A history of the english language




1.1 The development of Futhark

1.1.1 The runic alphabet as an Old Germanic writing tradition

1.1.2 Old English literature in the period of Anglo-Saxon ethnic extension

1.2 Linguistic situation in the Middle English

1.2.1 Linguistic situation in Medieval England after the Norman Conquest

1.2.2 Dialectal Diversity in the Middle English Period

1.3 The Middle English corpus

1.3.1 Geoffrey Chaucer and his lending support of the London Standard’s diffusion

1.3.2 The role of the printing in the formation of the English language

1.3.3 Principal Middle English written records as a reflection of ongoing changes in Standardization


2.1 Origins of Standard English

2.1.1 The Rise of Standard English

2.1.2 The importance of London English

2.1.3 The importance of Chancery Line

2.2 Middle English Spelling and Sounds

2.2.1 Changes in Spelling due to the introduction of French scribal tradition

2.2.2 Middle English Pronunciation

2.3 Changes in Grammar in Middle and Early New English

2.3.1 Middle English Noun

2.3.2 Middle English and Early New English Adjective and Pronoun

2.3.3 Middle English and Early New English Verb

2.4 The complexity of Middle English Vocabulary

2.4.1 French factor in the development of Middle English Vocabulary French influence on the English Vocabulary Core semantic spheres of loanwords from French

2.4.2 Latin borrowings in the Middle and Early New English

2.4.3 Other sources of borrowings in the Middle English CONCLUSION




linguistic history english language

The English language has had a remarkable history. When we first catch it in historical records, it is a language of none-too-civilized tribes on the continent of Europe along the North Sea. From those murky and undistinguished beginnings, English has become the most widespread language in the world, used by more peoples for more purposes than any language on Earth.

The early part of the Modern English saw the establishment of the Standard written English we know today. Its standardization was first due to the need of the central government for regular procedures by which to conduct its business, to keep its records and to communicate with the citizens of the land. Standard languages are often the by-products of bureaucracy, developed to meet a specific administrative need, rather than spontaneous developments of the populace or the artifice of writers and scholars .A standard language is spread widely over a the large region, is respected, because people recognize its usefulness and is codified in the sense of having been described so that people know what it is (27; 54).

A standard language has to be described before it is fully standard. The purpose of the paper in question is to retrace development of the Standard English language formation as well as to study linguistic background of its establishment.

The purpose of the research stipulated the arrangement and consecutive solving of the following tasks:

1. to review written records in an early stage of the English language development that is of Old English Period;

2. to inspect the origins of the Standard English language;

3. to analyze linguistic situation in the Middle English Age before the Standardization;

4. to consider the main factors contributing to the Standard English language development;

5. to examine changes in the English language on all levels during its standardization.

The topicality of the paper given can be explained by the following fact: in the course of its history the English language has changed a lot, in other words it has been globalized. Additionally, it gave birth to many regional varieties. And although most people nowadays speak a variety of regional English or an admixture of standard and regional Englishes, and reverse such labels as BBC English or “the Queen’s English” for what they perceive to be a pure Standard English it is still vitally important to know what the Standard English language represents as such and what is more important to use it to be able to communicate with English speakers of various ethnic backgrounds. The personal contribution to the research work lies in an attempt to integrate fundamental and modern sources on the English language formation to give a contrastive view of the issue.

The following methods were applied in the research:

1. Descriptive analysis;

2. Historical-philological analysis;

3. Comparative analysis.

This work consists of introduction, two chapters, conclusion, list of references and appendixes. The introduction covers topicality, theoretical base of research, as well as, methods of research and the structure of the work.

In the 1st chapter we are concerned with linguistic situation in Old English and Medieval period. The 2nd chapter is dedicated to the changes in the language on phonetic, lexical and grammar levels that later constituted the basis of English Standard. The conclusion colligates the main propositions and ultimate results of the research.

The results of the given work were introduced in March, 2011 at the scientific conference in the breakup group devoted to Linguistic text research at Irkutsk State Linguistic University.

The research is founded on fundamental works of well-known scholars such as A.C. Baugh (1978), K. Brunner (2008), D. Crystal (1995, 1997), O. Jespersen (1938); Russian scientists: V.D Arakin (1985), A.A. Rastorgueva (1997), B.A. Ilyish (1972) and many others.


1.1 The development of Futhark

The earliest form of German writing is commonly believed to be connected to the early Germanic runes. Old English was first written in the runic alphabet which was called FUTHARK. It was named after the first six letters. The reason for the unique sequences of characters in the futhark is unknown. It is proposed that this sequence was the result of some mnemonic device which is no longer retrievable, but which may have left some slight echo in the runic poems preserved in the medieval manuscripts (38).

The Old Germanic runic alphabet consisted of twenty-four letters. In England at least thirty runes were used to reflect the old English phonological changes. It can be written both horizontally in either direction. The arrangement of runic characters differs greatly from the order of letters in all other European alphabets.

The name of each rune was associated with a certain word in the Old English language. Therefore the runes can stand for these words. Besides, each rune could stand for the initial sound of the corresponding word. Thus if we read only initial letters in the words for which the runes stand in the above mentioned six stanzas, we get Futhark (41).

This alphabet was used in northern Europe – in Scandinavia, present-day Germany, and the British Isles – and it has been preserved in about 4,000 inscriptions and in a few manuscripts. It dates from around the 3rd century AD. No one knows exactly where the alphabet came from, but it seems to be a development of one of the alphabets of southern Europe, probably by the Roman, which runes resemble closely (28).

The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic alphabet, not to be found in the languages of other groups. The letters are angular; straight lines are preferred, curved lines avoided; this is due to the fact that the runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, wood or bone. The shapes of some letters resemble to those of Greek or Latin, others have not been traced to any known alphabet, and the order of the runes is certainly original (38).

