2

Standardisation and writing

In the last chapter we outlined the conditions for the emergence of a standard variety. The last 600 years has seen the attempt to establish one as a superordinate variety, and today, at least within Britain, the process is probably as complete as it will ever be. In this chapter we shall trace this long and complex process, by first examining one of its key components, the writing system. We shall need to know about the nature of English spelling, and the sort of writing system inherited by the first printers, who played such a vital role in standardisation. We shall then assess how far the process can be understood from a narrowly sociolinguistic point of view, by seeing it in terms of four inter-linked and often overlapping stages. First, we see the selection of the East Midland dialect as the dominant variety; then we discuss the conditions of its acceptance by the powerful and educated classes, and the implications this has for speakers of other dialects. Third, we chart the elaboration of its functions, as this variety was developed in the domains previously associated with French and Latin. Fourth, we describe the stage of codification, the attempts to 'fix' a standard variety in dictionaries and grammars, a process most clearly associated with the eighteenth century. Finally, we shall see how codification can be regarded as the expression of class attitudes to language.

The stages we have outlined above are in some sense applicable to the process of standardisation everywhere. Throughout the world, moreover, the process can be characterised by an important feature: it involves somewhere along the line an element of engineering, a conscious attempt to cultivate a variety that can be used for all purposes. A standard variety is therefore seen to be a fully developed one, to use the terminology of the last chapter. Coupled with this trend is the desire to have it recorded and regularised, to eliminate variations and, if possible, change. While the latter may be unattainable, the aims of

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A Social History of English
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Figures vi
  • List of Tables vii
  • Author's Preface to the First Edition viii
  • Preface to the Second Edition ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Emergence and Consolidation 5
  • 1 - Languages in Contact 7
  • 2 - Standardisation and Writing 31
  • Part II - Changing Patterns of Usage 59
  • 3 - Words and Meanings 61
  • 4 - Grammar 86
  • 5 - Pronunciation 112
  • Part III - Imposition and Spread 147
  • 6 - The Imposition of English in the British Isles 149
  • 7 - English as an International Language 180
  • Part IV - Evidence, Interpretation and Theory 215
  • 8 - A Critical Linguistic History of English Texts 217
  • Theoretical Postscript 255
  • Exercises and Topics for Further Study 266
  • Appendix: International Phonetic Alphabet Consonant Symbols 270
  • Notes and Suggested Reading 272
  • Bibliography 278
  • General Index 291
  • Index of Words and Forms 299
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