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Standardisation of English

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English

The English language first came to Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasion in 5AD. Now, it is recognised as an official language in over 50 countries worldwide and exists in many different varieties. English truly is a global language, and, thanks to the process of standardisation, people across the world can communicate and understand each other.

However, English didn't start as a standardised language. Let’s go back and see where it all started.

Factors that led to the Standardisation of English

The standardisation of English didn’t just happen overnight. These changes occurred relatively ‘naturally’ over hundreds of years. However, several key factors significantly influenced the standardisation process. Let’s look at these in more detail.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, French and Latin replaced English as the language of the upper class and were the languages used in official writing. Throughout the Middle English period (eleventh - fifteenth century), English existed in many regional forms and was mainly used for everyday life. These regional variations of English were reflected in speech and writing, meaning that there were plenty of different pronunciations and spellings of words.

The printing press

Later on, in 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to Britain and published the first book in English. Printing helped to standardise the English language by regularising regional variation. This is because Caxton had to decide on one form of English to use in his printing, a form which would then be distributed to the population in all of his books.

Chancery Standard

Caxton favoured a type of English called the Chancery Standard, which was based on the dialects of London and the East Midlands. This was the dialect used by the Chancery in official documents and by Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous novel The Canterbury Tales (1387).

Despite there still being many inconsistencies in printed texts, the availability of books meant that more people could learn to read and write according to the more fixed standards of English. People became much more linguistically aware, which was reflected in the recognition of regional varieties, and new vocabulary, such as ‘dialect’ and ‘accent, was created to describe this.

Dictionaries

Spelling and vocabulary continued to be standardised throughout the Middle English period, with the first English dictionary, called Table Alphabeticall, being published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey. 150 years later, in 1755, the Dictionary of the English Language was published by Samuel Johnson. This gave detailed definitions of words and quotations showing how to use the words in context. The publication of dictionaries was an important factor in standardisation as they helped to stabilise spelling and definitions. This has led to the English language developing into what we know today.

The Meaning of Standardised English

The term ‘standardised English’ or ‘standard English’ refers to the form of English that is widely recognised and accepted as 'correct'. It follows regularised grammar rules and is often used in formal or polite situations. We see standard English in all areas of life such as in textbooks, news channels, official documentation, political speeches, and so on.

Variations

However, ‘standard English’ does not refer to one form of English, in fact, it varies from country to country. In Britain, we use the standard British English variety whereas in the US they use the standard American English variety. Variations between the standards include differences in vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. For example, a ‘car park’ in the UK is called a ‘parking lot’ in the US and ‘colour’ in the UK is spelled ‘color’ (without the ‘u’) in the US. These variations are very slight so English speakers can understand the different varieties.

The Features of Standard English

When looking at the features of standard English we’re looking at four main areas of which have become standard ‘norms’. These areas consist of; phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. Let’s take a look at these in more detail!

Phonology

Each English-speaking country has a certain accent that is seen as standard. This standard accent is often used by official organisations, on news channels, and when teaching English as a foreign language. In the UK, this standard accent is the ‘Received Pronunciation Accent (RP)’, in America it is the ‘Standard American Accent’, and in Australia, it is the ‘General Australian Accent’.

English grammar

In school, we are taught the ‘correct’ way to use English by our textbooks and teachers. There are certain rules such as ‘never use a double negative’ (e.g. ’I don’t want nothing’) or ‘avoid the passive voice’ (e.g. ‘the book was read by the girl’). The idea that standard English is the ‘correct’ form of English is a prescriptivist viewpoint.

Vocabulary (lexis and semantics)

Standard English tends to avoid slang words; instead, it uses more formal language that derives from the French language, e.g. ‘commence’ rather than ‘start’ (think back to the Norman conquest of 1066).

Spelling

We are expected to use the ‘correct’ spelling when writing in standard English. This standardised spelling is further enforced by the dictionary, which keeps a record of the language. Standard spelling differs slightly across the world. For example, British people use the affix -our (‘labour’), whereas Americans use the affix -or (‘labor’).

These standards are not officially enforced. However, there are ‘gatekeepers’ of the English language who maintain the standard. These include organisations such as the Cambridge University Press, which maintains the standard through publishing educational materials in standard English.

How the standardisation of English affected vocabulary

One key area of standardisation is vocabulary influenced by external factors (e.g. invasions) and key events (e.g. the establishment of the dictionary). Let’s have a look in more detail.

Imagine you’ve travelled back in time to the twelfth century. Since the Norman conquest, all of the people in power are speaking French or Latin, languages which have also replaced English in written documents and literature. You and your friends (the everyday folk) are still speaking Middle English, however, French words are creeping into your vocabulary. You are now asking for ‘beef’ (‘boeuf’) and ‘pork’ (‘porc’) from the menu at the tavern and there is new military lingo such as ‘army’ (‘armée’) and ‘soldier’ (‘soldat’).