An early offshoot of Futhark was employed by Goths, and so it is known as Gothic Runes. It was used until 500 CE when it was replaced by the Greek-based Gothic alphabet. One theory concerning the origin of Futhark states that the Goths were the inventors of Futhark, but there is insufficient supporting evidence to prove this theory. In England, the Anglo-Saxons brought Futhark from continental Europe in the 5th century CE and modified it into the thirty-three-letter Futharc to accommodate sound changes that were occurring in Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. Even the name ‘Futhorc’ is evidence to a phonological change where the long (a) vowel in Old English evolved into a later (o) vowel.

Even though Futhark continued to thrive as a writing system, it started to decline with the spread of the Latin alphabet. In England, Anglo-Saxon Futharc started to be replaced by the Latin alphabet by the 9th century, and did not survive much more past the Norman Conquest of 1066. Futhark continued to be used in Scandinavia for centuries longer, but by 1600 CE, it had become nothing more than curiosities among scholars and antiquarians (28; 38; 41; 54).

1.1.1 The runic alphabet as an Old Germanic writing tradition

According to David Crystal what rune (OE run) means is debatable. There is a long standing tradition which attributes to it such senses as ‘whisper’, ‘mystery’, ‘secret’, suggesting that the symbols were originally used to magical or mystery rituals. Such associations were certainly present in the way the pagan Vikings (and possibly continental Germans) used to corresponding word, but there is no evidence that they were present in Old English. Current research suggests that the word run had been thoroughly assimilated in to Anglos-Saxon Christianity, and meant simply ‘sharing of knowledge and thoughts’. Any extension to the word of magic and superstitions is not part of the native tradition. Modern English word rune is not even a survival of the Old English word, but a later borrowing from Norse via Latin (28).

For the modern, magical sense of rune the English language is therefore indebted to the Scandinavian and not Anglo-Saxon tradition. In this sense which surfaced in the 19th century in a variety of esoteric publications, and which lives on the popular and fantastic imagination of the 20th century, perhaps most famously in the writing of John Ronald Tolkien.

There are less than thirty clear inscriptions in Old English, some containing only a single name .The two most famous examples both date from the 8th century, and present the Northumbrian dialect (20; 28; 38).

One of them is an inscription on a box called the “Franks Casket”. It was discovered in the early years of the 19th in France, and was presented to the British Museum by British archeologist, A.W Franks. The casket is a small box made of whale bone; the four sides are carved: there are pictures in the center and runic inscriptions around. The longest among them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket was made.

The Ruthwell Cross is a fifteen- feet tall cross inscribed and ornamented on all sides. The principal inscription has been reconstructed into a passage from an Old English poem, the dream of the Rood, which was also found in another version in a later manuscript.

Many runic inscriptions have been preserved on weapons, coins, amulets, tombstones, rings, various cross fragments (20; 28; 38; 41; 54).

1.1.2 Old English literature in the period of Anglo-Saxon ethnic extension

It is often postulated that there is a dark age between the arrival of the Anglo - Saxons and the first arrival of Old English manuscripts. A few scattered inscriptions in the language date from the 5th and 6th centuries, written in the runic alphabet which the invaders brought with them, but these give very little information about what the language was like. The literary age began only after the arrival of the Roman missionaries, led by Augustine, who came there to Kent in 597 AD. Because of the increasingly literary climate Оld English manuscripts also began to be written much earlier, indeed, that the earliest vernacular texts from other north European countries. The first texts dating from around 700, are glossaries of Latin words translated into English, and a few early inscriptions and poems. But very little material remains from this period. Doubtless many manuscripts were burnt during the 8th century Vikings invasion. There are a number of short poems, again almost entirely preserved in the late manuscripts, over half of them concerned with Christian subjects –legends of the saints, extracts from the Bible, and devotional pieces. Several others reflect the Germanic tradition, dealing with such topics as war, travelling, patriotism, and celebration. Most extant Old English texts were written in the period following the reign of King Alfred, who arranged for many Latin works to be translated including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. But the total corpus is extremely small and makes about 3, 5 million – the equivalent of about 30 medium-sized modern novels. Only five per cent of this total is poetry (14; 16; 24; 28; 39; 41).

The Anglo-Saxon ethno-social system began forming as a result of British invasion at the end of the 6th century.

This brought about some considerable changes in the social structure of the Anglo-Saxon society. To get a better understanding of the Anglo-Saxon society it is worth considering the Old-English words of status. The key-words are given below in order of precedence:

cyning ‘chief’, later the founder the royal dynasty

ealdorman ‘sub-king’, a kind of hereditary aristocracy; later replaced by the

term eorl

þegn ‘warrior’

čeorl ‘a free man’, ‘farmer’

þeow ‘a slave’, ‘servant’

The given structure provided an effective functioning of considerably tough ethno-social system needed for the Anglo-Saxons during the period of their ethnic extension when the former tribal organization of the society did not meet the stereotypes evoked by military orientation of the ethnic dominant at that time. As a result, there emerged a peculiar class of professional warriors who swore to their lords in exchange for lands and gifts seized in the military campaigns. The kings and noble people belonged to the ruling upper circles, whereas professional soldiers – took an interim niche in the social hierarchy standing between noble and common people (2; 13; 15; 41).

I.V. Shaposhnikova points out that a þegn was a personal servant who was one degree higher in the ranks of freeman than a čeorl. As servants of the King the status of þegn gradually rose, until they formed the elected nobility of the Kingdom (41).

The analysis of early Old English written records allows singling out two distinct imperatives throughout the period of the Anglo-Saxon ethnic extension. On the one hand it was militancy, the orientation to the persecution of the war and submission of the person’s concerns to this imperative and on the other hand there existed an archetypal fear to be reduced to the status of social outcast, a person deprived of any kind of rights. The cowards were most commonly threatened with exile. This was the severest punishment for their ‘inglorious act’ to live a shameful life in exile. In the time of instability and violence the fear of being reduced to the position of an exile was so strong that it became one of the prevailing motives in the early Anglo-Saxon literature.

