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The standardisation of English

The emerging London standard
Chancery practice
Attitudes to London English
Changes in late modern English
The voice of authority
The writing of grammars
Standard languages
The codification of American English


The dialects of present-day English can be seen as the continuation of the dialect areas which established themselves in the Old English period. The dialectal division of the narrower region of England into 1) a northern, 2) a central and 3) a (subdivided) southern region has been retained to the present-day. The linguistic study of the dialects of English goes back to the 19th century when, as an offspin of Indo-European studies, research into (rural) dialects of the major European languages was considerably developed. The first prominent figure in English dialectology is Alexander Ellis (mid-19th century), followed somewhat later by Joseph Wright (late 19th and early 20th century). The former published a study of English dialects and the latter a still used grammar of English dialects at the beginning of the present century. It was not until the Survey of English Dialects, first under the auspices of Eugen Dieth and later of Harald Orton, that such intensive study of (rural) dialects was carried out (the results appeared in a series of publications in the 1950s and 1960s).

STANDARD FEATURES OF ENGLISH DIALECTS The main divide between north and south can be drawn by using the pronunciation of the word but. Either it has a /u/ sound (in the north) or the lowered and unrounded realisation typical of Received Pronunciation in the centre and south, /ʌ/. An additional isogloss is the use of a short vowel in words like bath, i.e. [baθ], rather than the [bɑ:θ] of the south. The south can be divided by the use of syllable-final /r/ which is to be found in the south western dialects but not in those of the south and south east. The latter show ‘initial softening’ as in single, father, think with the voiced initial sounds /z-, v-, ð/ respectively.

The emerging London standard

In the group of varieties of English that of the city of London occupies a special position. The early development of English in this city is marked by migration from various parts of England as of the early Middle English period. The language of the migrants into the city has had a pronounced influence on that which emerged later here (Strang 1970: 160).

First of all one should remember that in the Old English period the capital of England was Winchester in the south-central part of the country. It is only after the Norman invasion that the city on the estuary of the Thames was raised to the status of capital. As the seat of government and king London gained in significance. The nearby town of Westminister (now just an inner city suburb) strengthened this position given that it was an ecclesiastical centre. Due to its need for staff in civil service London exercised an attraction for the surrounding areas, the so-called home counties.

The earliest attestations of London English are in Latin documents and are as a rule proper and personal names, above all street names. From these sources one can conclude that early London English showed a close affinity with that of Essex which is immediately north-east of the city (Samuels 1972: 165). This assumption is confirmed by documents such as the proclamation of Henry III in 1258 which is written in English and which shows the typical distinction of late Old English /æ:/ which is characteristic of Essex. There are also features which point to the counties of Middlesex and Surrey (in the south).

In the late 13th and in the course of the 14th century a re-orientation would seem to have occurred away from southern forms towards those typical of the midlands. The transition, inasmuch as it is attested, is characterised by mixed varieties which show various features of surrounding dialects (Samuels 1972: 166). For instance the ending -and(e) is found for the present participle in London texts, something which is probably due to the influence of Norfolk and Suffolk. Nonetheless by the time of Chaucer — late 14th century — there is a preponderance of midland forms. These in fact increase in the 15th century, especially after English replaced Latin and French as an official language (after 1430). Among the forms of midland origin which entered London English were many of ultimately northern origin but which had spread into the south. For instance Chaucer still has a /j-/ at the beginning of the verb ‘give’, e.g. yaf ‘gave’. This is replaced in the 15th century by an initial /g-/ which has its source in a Scandinavian pronounciation in the north of the country. The same is true of an initial /ð-/ in forms of the third person plural (Chaucer has hir(e) which corresponds to the later their(e)).

The relative significance of dialects in the formation of London English is determined by the inmigration for different directions into the city. For example there were connections with Essex to begin with, later in the 14th century movements from the relatively thickly populated areas of Norfolk and Suffolk are to be seen. By the late 14th century the relationship was shifted in favour of migrants from the central midlands.

Such demographic movements can be quoted as evidence for details of language change in this period which have no apparent motivation (Samuels 1972: 169). This would appear to hold especially for the forms of suffixes which indicated the present participle and which went through a change from -ind(e) to and(e) and finally to yng(e), ing(e). A language internal reason for the adoption of a regional variant of a form can be seen in the case of the pronouns of the third person plural as the midland forms in th- (from Scandinavian) were helpful in disambiguating the prounouns of the third person, singular and plural.

