Standardisation of English Since Middle English Period up to the Present Day

Standardisation of English Since Middle English

1. Introduction

The dialects of English in the present times can be viewed as the extension of the language areas that was recognised during the Old English period. The segregation of dialects in England can be done on the basis of northern, central and southern regions that have been retained till date. The linguistic study of the English dialects dates back to the 19th century when major rural European dialects were developed. The first person to recognise the English dialectology was Alexander Ellis during the mid-19th century followed by Joseph Wright during the late 19th and early 20th century (Burnley, 2014). Wherein the former personality published a study on English dialects, the latter considered the use of grammar of English language till the start of present century. It was after the survey conducted on English dialects, those researchers focused on studying the rural dialects.

Language is an important part of our lives. It is among the most significant achievements made by the human evolution. Communication is regarded as an influential factor of human existence. Without language communication is not possible. There is no better language than the English language to effectively communicate with varied people having different languages and dialects. English is at present considered as a universal language across the world, in spite of being ranked second to Mandarin Chinese (Svartvik and Leech, 2016). Since ages, English language has been colonised by other non-native speaking nations. They have included English language as their major language and incorporated it in their culture. This creates a myriad of interesting varieties of English language. However, there is an issue when the English language is standardised. When the different varieties of English language is standardised and only one form of language is considered as true and correct, people would face a lot of issues since the entire world uses various forms of English dialect to communicate. The research paper would identify the different attempts made to standardise the English Language since the Middle English period and analyse the factors that undermine the full standardisation of the language.

2. Meaning and Purpose of Standardisation

Prior to discussing the attempts made to standardise the English Language, the paper first explains the meaning of standardisation and why it is important. Standardisation comprises of the processes that determine, codify and stabilise language. Determining language is referred to the decisions related to the selection of specific languages or ranges of language for specific purposes in the country or society that have to be taken. Codification of language is the process wherein a variety of language needs a form that is publicly fixed and recognised. The outcomes of codification are treasured in grammar books and dictionaries. Stabilisation is the process where a previously circulated variety of language undergoes scrutiny and takes on a stabilised and more fixed form (Milroy, 2001).

The purpose of standardisation is concerned with the practical efficacy of the language. The main aim is to use and understand the language in the same manner with increased efficiency and reduced misunderstanding. There are various ways in which language varieties can be standardised:

  • A well-known dictionary having standardised vocabulary and spelling
  • An established grammar
  • A standard pronunciation
  • Constitutional status (known as an official language)
  • A linguistic institution like Real Academia Espanola or Academiefrancaise to define the usage norms
  • A literary canon
  • Effective public use at schools, court and legislature
  • Acceptance and popularity in the society
  • Convenience speaking
  • Population

It is important to standardise a language in order to create a national cohesion i.e. unity among political, cultural and social elements. Language standardisation is viewed as an approach to maintain language and strengthen the cultural integrity. It also contributes to the changing levels of social conflict and linguistic discrimination.

Standardisation of English Since Middle English
Standardisation of English Since Middle English

3. Attempts made to standardise the English Language

Various transformations have been made to standardise the English language since old English period to middle to the present day. During the Middle English Period, the Norman Conquest and its outcome transformed the entire governmental and social structure. It also had an effect on the spellings for several reasons. The most understandable reason is that the use of English language in writing documents was considerably reduced. English was not considered as a dominant language therefore, the standardisation of Anglo-Saxon writing was interrupted in its course of transformation. English was still written, but it was used very less as there were no monasteries or schools to teach the Old English style of writing (Knowles 2014).

After the conquest, many writers were French or trained in French. They had different rules for representing sounds. For instance, letter ‘c’ was used in French to spell ‘s’ sound Latin words. The conquest revolutionised a change in the language which as used as a standard. The royal court as well as the government shifted to London due to which the new pronunciation rules originated from London English. Manuscripts were re-developed using the London dialect and older spelling rules were abandoned in order to replace it with London pronunciations (Upton and Widdowson, 2013).

Written norms were also affected due to the rise of two vital centres of learning i.e. Cambridge and Oxford during the 1300s. These towns had different dialects however it was close to the court and the spelling rules developed in these towns could be applied to writing norms in London dialect. The trio of London-Oxford-Cambridge became one of the most important and largest developing orthographic rules because of the revolving clerical and scholarly workforce.

Printing Press and Information Revolution

The introduction of printing during the late 1400s transformed the rate at which manuscripts were produced and thus distribution and adoption of the written documents on paper made it widespread and cheaper. These factors supported the growth of bureaucracy and record keeping. The rise of London and its responsibility in public institutions made sure that it is an important centre of linguistic standard for the rising economy. Standard written rules dependent upon London English were developed and used even at places where local dialects hardly had an effect by the sounds of the spoken London English (Culpeper, 2015). Documents travelled in greater number than people and therefore the rules of the region are influenced easily than the spoken dialect attributes of the travellers.