Whereas warfare for the sake of wealth provided the motive power that moulded ethnic stereotypes thus organizing the passionateness of the early Anglo-Saxons in the period of their ethnic extension. The same warfare motive underlay the ethnics justifying the prevailing stereotypes. This epoch of great deeds and brave heroes is known in literature as the Heroic Age. The folk epic Beowulf is considered to represent the most telling evidence of the outlook and temper of the Germanic mind (7; 19; 39; 41).

The epic Beowulf is of about three thousand lines. This poem seems to have originated on the Continent, but when and where are not now to be known. It may have been carried to England in the form of ballads by the Anglo-Saxons; or it may be Scandinavian material, later brought in by Danish or Norwegian pirates. At any rate it seems to have taken on its present form in England during the seventh and eighth centuries. It relates how the hero Beowulf, coming over the sea to the relief of King Hrothgar, delivers him from a monster, Grendel, and then from the vengeance of Grendel’s only less formidable mother. Returned home in triumph, Beowulf much later receives the due reward of his valor by being made king of his own tribe, and meets his death while killing a fire-breathing dragon which has become a scourge to his people. As he appears in the poem, Beowulf is an idealized Anglo-Saxon hero, but in origin he may have been any one of several other different things. Perhaps he was the old Germanic god Beowa, and his exploits originally allegories, like some of those in the Greek mythology, of his services to man; he may, for instance, first have been the sun, driving away the mists and cold of winter and of the swamps, hostile forces personified in Grendel and his mother. Or, Beowulf may really have been a great human fighter who actually killed some especially formidable wild beasts, and whose superhuman strength in the poem results, through the similarity of names, from his being confused with Beowa. This is the more likely because there is in the poem a slight trace of authentic history. Beowulf presents an interesting though very incomplete picture of the life of the upper, warrior, caste among the northern Germanic tribes during their later period of barbarism on the Continent and in England, a life more highly developed than that of the Anglo-Saxons before their conquest of the island.

Outside of Beowulf and a few fragments, the recording of Anglo-Saxon heroic story begins with a 9th century entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 755 (actually 757). To this can be added a few of the annals devoted to the combats of King Alfred’s son and grandsons in the tenth century. While not a Chronicle poem, The Battle of Maldon has a place in this range, if only as an inspired response to what otherwise the Chronicle (in the Canterbury and Peterborough manuscripts) records for 991 as ealdorman Byrthnoth’s death in battle at Maldon. Typically, guides, translations and readers introducing students to Old English texts highlight three of the stories from this range of years: the story of West Saxon feud are called Cynewulf and Cyneheard (chronicle entry 755), The Battle of Brunanburh, (entry for 937), and The Battle of Maldon (sometime after 991). Traditionally, and here all introductions in Old English readers follow suit, these narratives are seen as enshrining, in some literary intensified way, heroic values reflecting their ancient, Germanic roots.

Hence, the literature of the Old English period was not notable for its diversity of literature genres. The leading place was taken by heroic romances and religious writings. Obviously, heroes of the old times had no time to think of love as in ancient epic romances love did not play any important role. However, the situation considerably changed in the subsequent period (6; 8; 17; 28; 54).

1.2 Linguistic situation in Medieval England

1.2.1 Linguistic situation in England after the Norman Conquest

It hardly can be argued that the Norman Conquest was not only a great event in British political history but also the greatest single event in the history of the English language. Its earliest effect was a drastic change in the linguistic situation.

The Norman Conquerors of England had originally come from Scandinavia. About one hundred and fifty years before they seized the valley of the Scine and settled in what was known as Normandy. They were swiftly assimilated by the French and in the 11th century came to Britain as French speakers and bearers of French culture. They spoke the Northern dialect of French, which differed in some points from Central, Parisian French. Their tongue in Britain is often referred to as ‘Anglo-French’ or ‘Anglo-Norman’, but may just as well be called French, since we are less concerned here with the distinction of French dialects than with the continuous French influence upon English, both in the Norman period of history and a long while after the Anglo-Norman language had ceased to exist.

In the early 13th century, as a result of lengthy and inefficient wars with France King John Lackland lost the French provinces, including the dukedom of Normandy. Among other consequences the loss of the lands in France cut off the Normans in Britain from France, which speeded up the decline of the Anglo-French language.

The most immediate consequence of the Norman domination in Britain is to be seen in the wide use of the French language in many spheres of life. For almost three hundred years French was the official language of administration: it was the language of the king’s court, the law courts, the church, the army and the castle. It was also everyday language of many nobles, of the higher clergy and of many townspeople in the South. The intellectual life, literature and education were in the hands of French-speaking people; French, alongside Latin, was the language of writing. Teaching was largely conducted in French and boys at school were taught to translate their Latin into French instead of English (20; 28; 38).

As A. Baugh states, England never stopped being an English-speaking country. The bulk of the population held fast to their own tongue: the lower classes in the towns, and especially in the country-side, those who lived in the Midlands and up north, continued to speak English and looked upon French as foreign and hostile. Since most of the people were illiterate, the English language was almost exclusively used for spoken communication.

At first the two languages existed side by side without mingling. Then, slowly and quickly, they began to permeate each other. The Norman barons and the French town-dwellers had to pick up English words to make themselves understood while the English began to use French words in current speech. A good knowledge of French would mark a person of higher standing giving him a certain social prestige probably many people become bilingual and had a fair command of both languages (20).