English gained up to 10,000 new French words during the Middle English period and, after the Norman influence ended in 1154, English became the language of writing and literature once again. However, due to the rich history of the language and the variety of outside influences, there were many inconsistencies in spelling. Whilst certain French words were changed to suit English pronunciation (e.g. boeuf→beef), others kept the French spelling (e.g. centre). These spellings became even more fixed with the introduction of the dictionary, which standardised both the meaning and spelling of words. Many of these words still exist today.

Modern English spelling

Modern English spelling remains pretty irregular, making things difficult for new learners of English. Even native English speakers struggle. For example, take a look at this excerpt from a poem called 'The Chaos', written by Gerard Nolst Trenité in 1922. The poem highlights the biggest irregularities in the English language in terms of spelling and pronunciation.

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy;

Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;

Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

In this text, we see how irregular Modern English spelling can be when compared to how we actually pronounce the word. Even words that are spelled the same have different pronunciations (e.g. ‘tear in eye’ and ‘dress you’ll tear’).

Why is English standardised?

Fast-forward to modern-day English, and we see the importance of standardisation in everyday life. Standard English is used worldwide for international communication as well as for teaching English as a foreign language. The stability and consistency of the standard mean that English is teachable and all learners can understand standard English around the world.

Whilst regional dialects are still prevalent across English-speaking countries, standard English will remain a useful tool for communication and learning for years to come.

Standardisation of English - Key Takeaways

  • The standardisation of English had been occurring relatively 'naturally' over hundreds of years.
  • Key factors that greatly influenced the standardisation process include the introduction of the printing press in 1476 and the establishment of dictionaries.
  • The term ‘standardised English’ or ‘standard English’ refers to the form of English that is widely recognised and accepted as 'correct'. It follows regularised grammar rules and is often used in formal or polite situations.
  • There are four main areas of the English language that have become standard ‘norms’. These areas consist of; phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.
  • English gained a lot of French vocabulary after the Norman conquest of 1066. Many of these words still exist today.
  • Due to its stability and consistency, standard English is used worldwide for international communication as well as for teaching English as a foreign language.

Standardisation of English

English became standardised over many years due to many different factors. The introduction of the printing press in 1476 helped stabilise spelling and grammar by distributing texts in a selected standard of English (the Chancery standard). Dictionaries also greatly influenced the standardisation of English as they helped to stabilise the definition of words and their spellings.

The process of standardisation has taken place over hundreds of years, so there is no specific date of when English became standardised. However, two key events are the introduction of the printing press in 1976 and the establishment of dictionaries in 1604 and 1755.

The standardisation of English means that English is stable and consistent. Therefore, it can be used worldwide for international communication as all speakers will understand each other. Standardisation also means that English is teachable to language learners and can be used in learning materials such as textbooks.

Standard English refers to the variety of English used as the ‘accepted’ form of language. In contrast, standardised English refers to how English has become the standard through a process. This process is ongoing as we continue to standardise language through education and learning materials. 

No particular person is fully responsible for standardising the English language. However, certain people had a significant impact on the standardisation of the language. These include; William Caxton (who introduced the printing press), Geoffrey Chaucer (who wrote texts during the Middle English period), Robert Cawdrey (who introduced the first dictionary), and Samuel Johnson (who also introduced an influential dictionary). 

Final Standardisation of English Quiz

Question

Name two factors that contributed to the standardisation of English.

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Answer

The introduction of the printing press (1476) and the establishment of dictionaries.

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Question

Who invaded Britain in 1066 bringing the French language with them?

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Answer

The Normans

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Question

What period did French and Latin replace English as the language of the upper class and in written text?


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Answer

The Middle English period

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Question

When was the printing press introduced?

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Answer

1476

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Question

How did the printing press help to standardise the English language?


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Answer

Printing helped to standardise the English language by regularising regional variation. This is because Caxton had to choose one form (the Chancery standard) of English to use in his printing which would be distributed in his books. The availability of books also meant that more people could learn to read and write according to the more fixed standards of English.

Show question

Question

What was the name of the first dictionary published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey?


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Answer

Table Alphabeticall

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Question

How did dictionaries help to standardise the English language?


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Answer

Dictionaries helped to stabilise the spelling of words, the meaning of words, and grammatical rules.

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Question

How many French words did English acquire during the Middle English period?


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Answer

English gained up to 10,000 new words due to Norman influence.

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Question

The English language has many inconsistencies in spelling. True or false?


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Answer

True

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Question

What does the term ‘Standard English’ refer to?


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Answer

The term ‘Standardised English’ or ‘Standard English’ refers to the form of English that is widely recognised and accepted as 'correct'. It follows regularised grammar rules and is often used in formal or polite situations.

Show question

Question

Standard English is a variety of English. True or false?


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Answer

True

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Question

Standard English is the same in every country. True or false?


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Answer

False

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Question

What are the four areas of standardisation?

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Answer

Phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

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Question

What are the positives of standardised English?

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Answer

The stability and consistency of the standard mean that English is teachable and that it can be used for international communication.

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Question

The standards of the English language are officially enforced. True or false?

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Answer

False- The standards are not officially enforced however there are ‘gatekeepers’ of the English language who maintain the standard e.g. the Cambridge University Press.

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