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Review of  The Development of Standard English

Reviewer: Simon Horobin
Book Title: The Development of Standard English
Book Author: Laura Wright
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.346

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Laura Wright (ed.) The Development of Standard English
1300-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
pp. xi+236

Simon Horobin, University of Glasgow

Despite its long history and frequent codification and
description the origins of Standard English remain the
subject of much academic controversy. A seminal paper
by M.L. Samuels published in 1963 outlining the emergence
of a written standard has been adopted unchallenged by
most recent historians of English. Samuels' work on the
standardisation of English spelling has also been allowed
to explain the processes of standardisation of other
linguistic levels, such as lexis, morphology and syntax,
without any fresh consideration of the evidence. The aim
of this volume is to reopen the debate concerning the
origins and development of Standard English through a series
of theoretical and descriptive accounts. The book itself
comprises a collection of papers presented at the
International Conference on Standardisation held at the
University of Cambridge in 1999, edited with an introduction
by Laura Wright. The book is divided into two sections:
Part I considers the history of the ideology of
standardisation, while the second part presents detailed
investigations into the processes of standarisation across a
variety of texts.

Chapter 1.
Chapter 1 is an account by Jim Milroy entitled 'Historical
description and the ideology of the standard language'.
This paper extends Milroy's (1991) consideration of the
influence of the 'ideology of standardisation' from popular
and prescriptive attitudes to language to the discipline of
descriptive linguistics itself. Milroy surveys the
concentration of Generative linguistics on Standard English
and the focus of Historical lingustics on the origins and
development of the standard, at the expense of non-standard
and dialectal varieties. He examines the history of English
Philology and shows how important early figures in this
field, such as Henry Sweet and H.C. Wyld, were heavily
influenced by this ideology. Milroy shows how the study of
Middle English dialect variation has been affected by the
dismissal of orthographic variation as errors and
corruptions by Anglo-Norman scribes with only partial
understanding of English. Milroy shows that the uncritical
identification of the standard language as the prestige
language made by these scholars has continued to influence
modern sociolinguistics. Milroy concludes that linguists
need to be clearer in their definition of the concept of
prestige and argues that the notion of stigma might provide
a more suitable framework for such discussions.

Chapter 2.
In 'Mythical strands in the ideology of prescriptivism',
Richard Watts identifies a number of different prescriptive
myths, such as the language and ethnicity myth, the language
and nationality myth and the language and variety myth, and
traces their rise through the public education system. His
discussion is focused on the eighteenth century and
particularly on Sheridan's Course of Lectures on Elocution
(1762) and Hugh Jones' An Accidence to the English Tongue
(1724). Watts' attempt to trace these myths back through
time is less successful and the textual basis for his
discussion is unclear. Much of his argument seems based
upon John Trevisa's well-known and over-cited comments about
Middle English dialect variation.

Chapter 3.
Jonathan Hope's paper, 'Rats, bats, sparrows and dogs:
biology, linguistics and the nature of Standard English',
critiques the assumption that Standard English has a single
ancestor. This paper is a short, yet interesting
theoretical discussion of the way in which an evolutionary
biological model has been traditionally applied to the study
of Standard English. The result of this model has been to
condition linguists to look for a mythical single ancestor
for Standard English rather than a series of contributing

Chapter 4.
In chapter 4 Raymond Hickey discusses 'Salience, stigma and
standard' in a paper which follows neatly on from the
conclusions made by Milroy in chapter 1. Hickey's focus is
on Irish English and he examines the many stereotypical
depictions of the Irish dialect and contrasts these with
genuinely salient features of this dialect.

Chapter 5.
In 'The ideology of the standard and the development of
Extraterritorial Englishes' Gabriella Mazzon examines the
political, social and ideological contexts surrounding the
development and standardisation of extraterritorial
varieties of English, and their relationship with the
language of the colonial Empire. Mazzon charts the
processes by which these varieties, including American,
Australian and Canadian English, became institutionalised,
as well as the rise of 'new' Englishes which have emerged in
countries such as India and Nigeria, where English is used
as a second language. She shows how these 'New Englishes'
challenge the prejudices and assumptions concerning standard
and non-standard languages: attitudes shared by public
opinion and professional linguists.

Chapter 6.
Derek Keene's contribution, 'Metropolitan values: migration,
mobility and cultural norms, London 1100-1700', is an
extremely useful account by a historian of the social and
economic background to the rise of Standard English. This
discussion assesses the dominance of London within both
national and European contexts and reconsiders the evidence
for large-scale migration into the capital during the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Keene draws on a wide
range of indicators for his analysis, including poll tax
records and records of debtors, and provides detailed maps
showing migration patterns into the capital during this
period. Keene's analysis of the mobility of the London
population has much to offer linguists in studies both of
the evolution of the standard and also of the ways in which
this standard was disseminated throughout the country.