Undoubtedly, these peculiar linguistic conditions could not remain static. The struggle between French and English was bound to end in the complete victory of English, for English was the living language of the entire people, while French was restricted to certain social spheres and to writing. Yet the final victory was still a long way off. In the 13th century only a few steps were made in that direction. The earliest sign of the official recognition of English by the Norman hinges was the famous Proclamation issued by Henry III in 1258 to the councilors in Parliament. It was written in three languages: French, Latin and English.

The three hundred years of the domination of French affected English more than any other foreign influence before or after. The early French borrowings reflect accurately the spheres of Norman influence upon English life; later borrowings can be attributed to the continued cultural, economic and political contacts between the countries. The French influence added new features to the regional and social differentiation of the language. New words, coming from French, could not be adopted simultaneously by all the speakers of English; they were first used in some varieties of the language, namely in the regional dialects of Southern England and in the speech if the upper classes, but were unknown in the other varieties of the language (4; 17; 18; 20).

1.2.2 Dialectal diversity of the Middle English

Apparently, in the Middle English period the language differed almost from county to county, and noticeable variations are sometimes observable between different parts of the same county. The features characteristic of a given dialect do not all cover the same territory; some extend into adjoining districts or may be characteristic also of another dialect. Consequently it is rather difficult to decide how many dialectal divisions should be recognized and to mark off with any exactness their respective boundaries. In a rough way, however, it is customary to distinguish four principal dialects of Middle English: Northern, East Midland, West Midland, and Southern. Generally speaking, the Northern dialect extends as far south as the Humber; East Midland and West Midland together cover the area between the Humber and the Thames; and Southern occupies the district south of the Thames, together with Gloucestershire and parts of the counties of Worcester and Hereford, thus taking in the West Saxon and Kentish districts of Old English. Throughout the Middle English period and later, Kentish preserves individual features marking it off as a distinct variety of Southern English (for counties see APPENDIX 1, p.67) (17; 20; 24).

Middle English Dialects are partly matters of pronunciation, partly of vocabulary, partly of inflection. A few illustrations will give some idea of the nature and extent of the differences. The feature most easily recognized is the ending of the plural, present indicative, of verbs. In Old English this form always ended in th with some variation of the preceding vowel. In Middle English this ending was preserved as eth in the Southern dialect. In the Midland district, however, it was replaced by en, probably taken over from the corresponding forms of the subjunctive or from preterit-present verbs and the verb to be while in the north it was altered to es, an ending that makes its appearance in Old English times. Thus we have loves in the north, loven in the Midlands, and loveth in the south. Another fairly distinctive form is the present participle before the spread of the ending -ing. In the north we have lovande, in the Midlands lovende, and in the south lovinde. In later Middle English the ending ing appears in the Midlands and the south, thus obscuring the dialectal distinction. Dialectal differences are more noticeable between Northern and Southern; the Midland dialect often occupies an intermediate position, tending toward the one or the other in those districts lying nearer to the adjacent dialects. Thus the characteristic forms of the pronoun they in the south were hi, here (hire, hure), hem, while in the north forms with th modern they, their, them early became predominant. In matters of pronunciation the Northern and Southern dialects sometimes presented notable differences. Thus OE ā, was retained in the north, giving such characteristic forms as Southern stone and home, beside stane and hame in Scotland today. Initial f and s were often voiced in the south to v and z. In Southern Middle English we find vor, vrom, vox, vorzoþe instead of for, from, fox, forsope ‘forsooth’. This dialectal difference is preserved in Modern English fox and vixen, where the former represents the Northern and Midland pronunciation and the latter the Southern. Similarly ch in the south often corresponds to k in the north: bench beside benk, church beside kirk. Such a variety fortunately was lessened toward the end of the Middle English period by a general adoption of a Standard written (and later spoken) English (10; 20; 45).

1.3 The Middle English corpus

It is commonly accepted that the Middle English period has a much richer documentation than is found in Old English. This is partly a result of the post-conquest political situation. The newly centralized monarchy commissioned national and local surveys, beginning with the Domesday Book and there is a marked increase in the number of public and private documents – mandates, charters, contracts, tax-rolls, and other administrative or judicial papers. However, the early material is of limited value to those interested in the linguistic history of English because it is largely written in Latin or French, and the only relevant data which can be extracted relate to English and personal names. Most religious publication falls into the same category, with Latin maintaining its presence throughout the period as the official language of the Church (7; 28; 40)

A major difference from Оld English is the absence of a continuing tradition of historical writing in the native language, as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a function which Latin supplanted, and which was not revived until the 15th century.

Material in English appears as a trickle in the 13th century, but within 150 years it has become a flood. In the early period, we can see a great deal of religious prose writing, in the form of homilies, tracts, lives of the Saints, and the other aids to devotion and meditation. Sometimes a text was written with a specific readership in mind; the Ancrene Rewle ‘Anchorites Guide’, for example, was compiled by a spiritual director for three noblewomen who had abandoned the world to live as anchoresses. During the 14th century, there is a marked increase in the number of translated writings from French and Latin, and of the texts for teaching these languages. Guild records, proclaims, proverbs, dialogues, allegories, and the letters illustrate the diverse range of new styles and genres. Towards the end of the century, the translations of the Bible inspired by John Wycliff appear amid considerable controversy, and the associated movement produces many manuscripts. Finally, in the 1430es, there is a vast output in English from the office of the London Chancery scribes, which strongly influenced the development of the standard written language (28; 44; 49).

Poetry presents a puzzle. The Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition apparently dies out in the 11th century, to reappear patchily in the 13th. A lengthy poetic history of Britain is known as Lagamon’s Brut as we have mentioned above, one of the earliest to survive from Middle English, and in the 14th century come the important texts of Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. What is surprising in that the alliterative Old English style is still present in all these works, despite an apparent break in poetic continuity of at least a hundred years. The conundrum has generated much discussion. Perhaps the alliterative technique was retained though prose: several Middle English prose texts are strongly alliterative, and it is sometimes difficult to tell from a manuscript which genre (poetry or prose) a piece belongs to, because the line divisions are not shown. Perhaps the Old English style survived through the medium of oral transmission. Or perhaps it is simply that most poetic manuscripts have been lost. Middle English poetry was inevitably much influenced by French literary traditions, both in content and style. One of the earliest examples is the 13th century verse-contest known as The Owl and the Nightingale. Later works include romances in the French style, secular lyrics, bestiaries, biblical poetry, Christian legends, hymns, prayers and elegies (28; 35; 50).