Printers had an interest in standardising English language in order to minimise the variations and make the process of printing easier. The printing profession transformed into the profession of publishing where publishers are considered important for setting written standards for English language.

Great Vowel Shift

During the 1500s, there was a great disruption in the pronunciation of the vowels in English language. The Great Vowel Shift spread across the speech community and ripped away the old written forms of long vowels from their varying pronunciations. This resulted in an English language that has a set of letter-to-written vowel notes that is different from everywhere else in Europe. The silent “e’s” used in the spelling system were still prevalent however it was re-purposed as an instrument to indicate the use of long vowels that changed in the Great Vowel Shift. Other sounds were minimised and gradually eliminated like the g’s and the k’s in the old clusters of gn and kn. The result of this was a set of silent letters that was maddening for the learners. Changes in the orthographic rules slowed significantly and there was only a spelling system left in Modern English. Basically, it is a standardized Middle English system (Tuttle, 2015).

Dictionaries and Other Linguistic Reference Materials

The increased use of written language has resulted in the need of materials that offered elements of language in a manner that could be accessed by everyone who required information regarding language. These people comprised of the non-native speakers and also the native speakers who wanted to enquire about the new developments made in the language. The first dictionaries were basically the list of hard words, mainly the loan words from the Classical languages and from the new colonies abroad. During the 18th century, dictionary writing became a recognised activity and scholars were hired by the publishers to write these materials.

The publication of Dictionary of English Language written by Samuel Johnson was a breakthrough in the development of reference materials and dictionary. It adopted a modern descriptive stance. The recognition of change as an evident process and refusal to consider it as degeneration was important and novel. During this time, the spelling system was recognised as current Modern English with a few orthographic fetishes like the use of long S character and spelling of show as shew. Movements encouraging drastic spelling reforms of English language emerged during the 18th century (Crystal, 2013).

Benjamin Franklin developed an alphabetic system that keeps English orthography the same however also introduces single symbols for present digraphs as well as additional symbols for vowel dissimilarities that is not methodically denoted in the writing system. George Bernard Shaw was an ardent advocate of total spelling reform.

Modern trends for standardization

The present orthography represented two main centres of standardisation: American and British English. The British English standard is used throughout the world till date. However there are some nations that have started accepting and teaching American lexical choices and orthography (Wolfram and Schilling, 2015).

4. Factors that Undermine Full Standardisation

Though there have been various standardisation attempts made since Middle English period to current times, however English Language has yet not been completely standardised. This is due to various reasons. Everywhere in Europe, the language academies were set up to codify and standardise the various elements of language. This trend however did not catch on in the native lands of English speaking and there hasn’t been any officially known academy for standardising English language either in the US or in Britain (Hughes, Trudgill and Watt, 2013).

The system made drastic changes in spellings though being rational did not gain much acceptance in the native English lands. Updating the spelling to match its pronunciation resulted in making older documents unintelligible for the ones learning new systems. Moreover, the people who are historically oriented would not prefer updating the history of words having fossil traces of antiquated spellings with the rational and modern spellings.

The rise of electronic communication in form of phone texting and computers has resulted in large number of abbreviatory resolutions. The people who enforced spelling rules like schools and publishers have maintained the present orthographic standards in the written documents. However, since the spelling rules are difficult to obtain due to the spelling-pronunciation mismatches, the technologies have resulted in democratising the writings and increased the use of non-standard spellings. These changes in usage patterns are going to have an effect on the written language. Publishing is an industry that feels endangered by the increased use of electronic publication with the help of Internet. The use of abbreviations and electronic spelling norms would have a huge affect on the publishing documents (Beal, 2014).

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, various attempts have been made to standardise the English language. Language plays an important role in daily communication and English in spite of being ranked second to Mandarin is the largest used language to communicate in spoken or written form. During the Middle English period, there had been a lot of changes in the language, with French being used after the conquest and gradually being transformed in London English. The printing press was another revolution in the standardisation of English language as it helped in publishing written documents that were developed using Modern English and London English. Later in the 18th century, dictionaries gained a lot of importance and resulted in publishing standard dictionaries for spellings. In the present times, two forms of English language are being widely used – one being the British English and the other is American English. Now days, American English is being given more preference. Even though there have been a lot of attempts for standardising English language, however this language cannot be completely standardised. This is because of the varieties of dialects of English language in every region across the world; the demarcation between the British and American English and the rise of technology.


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