The supremacy of midland forms in the formation of the late Middle English London dialect had a reason which should not be underestimated: the midland variety of Middle English, because of its central position in the country, represented a comprehensible form for a large number of speakers. Leith (1983: 38f.) views the east midland variety as a kind of lingua franca in a triangle between London, Oxford und Cambridge, which was also used as a means of communication between the students who travelled to these cities to study.

This function as a means of communication would seem to have held less for the geographically peripheral forms such as East Anglia and Surrey or Kent (Wakelin 1977: 26), a fact which would explain the decreasing influence of these varieties in the capital.

A side effect of the demographic movements of the late Middle English period is an increased awareness of dialect differences and conversely of the notion of a standard. This awareness can be seen with Chaucer, who caricatured speakers from the north in the Reeve's Tale, and it continued to develop in the early modern period and is attested by many authors including Shakespeare for instance in the three nations scene in Henry the Fifth in which he shows awareness of the English of the Celtic regions of Britain.

The language of London continued on a path where it became less and less bound to a specific region. For instance the initial softening, which is typical of the area immediately south and south-west of the capital, is not to be found in London texts from the late Middle English period (Wakelin 1977: 27).

The development of a form of English with the upper classes of the population of London took a separate course from that of the city dialect, Cockney. The split between this variety and the standard became greater in the course of the following centuries and led to the codification of a pronunciation norm in the 19th century, above all in the schools of the middle and upper classes and for areas of public life, which was given the label Received Pronunciation by the phonetician Daniel Jones at the beginning of the century.

The development of a standard is not directly connected with literature of the late Middle Ages. For instance, Chaucer shows many southern forms which were not continued in the later standard. What was of course the case is that his reputation as a writer contributed to the increased prestige of the dialect of London (Bourcier 1981: 140).

Chancery practice

The formation of a standard in London goes back geographically to the eastern variety of midland Middle English but also to scribal practices of the time. Already at the end of the 14th century there were a group of non-clerical scribes who used a conventionalised orthography (Strang 1970:157). By the mid 15th century this form was accepted for official usage (Leith 1983:40). Above all the language of the Chancery, an official department in London which prepared documents for the court, played a considerable role in the emergence of a written standard (Fisher 1977, 1996). The Chancery was responsible for legal and parliamentary documents as well as for those which were written on the commission of the king (Fisher 1977: 875f.). The Chancery recruited its scribes from all parts of England and had its seat at Westminister (from the middle of the 14th century). Because of the diverse backgrounds of those employed there, a linguistic norm was all the more necessary.

According to Fisher (1977: 885) one can recognise different sources for this late Middle English standard. Firstly, the literary standard which was used by Wycliffe, the first translator of the Bible into English, and his followers (the so-called Lollards). Secondly, the literary language used by London authors like Chaucer and Gower. Thirdly, the influence of certain writers of the Chancery, e.g. those who used northern varieties, from which the pronominal forms with initial th- were adopted and which are not to be found with Chaucer for instance.

The spelling and morphology of Chancery English was conservative. For example one finds orthographic renderings of velar/palatal fricatives (gh as in slaughter; right, high) which may well have already disappeared from the spoken language of the time. The ending -th for verbs in the third person singular present tense was used for some considerable time although these were replaced by forms in -s which have their origin in the north of England. Other preferences of Chancery English were such for s(w)ich(e), not for nat, through for thurgh, etc.

It is clear that already by the 15th century the language of the Chancery was not a regional variety but a mixed form of English which was used as a general means of communication between dialects. Here one can recognise the seed of a development which was to become typical for the later standard of English, i.e. a form of language which was not regionally bound and which was used by speakers of widely differing dialectal backgrounds.

Attitudes to London English in the Early Modern Period

John Hart (d. 1574) in An orthographie of English (1569) offers a reformed spelling of English so that ‘the rude countrie Englishman’ can speak the language ‘as the best sort use to speak it’.

George Puttenham (d. 1590) in The arte of English poesie comments that ‘After a speach is fully fashioned to the common vnderstanding, & accepted by consent of a whole countrey & nation, it is called a language’. He then proceeds to mention that he regards the prime form of this language as ‘the vsuall speach of the Court and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles and not much aboue’.

About a century later, Christopher Cooper in his Grammatica linguae anglicanae (1685) stated that he regarded London speech as ‘the best dialect’, the ‘most pure and correct’, but he was quite liberal towards variation: ‘Everyone pronounceth them (words) as himself pleases’.