The mystical dream vision popular in Italy and France, is well illustrated by the poem modern editors have called Pearl, in which the writer recalls the death of his two-year- old daughter, who then acts as his spiritual comforter. Drama also begins to make its presence felt, in the form of dialogues, pageants, and the famous cycles of mystery plays. Much of the Middle English literature is of unknown authorship, but the end of the period this situation has changed. Among the prominent names which emerge in the latter part of the 14th century are John Gower, William Langland, and some time later John Lydgate, Thomas Malory, William Caxton, and the poets who are collectively known as Chaucerians.

Rather than a somewhat random collection of interesting texts, there is now a major body of literature, in the modern sense. It is this which provides the final part of the bridge between Middle and Early Modern English.

The flourishing of literature, which marks the seconds half of the 14th century, apart from its cultural significance, testifies, to the complete reestablishment of English as the language of writing. Some authors wrote in their local dialect from outside London, but most of them used the London dialect or forms of the language combining London and provincial traits. Towards the end of the century the London dialect had become the principal type of language used in literature a sort of literary pattern to be imitated by provincial authors.

The literary text of the late 14th century preserved in numerous manuscripts, belong to a variety of genres. Translation continued, but original compositions were produced in abundance; poetry was more prolific than prose. This period of literary florescence is known as the “age of Chaucer”; the greatest name in English literature before William. Shakespeare other writers are referred to as “Chaucer’s contemporaries” (6; 11; 7; 28; 39).

1.3.1 Geoffrey Chaucer and his lending support of the London Standard’s diffusion

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) was by far the most outstanding figure of the time. A hundred years later William Caxton, the first English printer, called him the worshipful father and first founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our language. In many books on the history of English literature and the history of English Chaucer is described as the founder of the literary language.

His early works more of less imitative of other authors – Latin, French or Italian – though they bear abundant evidence of his skill. He never wrote in any other language than English (28; 38).

However, it is not quite correct to consider his language as a basis for Standard English. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in a dialect which in the main coincided with that used in documents produced in London shortly before his time and for a long time after. Although he did not really create the literary language, as a poet of outstanding talent he made better use of it than contemporaries and set up two patterns to be followed in the 15th century. His poems were copied so many times that over sixty manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales have survived to this day. His books were among the first to be printed, a hundred years after their composition.

According to D. Crystal Chaucer’s literary language, based on the mixed (largely East Midland) London dialect is known as classical Middle English. In the 15th and 16th centuries it became the basis of the national literary English language.

The 15th century could produce nothing worthy to rank with Geoffrey Chaucer. The two prominent poets, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, were chiefly translators and imitators. The style of Chaucer’s successors is believed to have drawn farther away from everyday speech; it was highly affected in character, abounding in abstract words and strongly influenced by Latin rhetoric, it is also termed aureate language) (28).

The importance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s work to any history of the language can be affirmed with some conviction. It is partly matter of a quantity – one complete edition prints over 43, 000 of a poetry, as well as two of a major prose works – but more crucial is the breadth and variety of his language, which ranges from the polished complexity of high flown rhetoric to the natural simplicity of domestic chat. No previous author has shown such a range, and Chaucer’s writing – in addition to its merits – is thus unique in the evidence it has provided about the state of medieval grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Chaucer’s best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, is not of course a guide to the spoken language of the time; it is a variety of the written language which has been carefully crafted. It uses a regular metrical structure and rhyme scheme –itself a departure from the free rhythms and the alliteration of much earlier poetry. It contains many variations in word order, dictated by the demands of the prosody. There are also frequent literary allusions and turns of a phrase which make the text difficult to follow. What has impressed readers so much is that, despite the constraints, Geoffrey Chaucer has managed to capture vividly the intriguing characters of the speakers, and to reflect naturally the colloquial features of their speech. In no other author, is there better support for the view that there is an underlying correspondence between the natural rhythm of English poetry and that of English everyday conversation (21; 23; 26; 28; 40).

1.3.2 The role of the printing in the formation of the Standard English language

The creation of printing was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest inventions. It eased the writing process as the whole, and it also had a great deal of influence over language.

Linguists claim that one of the most important things printing brought was a development of a standard language of symbols and codes that we use today (27; 28; 34).

Printing which was introduced into England by William Caxton in 1476, helped to increase the spread of knowledge and literacy level among the British public as more and more people had better access to reading materials. Over the centuries, as more English texts were printed, such as novels, dictionaries, the Bible and other documents, the English language gradually gained popularity and established itself as the national language of England. Apart from the advent of printing, political, social and economic factors also contributed to the development of English as a national language.

Through printing Caxton played a very significant and instrumental role in establishing English as the national language of England. By adopting the dialect of London and the South-East as the English for his books, Caxton took a decisive step forward in establishing that particular variety as the English language. William Caxton as the first printer in England was highly responsible for imposing some form of uniformity to the English language simply by default. His choice of the dialect of the southeast Midlands has given us the present form of Standard English (34; 37; 46).