Chapter 7.
Part II opens with a study of 'Standardisation and the
language of early statutes' by Matti Rissanen. This paper
introduces an important body of texts whose importance has
been neglected in previous discussions, which have
concentrated largely on Chancery documents at the expense of
other official texts. Rissanen's analysis focuses on uses of
shall/will as future auxiliaries, multiple negation, the
conditional subordinator 'provided that' and compound
adverbs (eg therewith) in these texts. This study concludes
by stressing the importance of legal and statutory texts in
the process of standardisation of spelling, syntactic
features and grammaticalised lexis.

Chapter 8.
In 'Scientific language and spelling standardisation 1375-
1550' Irma Taavitsainen examines the distribution of
spelling variation across the register of scientific writing
in the vernacular which emerged during the late Medieval
period. Taavitsainen shows that many of these texts show
the influence of a competing standardised written variety,
known as Central Midlands Standard, rather than that of
Chancery Standard which was influential in literary and
administrative texts. The identification of this genre of
writing with the Central Midlands Standard is extremely
interesting as this variety has hitherto been known only in
Wycliffite texts. Taavitsainen suggests that scientific
texts were resilient to the pressures of the Chancery
Standard as they represented a prestigious text type in
their own right.

Chapter 9.
In 'Change from above or from below? Mapping the loci of
linguistic change in the history of Scottish English' Anneli
Meurman-Solin examines the processes of linguistic
standardisation in Scotland. The Scottish situation is
particularly interesting for the existence of two competing
national standards during this period: the Southern English
Standard and Scottish Standard English. Meurman-Solin bases
her analysis upon the Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots and the
ongoing Corpus of Scottish Correspondence, demonstrating
further the importance of drawing upon data taken from a
variety of text-types. Meurman-Solin's discussion
highlights the significance of the social functions of
written texts and their audience, and the corresponding
degree of national or regional importance of a text for the
spread of the standard.

Chapter 10.
Merja Kyto and Suzanne Romaine's paper is entitled
'Adjective comparison and standardisation processes in
American and British English from 1620 to the present'. The
authors compare competing forms of adjective comparison,
specifically the inflectional form (eg faster) and the
periphrastic construction (eg more beautiful), within the
Corpus of Early American English and the ARCHER Corpus.
Their findings show that contrary to the view of Jespersen,
the two forms are not in free variation but that their use
is heavily conditioned by word-length and text-type.
Comparison of usage between British and American usage
demonstrates that British English led the change towards the
inflectional type of adjective comparison.

Chapter 11.
In 'The Spectator, the politics of social networks, and
language standardisation in eighteenth century England'
Susan Fitzmaurice argues that eighteenth-century
prescriptivists based their model of polite English usage on
the influential periodical The Spectator. Fitzmaurice draws
upon social network theory in order to demonstrate the
prestigious cultural and social milieu within which the
periodical was produced, and the respect it was accorded by
the English middle-classes. Finally she considers the
extent to which the language of The Spectator reflects the
linguistic models prescribed by the grammarians. A study of
the restrictive relative clause markers in the personal
letters of contributors such as Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift
and others, reveals that only William Congreve follows the
prescriptive models in his preference for wh- relative
pronouns over 'that' or zero-marking.

Chapter 12.
In 'A branching path: low vowel lengthening and its friends
in the emerging standard' Roger Lass turns from syntax and
morphology to consider the development of the spoken
standard, known as Received Pronunciation. Lass' discussion
focuses on the developments concerning /a:/ demonstrating
the comparative lateness of the establishment of a standard
phonology, and the many minor contributing factors and
retrograde steps which were involved in this process.

In summary this is a book which fills a distinct need in
questioning many long-held assumptions concerning the rise
of Standard English and providing a range of suggestions for
further research. A particular strength of this volume is
the concentration on the processes by which morphological
and lexicalised phrases entered the Standard language; areas
which have been largely neglected in previous histories of
Standard English. In their reliance upon electronic
resources these essays also demonstrate the importance of
historical corpora in research of this kind and highlight
the significance of register and text-type in charting the
rise of Standard English.
However the major omission of this book is the lack of
discussion of the changes in the London dialect during the
late Middle English period and the emergence of standardised
varieties of English. In the Introduction Wright asks 'was
there really a change in the London dialect in the
fourteenth century from Southern to Midland, or could the
process better be characterised as the diffusion of features
from one dialect to another, due to a long peroid [sic] of
contact between Old Norse and Old English in more Northern
parts of the country?' It is rather disappointing that this
question is barely addressed by the essays in this volume,
leaving a rather unfortunate gap in its treatment of this
subject. However this book performs an important service
both in raising a range of neglected questions and by
providing answers to some of these.

J. Milroy and L. Milroy, Authority in Language. 2nd edn.
(London, 1991).
M.L. Samuels, 'Some Applications of Middle English
Dialectology', English Studies 44 (1963), 81-94, reprinted
in M. Laing (ed.) Middle English Dialectology: essays on
some principles and problems. (Aberdeen, 1989), pp. 64-80.

Simon Horobin has research interests in Middle English
language and literature, the history of English, manuscript
studies and humanities computing.

Dr S. Horobin
Department of English Language
12 University Gardens
University of Glasgow
Tel: +44 (0)141 330 3918
Fax: +44 (0)141 330 3531


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