Bourcier, Georges 1981. An introduction to the history of the English language. Trans. and adapted by C. Clark. Cheltenham: Thornes.
Fisher, John H. 1977. ‘Chancery and the emergence of Standard English’, Speculum, 52: 870-99.
Fisher, John H. 1996. The Emergence of Standard English. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
Leith, Dick 1997 [1983]. A social history of English. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
Samuels, Michael L. 1972. Linguistic evolution with special reference to English. Cambridge: University Press.
Strang, Barbara 1970. A history of English. London: Methuen.
Wakelin, Martyn 1977. English dialects. An introduction. 2nd edition. London: Athlone Press.

Changes in late modern English

The 17th century saw certain significant changes in the sound system of southern British English such as the lowering of short /u/ to /ʌ/ in word like but, cull, done, love. Those instances which were then unaffected, e.g. bush, put, could (all with /u/) have remained so in standard British English.

Completion of the Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift which probably began in the 14th century, if not even earlier, proceeded along the phonological paths which had been determined earlier. Among the last changes, which are regarded as part of this, is the shift of the vowel in the MEAT lexical class to /i:/. This did not happen in traditional dialects of English, e.g. in Ireland or parts of the north of England.

Preference for /ɔɪ/ in BOIL lexical set

The use of /aɪ/ for this lexical set is a well-known feature of English well into the 18th century. A general preference for /ɔɪ/ was established by the late 18th century and this has remained the case in southern British English.

Loss of word-initial /h-/

The loss of /h.-/ in words like hall, hat, heap is a development which by the early 18th century definitely had achieved sociolinguistic significance as many censorious comments demonstrate, e.g.those by Thomas Sheridan. Like the loss of non pre-vocalic /-r/ this was likely to have started much earlier, see the discussion in the Milroy monograph below, specifically the section The Time-depth of Present-day Non-standard Variants. See also the section Phonological change in Later Modern English in the monograph by Joan Beal.

Beal, Joan 2004. English in modern times 1700-1945. London: Arnold.

Milroy, James 1992. Linguistic variation and change. On the historical sociolinguistics of English. Oxford: Blackwell.

Loss of non pre-vocalic /-r/

Present-day standard southern British English – the variety known since Daniel Jones as Received Pronunciation – only has a phonetic /r/ immediately before a vowel as in ring and very. But the early modern English spelling betrays the pronunciation of /r/ in non pre-vocalic positions, e.g. bar and bard. It is difficult to determine exactly when this /r/ ceased to be pronounced, but what is known is that authors comment on its loss during the 18th century and make prescriptive statements about it. John Walker seemed to be in favour of retaining non pre-vocalic /-r/ because that maintained a correspondence between writing and sound, but he was prepared to admit that the loss was widespread even in received circles in the English society of his day.

Lengthening of low vowels in BATH and DANCE lexical sets

At the beginning of the early modern English period the low vowel /a/ was short. However, a lengthening took place when this vowel preceded (i) a fricative or (ii) a nasal + stop/fricative. This led to long vowels being used in words like (i) path, class, staff (the BATH lexical set) and (ii) advance, grant (the DANCE lexical set). The lengthening was not complete for the latter group. Before /-nd/ and in disyllabic words a short vowel can still be found, e.g. grand, cancel with /æ/ in present-day Received Pronunciation.

This change is a typically southern English shift. In the north short vowels still prevail as one can see in pronunciations like [pas] for pass or [paθ] for path.

Diphthongisation in GOAT and FACE lexical sets

The two mid vowels /o:/ (back) and /e:/ (front) were diphthongised to /əʊ/ and /eɪ/ respectively in the 18th century. The diphthongisation is moderate in Received Pronunciation but much more obvious in Cockney and overseas varieties derived from early 19th century London vernacular speech, e.g. Australian and New Zealand English. In conservative forms of English in the British Isles, e.g. in southern Ireland this diphthongisation has not taken place.

Different stress patterns

Where the stress falls in a polysyllabic word is a matter which shows considerable variation in the late modern period, especially with those words which are borrowings from classical languages. The authors of pronouncing dictionaries involved themselves in lengthy discussions on this issue. The following are two entries from John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) which illustrate the style of commentary to be found in his day.

John Walker (1732-1807), a Londoner and prescriptive author of the late 18th century, is best known for his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) which enjoyed great popularity in its day.




Certain changes which are associated with English in the past two centuries are not remarked on by prescriptive authors in the 18th century. For instance, the vocalisation of a velarised /l/ as in [mɪuk] for milk [mɪɫk] is not mentioned nor is so-called HAPPY-tensing (the use of a high [i] vowel for the centralised [ɪ] in the second syllable of this word). But given the arbitrary nature of much prescriptive comment one cannot say for certain that a certain item of change had not already occurred just because 18the century authors do not mention them.