William Caxton was born in Kent, England and was accepted as an apprentice in London in 1438. This was not a regular apprenticeship. According to N. F. Blake, Robert Large was an important and influential merchant. Caxton had thus become apprentice to one of the more important men in the city. He became part of what was certainly a flourishing business, which would have provided him with useful contacts and future trading partners. Seven years later, in 1445, he moved to Bruges, Belgium as a mercer to take part in the trade there of the Merchant Adventurers of whom the London Mercers where prominent members. Many Englishmen were attracted to Bruges due to its production of fine cloths, which also made other textiles of import. The move to Bruges was important in the scheme of Caxton’s shift to printing. As the years progressed, so did his skills as a mercer and his career. He eventually became an important figure among his colleagues, which would again benefit him in the future with printing. In this period Caxton learned how to finance projects and he acquired considerable wealth. Both were necessary for the successful completion of his venture into printing (23).

With the trouble that ensued with the government, William Caxton began to look elsewhere for merchandise to sell. English mercers where not allowed to sell fine cloths for a while and it is assumed that Caxton supplemented his sales with manuscripts. He worked closely with many of the noble who were the only ones that could afford such luxuries as reading materials. Through his handling of manuscripts and even books, he gained an interest in literature (23; 28).

His first effort with literature was not in printing, but in translating. He knew enough Dutch, Flemish, French and Latin to translate books into English. This was unheard of before; English was not a scholarly language like French or Latin, but one used only by the common folk. The first book to be translated by him was the Latin book History of Troy (1475), that had been translated into French. However, he had such a difficult time in translating that he would almost given up on the notion. He had begun translating in 1469 and then given it up. The reason, according to Caxton, was his incompetence as a translator and his lack of command of English. It is not a convincing one, for in the centre of the European book trade he could probably have found someone else to do it for him if he had just wanted a translation. He evidently wanted to make the translation himself and was prevented from completing it for two years (23; 26).

Many of the translators in Caxton’s day stated that they attempted to stay as close to the original text as possible, even though this was more of a selling point for their work than reality. Caxton made the same claims, probably out of obligation. How would it look if everyone were doing it except him? His number one priority was not accuracy of translation, but ensuring that there was always something on the press. Because he owned it, it was up to him how many books he had available for printing and if nothing was printing, he wasn’t making money. To keep the presses working may have appeared more important than a finely wrought phrase (23).

In his closing remarks on the subject of Caxton as a translator, Henry Blake says, that in general he can hardly be distinguished from the host of translators who crowd the 15th century scene, except perhaps in the sheer quantity of his output. Of the 106 works printed by or attributed to Caxton, he translated at least twenty-five. It is hardly surprising that he did not always have time to polish his version for the press (23).

Caxton eventually resigned as the Governor within the Merchant Adventurers, a post he held for several years, so he could travel to Cologne, Germany. He lived there from 1471 – 1472, a total of eighteen months. It is assumed that his intention in traveling there was to learn how to be a printer so he could print his own book, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, translated from French. Cologne, with a press dating from about 1465, was the town nearest to Bruges which had a press at that time, and Caxton had little choice where to go (18). It had become the capital of the Low Countries because of its university, which attracted a lot of scholars and students; an important archbishopric; and strong trade, especially with English tradesmen.

An interesting aspect to the printing world is the fact that there was an immediate division of labor within the profession. There were the skilled craftsmen who actually did the work on the presses and then there were the tradesmen that already had connections to sell the books who were considered the publishers and entrepreneurs. Paper was the most expensive investment that had to be available upfront, before any books were sold, and it was the tradesmen who had the money readily available for purchasing. Surely Caxton learned how to print, for it was his responsibility to teach his assistants once he returned to Bruges and set up shop as a printer. Blake explains it thus: “Normally he would not have interfered in the actual printing operations, and it is not right to think of Caxton as a printer. He was the publisher and entrepreneur. He provided the capital, chose the books and distributed them, leaving the printing to others” (23:59).

Once he returned to Bruges, Caxton used the patronage of Margaret of Burgundy to help him publish his book. The first book he printed, and the first book to appear in English, was his own translation of the History of Troy in 1475. Before returning to England to set up a printing press there, Caxton printed six or seven other volumes while in Bruges. Two were in English, the one already mentioned and Game of Chess, and four were in French. The seventh pamphlet is attributed to him but has not been confirmed to be his work (18). Caxton finally returned to England to set up his own printing press in 1476. Since Caxton settled in Westminster instead of his hometown of London, it was supposed that the relations between the scribes and the printers were at odds. It was thought that perhaps the scribes felt threatened by this new device that would ultimately outdate them, stealing all of their work. However, this has never been proved and, in fact, there are several accounts of printers working closely with the scribes. As an example, the first known item to be printed in England is an indulgence which must be dated prior to 13 December 1476, since that date has been entered by hand in the surviving copy. It is printed in Caxton’s type 2 with six letters in his type 3 (23; 26). Obviously he was working with the abbots, who were also scribes, in the production of indulgences.

Caxton could not have ever hoped to have the entire publishing market of England in his hands for the rest of his life. And accordingly, rivals began to arrive, setting up their own print shops. The first few were no real threat to the well-known Caxton; however, by 1480, a real competitor entered the stage. John Lettou, a native of Lithuania, moved into London and actually had better books than Caxton. It at once became evident that the new printer had learnt his art under a much better master than Caxton had (37). This became a wake-up call to William Caxton, letting him know that he needed to begin fixing some of the problems with his own printing so as not to lose the business entirely and this he did.

At the time of Caxton’s translations, English was a language that was still new. It had begun to change from the Old English to a more modern English but different ways of spelling and pronunciation abounded. This was bound to make any printer go insane. It is said the English vernacular was only just beginning to develop a prose form, and Caxton coped with the problem of meager vocabulary and wide variations in the spelling of even the simplest English words .As an example, the word little can be spelled several ways in Caxton’s texts. Two variants are litil and lytel. At this very period, the English language was still passing from its mediaeval pronunciation into that state with which we are familiar today, and it was precisely then that the press began to crystallize the orthography of a language still in flux. Gradually, the spelling tended to become fixed, while the pronunciation continued to evolve (23; 26).

