Standard English – how to understand it

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Standard English – definition

standard english The term ‘Standard English’ refers to a dialect which has acquired the status of representing the English language.

redbtn It refers to the content of the utterance rather than the pronunciation.

redbtn However, Standard English is used in both speech and in writing.


A business letter

Dear Martin Brown
Thankyou for your letter dated July 3, requesting more information on the Snowmobile. We have put a copy of our brochure in the post to you.

A telephone conversation

“Hello. I’m ringing on behalf of my wife, Mary. Unfortunately, she won’t be in today because she’s feeling unwell.”


redbtn Standard English in written form is used in such formal documents as essays, business letters, notices, reports, and memos.

redbtn Standard English in spoken form is used in such formal utterances as business negotiations, public announcements, and news broadcasts.

redbtn Most educated writers use Standard English in all texts – except when a special effect is required.

redbtn It is fairly common for a speaker to use Standard English and deliver it with a regional accent.

redbtn NB! Today’s dialect can become tomorrow’s Standard English.

redbtn Standard English is believed to have evolved by means of a universal linguistic process. The essential concepts concerning standardisation are as follows:

  • an element of conscious engineering always obtains
  • a variety regarded as exclusive is cultivated by an elite
  • standardisation slows down language development
  • a written form always exists, though not always as a standard

redbtn The standardisation process is thought to comprise the following stages:

1. selection
2. acceptance
3. elaboration
4. codification

redbtn If these principles are applied to the English language, we can see how a dialect became Standard English.

redbtn Selection. The origins of standard English lay in the merchant class who had by the fourteenth century settled in London. They spoke an east midland dialect, associated first with Norfolk and later with Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Bedfordshire. It had already become a class dialect within London. The lower class Londoners spoke a south east dialect which was the antecedent of Cockney.

redbtn By the end of the fourteenth century the east midland dialect was the embryonic written standard. About 1430, one regional variant of that dialect became increasingly dominant. This selection of a standard was obviously linked with the economic power and the ideas of the new merchant class. This was confirmed by the advent of printing, which created a concrete representation of the merchants’ spoken variety. [Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1475].

redbtn The spoken standard came about later in the Middle Ages for the following reason. Students from all over England mixed in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both of which were only sixty miles from London. In this triangle formed by the three centres a great deal of east midland speech would have been heard, and possibly used as a kind of lingua franca (common language) among a socially mobile group. Here then, we see the selection of a certain dialect due to need and function.

redbtn Acceptance By about the middle of the fifteenth century the east midland dialect had been accepted as a written standard by those who wrote official documents. However, this acceptance was made unconsciously.

redbtn [For instance, when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales [1387] in the east midland dialect, his contemporaries had their own, local written varieties. Langland’s Piers Plowman [1362-87] and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [1370] are both written in dialects which are different than Chaucer’s.]

redbtn Even as late as the sixteenth century, no national literary standard existed. By Shakespeare’s time however, the regional differences had disappeared and a real, national, literary standard prevailed.

redbtn Elaboration Regional dialects of English lost status as their writing systems were displaced by the standard. Their functions became more restricted as the standard became more elaborated. Regional dialects became the medium of ordinary everyday conversation among equals.

redbtn The new written standard now had to function where previously Latin and French had been the norm in legal, ecclesiastical and scholarly matters. By neccessity it thus became elaborated.

redbtn Elaboration when applied to the development of a standard means that the particular variety must cope with all types of communication. Thus any variation within the dialect ceased to be based on region. It was based instead on stylistic function. That meant, for example, that vocabulary could now be differentiated as legal, literary, or technical.

redbtn English language was first used in government and law in 1362, although the use of French persisted alongside it for another century. It is interesting to note in this respect that Milton – one of the great English poets – wrote a great deal of his work in Latin. In 1731 an act of parliament was passed to restrict the use of Latin and French to the province of law. [Even today, the English legal system uses Latin expressions – ‘habeas corpus’, for instance.]

redbtn Codification The process of codification means that the use of language is documented in order to reinforce a certain variety which has been accepted. Codification is easier to effect in written form than in speech, although attempts have been made since the development of a written standard to apply the same practices of codification in speech.

redbtn Codification slows down the natural development of any language because of its aims for minimal variation in form. Criteria for choosing one particular use rather than another are usually related to the vested interests of certain social or economic groups. The impulses behind this codification stem from notions of prestige based on the emulation of social groups considered worthy of esteem.

redbtn Other countries in Europe such as France and Italy set up their own academies designed to monitor language and prescribe certain usages. The Academie Francaise (established in 1635) is still in operation. One of its most recent projects was trying to prohibit the use of ‘Franglais’ [‘Le parking’, ‘le week-end’] which was thought to be making the French language impure. The attempt was not successful.

redbtn In England, eighteenth-century scholars such as Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson pressed for the institution of an English academy, but it never happened.

redbtn The phenomenon of the dictionary arrived as a direct result of the desire to codify. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755) was historically significant in that whilst it was a major work of codification, it was the first to acknowledge variation in meaning and usage.

redbtn Important note for teachers. The new National Curriculum requires youngsters to be competent in using “Standard English”. This is quite wrongly taken by many people to refer to accent, when it actually requires pupils to understand the use of standard grammatical constructions, together with a comprehensive standard lexicon.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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