The voice of authority

The uncertainties of the 16th and 17th centuries about the suitability of English as a language of science and learning led to quite massive borrowing from classical languages. It also engendered a frame of mind where people thought English was deficient and this in its turn gave rise to many opinions in print about just what constitutes correct English.

These came to be associated with social class and social acceptability in the 18th century and with that the prescriptive tradition, which has lasted to this very day, was born. Much of this was well-meaning: scholars of the time misunderstood the nature of language variation and sought to bring order into what they saw as disorder. Frequently this merged with the view that regional varieties of English were to be dismissed as inferior. The basic difficulty which present-day linguists see in the prescriptive recommendations of 18th century authors such as Sheridan and Walker is that they are entirely arbitrary. There is no justification for the likes and dislikes of prescriptive authors. These writers are self-appointed guardians and defenders of what they regard as good style. They established a tradition which was to have considerable influence in English society and was continued by such authors as Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) who considered it their duty to resist what they saw as signs of decline in the English language.


Fowler, Henry Watson 1965. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Second edition by Ernest Gowers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

The writing of grammars

The tradition of grammar writing goes back at least to the 17th century in England. The playwright Ben Jonson was the author of a grammar and John Wallis published an influential Grammatica linguae Anglicanae in 1653. This led to a series of works offering guidelines for what was then deemed correct English. The next century saw more grammars in this vein such as Joseph Priestley’s The rudiments of English grammar (1761). But the most significant author of this age is Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787) who published his Short introduction to English grammar in 1762. This work was influential in school education and enjoyed may editions and reprints. It has been made responsible for a whole series of do’s and don’ts in English such as using whom as the direct object form of who or not ending a sentence with a preposition as in The woman he shared a room with. Lowth also formulated a rule for shall and will for the future tense in English which has been reinterated ever since but which is however non-existent for many speakers (the reduced form ’ll [l] is normal and the full form will [wɪl] is used for emphasis while shall is not used at all by many speakers). Other influential authors of grammars are Lindley Murray (1745-1826) who produced an English grammar in 1794 and William Cobbett whose English grammar appeared in 1829.

These are perennial issues in English prescriptive grammar. Apart from the disapproval of prepositional final sentences just mentioned one has the prohibition of split infinitives, as in to angrily reply to a question. Prescriptivism feeds off uncertainty which means that opinions arise where there is variation, consider the indecisiveness about the preposition with the adjective different, i.e. from, as or to, or the condemnation of less for fewer with plural nouns as in prescribed He has fewer books than she rather than He has less books than she. Another case is the demand for I as first person pronoun. English usage today is that I only occurs in immediately pre-verbal position; in all other instances me occurs: I came but It’s me, Who’s there? Me. Prescriptivists insist that I be used on such occasions and even ask for it in phrases like between you and me, i.e. between you and I where it never occurred anyway as here the pronoun is in an oblique case whose form was never I.

Grammars by women

The 18th century was a period in which many women wrote grammars of English. The first of these was Elizabeth Elstob’s Rudiments of Grammar, for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). Others were to follow throughout the century, notably those by Ann Fisher A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English (1745), Ellin Devis The Accidence; or First Rudiments of English Grammar. Designed for the Use of Young Ladies (1775), Ellenor Fenn The Child’s Grammar. Designed to Enable Ladies Who May Not Have Attended to the Subject Themselves to Instruct Their Children and The Mother’s Grammar. Being a Continuation of the Child’s Grammar. With Lessons for Parsing. And a Few Already Done As Examples (both probably 1798).

The following internet address is a link to a project on grammars and grammar writers in 18th century England and is maintained by the English department at the University of Leiden under the supervision of Prof. Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade: The codifiers and the English language


Apart from grammar another area where prescriptive authors of the 18th century were active elocution. At this time it meant the correct pronunciation of English and flowered in particular on the fringe of the British Isles, in those regions where the enlightened felt there was particular need for remedial activity on their part. The Scotsman James Buchanan published his Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language Through the British Dominions in 1766.

The Irishman Thomas Sheridan — the father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan — published a Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language in 1781. Sheridan travelled on a linguistic mission to improve the speech of the unenlightened. Despite such well-meant but ultimately misguided efforts, English has retained its regional varieties and the behaviour of the masses has not been affected by the notions of the prescribing few.