Caxton knew of these difficulties personally and recognized the need for a remedy. Through his efforts as a printer and publisher, things began to slowly change. (26). An interesting side note about this event in English history is the current spellings and pronunciations found in the language today. Because the written word began to take a more permanent form while the spoken word had not, many variants developed on how to pronounce the same word. For this reason, we see many differences in the pronunciation of British English and American English. Even within England there are dialects with differences in word pronunciation. This all developed due to the solidifying of the written and spoken language at different times (26; 37).

The standardization of the English language or any language is an issue which linguists always have to grapple with. Printing had brought into focus problems regarding the variations in the English language, which Caxton had observed, such as:

· Should he use foreign words in his translations or replace them with native English words?

· Which variety of English should he follow, given the existence of major regional differences?

· Which literary style should be used as a model?

· How the language should be spelled and punctuated, given the scribal variations of the previous centuries?

· In publishing native writers, should he change their language to make it is more widely understood?

Nevertheless, printing provides a way to reduce these variations in the language. As Caxton himself showed, publishers would set their own system of spelling and somewhat codify the language (28).

Hence, the introduction of the printing by William Caxton gave an unprecedented impetus to the formation of a standard language and the study of its properties. Apart from its role in fostering norms of spelling and punctuation, the availability of printing provided more opportunities for people to write, and gave their works much wider circulation. As a result, more texts of the period have survived. Within the following 150 years, it is estimated that nearly 20,000 books appeared. The story of English thus becomes more definite in the 16th century, with more evidence available about the way the language was developing, both in the texts themselves, and in a growing number of observations dealing with such areas as grammar, vocabulary, writing system, and style. In that century, scholars seriously got down to talking about their language (20; 23; 26; 28; 34; 38; 45).

1.3.3 Principal Middle English written records as a reflection of ongoing changes in Standard

The literature written in England during the Middle English period reflects fairly accurately the changes fortunes of English. During the time that French was the language best understood by the upper classes, the books they read or listened to were French. The rewards of patronage were seldom to be expected by those who wrote in English; with them we must look for other incentives for writing. Such incentives were most often found among members of the religious body, interested in promoting right living and in the care of souls. Accordingly, the literature in English that has come down to us from this period is almost exclusively religious or admonitory.

The Ancrene Riwle, the Ormulum, a series of paraphrases and interpretations of Gospel passages, and a group of saint’s lives and short homiletic pieces showing the survival of an Old English literary tradition in the south-west are the principal works of this class. The two outstanding exceptions are Lagamon’s Brut based largely on Wace, and the astonishing debate between The Owl and the Nightingale, a long poem in which two birds exchange recriminations in the liveliest fashion.

There was certainly a body of popular literature that circulated orally among the people, just as at a later date in the English and Scottish popular ballads did, but such literature has left slight traces in this period. The hundred years from 1150 to 1250 have been justly called the Period of religious Record (28).

The separation of the English nobility from France by about 1250 and the spread of English among the upper class are manifested in the next hundred years of English literature. Types of polite literature that had hitherto appeared in French now appear in English. Of these types most popular was the romance. Only one English romance exists from an earlier date than 1250, but from this time translations and adaptations from French begin to be made, and in the course of the 14th century their number become quite large. The period of 1250 – 1350 is a period of Religious and secular literature of the English language. The general adoption of English by all classes, which had taken place by the latter half of the 14th century, gave rise to a body of literature that represents the high point in English literary achievement in the Middle Ages.

The 15th century is sometimes known as the Imitative Period because so much of the poetry then written was written in emulation of Chaucer. It is also spoken of as a Transition Period, because it covers a large part of the interval between the age of Chaucer and the age of Shakespeare. That period has been unjustly neglected. Stephen Hawes is not negligible, though admittedly overshadowed by some of his great predecessors, and at the end of the century there appeared the prose of Thomas Malory and William Caxton. In the north the Scottish Chaucerians, particularly Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gawin Douglas and David Lindsay, produced significant work. These authors carry on the tradition of English as a literary medium into the Renaissance. Thus, Middle English literature follows and throws interesting light on the fortunes of the English language (20; 24; 28; 54).

The runic writing system is a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark.

The literature of the Old English period was presented by two main tenors epic and religious. Among the most important works of this period was the poem Beowulf, which has achieved national epic status in England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle otherwise proves significant to the study of the era, preserving a chronology of early English history, while the poem Cædmon’s Hymn from the 7th century survives as the oldest extant work of literature in English.

The effects of the Norman Conquest added new features to the regional and social differentiation of the language. New words, coming from French, could not be adopted simultaneously by all the speakers of English; they were first used in some varieties of the language.

The dialectal position of Middle English is basically a continuation of that of Old English. The most important extra linguistic fact for the development of the Middle English dialects is that the capital of the country was moved from Winchester (in the Old English period) to London by William the Conqueror in his attempt to diminish the political influence of native English.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary standing had greatly added to the prestige associated with written language in the London dialect.

The introduction of the printing by William Caxton was one of the most significant factors of the Standard English diffusion. This resulted in the spread of a single norm over most of the country, so much that during the 15th century it becomes increasingly difficult to determine on internal linguistic grounds the dialects in which a literal work is written.


2.1 The origins of Standard English

The variety which we now call Standard English is a result of combination of influences, the most important of which do not emerge until the Middle English period. There is no connection between West Saxon, the written standard of old English, and the modern Standard.

The political heart of the country moved from Winchester to London after the Conquest, and majority of the linguistic trends increasingly relate to the development of the capital as a social, political and commercial centre. A written standard language began to emerge during the 15th century and, following the detailed study of the dialectal characteristics of the period it is now possible to isolate several factors which contributed to its identity.

