cambridge,1992 )4. Burnley, David, The Language of Chaucer ( London, 1989 )5. Pei, Mario, The Story of the English Language ( New York, 1967 )6.
Strang, Barbara, A History of English ( London, 1970 ) English