The English concern with pronunciation

Pronunciation in English is a yardstick of one’s language and ultimately determines social acceptance. More than European countries, the English judge the standardness of someone’s speech by its phonetics. The ideal which arose during the 18th century and established itself in the 19th century was that one’s speech was not to betray where one came from, i.e. regional accents were frowned upon. This is the legacy of the elocutionists.

Mugglestone, Lynda 2003. ‘Talking Proper’. The rise of accent as social symbol. 2nd edition. Oxford: University Press.

General characteristics of standard languages

Standard forms of language maintain seemingly irregular features. These may make the standard more difficult to acquire, less intuitive as some sociolinguistics, like James Milroy, maintain.

The maintenance of the third personal singular inflection in the present-tense of verbs is just such a case. Dialects of English have either dropped this inflection (East Anglia for instance) or they have re-analysed the ending and use it for a specific purpose, e.g. for an habitual - I goes there every morning - or have established correspondences between the inflections and the nature of the verb's subject (Northern Subject Rule).

Despite its own ideology of immutability, even the standard continues to develop. The gradual shift of verb forms from strong to weak is a case in point. dive : dove: dived has been more or less replaced by dive : dived : dived in present-day English. Another example would be the use of a continuous form with so-called 'psych'-verbs, e.g. I'm wanting to go there for I want to go there.

Inside and outside the standard: What slipped through the prescriptivists' net

I see what you mean; I seen him yesterday; I've seen those students. I do my work every week; I done the work yesterday; I've done that task.

This type of distribution leads to spurious objections to non-standard forms: two-form verbs involve fewer distinctions and are hence sloppy, lazy, inaccurate, etc. But are they? Just look as this:

    I hit the main road at eight every morning.
    I hit the curb going around the curve.
    I’ve hit that curb before.

The same is true of other verbs like bet, cast, etc.

Persistent non-standard features

1) Them as a demonstrative pronoun

    Them teachers are annoying.

2) Second person plural personal pronouns

    You (plural) = ye, youse, yuns, y’all. Nowadays = you guys

3) Negative concord

    We’re not going to no party. I’m not giving no money to nobody.

4) Unmarked adverbs

    He did the work real well.

5) Double comparisons

    That’s more worse than the first one.

The codification of American English

At the end of the 18th century, writers in the newly independent United States showed increased confidence in various fields, including language. The person who was to become the ‘father’ of American English began his publishing activity during this period.


This is Noah Webster (1758-1843), American lexicographer and linguist. He was born in Connecticut and studied at Yale. After fighting in the American Revolution he worked as a lawyer in Hartford. His Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783-85) established his reputation as the foremost scholar of English in America. The first part of this work, The elementary spelling book, was instrumental in codifying American spelling even though not all of Webster’s suggestions were later adopted. His lexicographical work includes the Compendious Dictionary (1806) which was followed by his major work, The American Dictionary of the English Language (1812) which contained 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had not been listed before. The work went through many revisions. The last which Webster saw through himself was that of 1840. It has been repeatedly revised and published and has retained its popularity in America.

More information on forms of English overseas can be found on the companion website: Studying Varieties of English


  For more literature on standardisation please consult the relevant section of the Reference Guide

A standard work (published in 2004) on the late modern period (1700-present).

A recent overview (published in May 2009) by a leading expert on eighteenth century English. Published by Edinburgh University Press.

A more flexible view of how standard English is evolving (published in 1999).

Outside the mainstream: the history of varieties of English apart from southern British English.

There are many persistent misconceptions about language. This book examines a range of these and discusses them objectively.

A critical look at the way in which notions of standard language are used manipulatively and to exclude others.

An original collection of papers on how multilingualism fed into the initial stages of standardisation in early England.

An overview of factors contributing towards the development of standard English.

Every language which is spoken is changing. This study looks at the ways in which standard varieties of English have been evolving in the past hundred years or so.

Views of the development of the English language today (note the use of the article and the singular versus the plural in the following books)

Bauer, Laurie and Peter Trudgill (eds) 1998. Language Myths. New York: Penguin.

Bex, Tony and Richard J. Watts (eds) 1999. Standard English. The widening debate. London: Routledge.

Crowley, Tony 2003. Standard English and the Politics of Language. Second edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Deumert, Ana and Wim Vandenbussche 2003. Germanic Standardizations. Past to Present. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy 1991. Authority in language. Investigating language prescription and standardisation. 2nd edition. London: Blackwell.

Trudgill, Peter and Richard Watts (eds) 2001. Alternative histories of English. London: Routledge.

Wardhaugh, Ronald 1999. Proper English. Myths and Misunderstandings about Language. Oxford: Blackwell.