A literally standardized language appeared in the last part of the 14th century, based on dialects of the Central Midland countries, especially Northunptonshire, Hutingtonshire, and Bedfordshire. This is chiefly found in the large number of John Wycliffe’s manuscripts which have survived including sermons, tracts, plays, poems, and the different versions of the Wycliffe Bible, as well as several secular works. The Lollards spread this variety widely, even into South-West England, thus increasing its status as standard. In the long term it was unable to compete with quantity of material emanating from the capital; but its central Midland origins are nonetheless noteworthy (for the map of Middle English counties, see Appendix 1, p. 67) (27; 28; 53).

2.1.1 The Rise of Standard English

Out of the variety of local dialects there emerged toward the end of the 14th century a written language that in the course of the 15th century won general recognition and has since become the recognized standard in both speech and writing. The part of England that contributed most to the formation of this standard was the

East Midland district, and it was the East Midland type of English that became its basis, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London. Several causes contributed to the attainment of this result.

In the first place, as a Midland dialect the English of this region occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south. It was less conservative than the Southern dialect, less radical than the Northern. In its sounds and inflections it represents a kind of compromise, sharing some of the characteristics of both its neighbors (20).

In the second place, the East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect areas. The land was more valuable than the hilly country to the north and west, and in an agricultural age this advantage was reflected in both the number and the prosperity of the inhabitants. If we leave Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk out of account we are to all appearances leaving out of account not much less than a quarter of the whole nation. No doubt all inferences drawn from medieval statistics are exceedingly precarious; but, unless a good many figures have conspired to deceive us, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk were at the time of the Conquest and for three centuries afterwards vastly richer and more populous than any tract of equal area in the West. Only the southern counties possessed natural advantages at all comparable, and they were much smaller. The prominence of Middlesex, Oxford, Norfolk, and the East Midlands generally in political affairs all through the later Middle Ages is but another evidence of the importance of the district and of the extent to which its influence was likely to be felt (20; 27; 53).

A third factor, more difficult to evaluate, was the presence of the universities, Oxford and Cambridge, in this region. In the 14th century the monasteries were playing a less important role in the dissemination of learning than they had once played, while the two universities had developed into important intellectual centers. So far as Cambridge is concerned any influence that it had would be exerted in support of the East Midland dialect. That of Oxford is less certain because Oxfordshire is on the border between Midland and Southern and its dialect shows certain characteristic Southern features. Moreover, we can no longer attribute to Wycliffe an important part in the establishment of a written standard. Though he spent much of his life at Oxford, he seems not to have conformed fully to the Oxford dialect. Supposedly, the dialect of Oxford had no apparent influence on the form of London English, which was ultimately adopted as standard. Such support as the East Midland type of English received from the universities must have been largely confined to that furnished by Cambridge.

Much the same uncertainty attaches to the influence of Chaucer. It was once thought that Chaucer's importance was paramount among the influences bringing about the adoption of a written standard. And, indeed, it is unbelievable that the language of the greatest English poet before Shakespeare was not spread by the popularity of his works and, through the use of that language, by subsequent poets who looked upon him as their master and model. But it is nevertheless unlikely that the English used in official records and in letters and papers by men of affairs was greatly influenced by the language of his poetry. Yet it is the language found in such documents rather than the language of Chaucer that is at the basis of Standard English. Chaucer’s dialect is not in all respects the same as the language of these documents, presumably identical with the ordinary speech of the city. It is slightly more conservative and shows a greater number of Southern characteristics. Chaucer was a court poet, and his usage may reflect the speech of the court and to a certain extent literary tradition. His influence must be thought of as lending support in a general way to the dialect of the region to which he belonged rather than as determining.

A later and much larger group of diverse manuscripts include the work of Chaucer and Langland. These texts in their different ways represent London English of around 1400, but the amount of variation of their displays suggests that they cannot be called standard, in any strict sense. Not even Chaucer’s writing traditionally thought to be a precursor of modern Standard English, exercised a specific influence on the form this standard took – nor it is likely that poetic usage would ever influence general usage in any real way. It can be hardly doubted though that Chaucer’s literary standing would have greatly added to the prestige associated with written language in the London dialect.

The final factor in the emergence of the southern literary standard was the development of printing. This resulted in the spread of a single norm over most of the country, so much that during the 15th century it becomes increasingly difficult to determine on internal linguistic grounds the dialects, in which a literal work is written- apart from the northern dialects, such as Scots, which retained their written identity longer (20; 27; 28; 53).

2.1.2 The importance of London English

By far the most influential factor in the rise of Standard English was the importance of London as the capital of England. Indeed, it is altogether likely that the language of the city would have become the prevailing dialect without the help of any of the factors previously discussed. In doing so it would have been following the course of other national tongues – French as the dialect of Paris, Spanish as that of Castile, and others. London was, and still is, the political and commercial center of England. It was the seat of the court, of the highest judicial tribunals, the focus of the social and intellectual activities of the country. In the practicalities of commerce the London economy was especially important as an engine of communication and exchange which enabled ideas and information to be distributed and business to be done across an increasingly extensive, complex and varied field. Patterns of migration at this time cannot be fully reconstructed, but clearly London drew in a constant stream those whose affairs took them beyond the limits of their provincial homes. They brought to it traits of their local speech, there to mingle with the London idiom and to survive or die as the silent forces of amalgamation and standardization determined. They took back with them the forms and usages of the great city by which their own speech had been modified. The influence was reciprocal. London English took as well as gave. It began as a Southern and ended as a Midland dialect. By the 15th century there had come to prevail in the East Midlands a fairly uniform dialect, and the language of London agrees in all important respects with it. It is undoubtedly that the importance of the eastern counties, pointed out above, is largely responsible for this change. Even such Northern characteristics as are found in the standard speech seem to have entered by way of these counties. The history of Standard English is almost a history of London English.

In the latter part of the 15t