Development of Standard English in Fourteenth century

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       The Rise of Standard English: Out of the variety of local dialects there emerged towards the end of the fourteenth century a written language that in the course of the fifteenth won general recognition and has since become the recognised standard in both speech and writing. The part of England that contributed most to the formation of this standard was the East Midland district, and it was the East Midland type of English that became its basis, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London. To the attainment of this result several causes contributed.

The importance of London English: By far the most influential factor in the rise of the Standard English was the importance of London as the capital of England.
Standard English Writing


      In the first place, as a Midland dialect the English of this region occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south. It was less conservative than the Southern dialect, less radical than the Northern. In its sounds and inflections it represents a kind of compromise, sharing some of the characteristics of both its neighbours. Its intermediate position was recognised in the fourteenth century by Trevisa, the translator of numerous Latin works. In a well known passage in his version of Higden's Polychronicon (C. 1385) he wrote:

 "for men of pe east wip men of pe west, as it were vnder pe same partie of heuence. acordip more in sownynge of spcche pan men. of pe norp wip men of pe soup perfore it is pat Marcii, pat peep men of menddel Engelond, as it were partners of pe endes, vnder stondip better pe side languages, Norperne and Souperne, pan Norperne and Souperne vender-stondip eiper oper."


      In the second place, the East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect area. The land was more valuable than the hilly country to the North and West, and in an agricultural age this advantage was reflected in both the Number and the prosperity of the inhabitants. As Maitland remarks, "If we leave Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk out of account we are to all appearances leaving out of account not much less than a quarter of the whole nation... No doubt all inferences drawn from mediaeval statistics are exceedingly precarious, but, unless a good many figures have conspired to deceive us, Lincolnshire z, Norfolk and Suffolk were at the conquest and for three centuries afterwards vastly richer and more populous than any tract of equal area in the West." Only the southern countries possessed natural advantages at all comparable, and the East Midlands generally in political affairs all through the latter Middle Ages is but another evidence of the importance of the district and of the extent to which its influence was likely to be felt.


      A third factor, more difficult to evaluate, was the presence of the universities, Oxford and Cambridge, in this region. In the fourteenth century the monasteries were playing a less important role in the dissemination of learning than they had once played, while the two universities had developed into important intellectual centres. So far as Cambridge is concerned any influence which it had would be exerted in support of the East Midland dialect. That of Oxford is less certain since Oxfordshire is on the border between Midland and Southern, and its dialect shows certain characteristic southern features. Moreover, we can no longer attribute Wycliffe an important part in the establishment of a written standard. Though he spent much of his life at Oxford, he seems to have conformed fully to the Oxford dialect. All we can say is that the dialect of Oxford had no apparent influence on the form of London English, which was ultimately adopted as standard. Such support as the East Midland type of English received from the universities must have been largely confined to that furnished by Cambridge.


      Much the same uncertainty attaches to the influence of Chaucer. It was once thought that Chaucer's importance was permanent among the influences bringing about the adoption of a written standard. And indeed, it is unbelievable that the language of the greatest English poet before Shakespeare was not spread by the popularity of his works and through the use of that language by subsequent poets who looked upon him as their master and model. But it is nevertheless unlikely that the English used in official records and in letters and paper by men of affairs; was greatly influenced by the language of his poetry. Yet it is the language found in such documents rather than the language of Chaucer that is at the basis of standard English. Chaucer's dialect is not in all respects the same as the language of these documents, presumably identical with the ordinary speech of the city. It is slightly more conservative and shows a greater number of southern characteristics. Chaucer was a court poet and his usage may reflect the speech of the court and to a certain extent literary tradition. His influence must be thought of as lending support in a general way to the dialect of the region to which he belonged rather than as determining the precise form which standard English was to take the century following his death.


      The importance of London English: By far the most influential factor in the rise of the Standard English was the importance of London as the capital of England. Indeed, it is altogether likely that the language of the city would have become the prevailing dialect without the help of any of the factors previously discussed. In doing so it would have been following the course of other national tongues - French as the dialect of Paris, Spanish as that of Castile, etc. London was, and still is, the political: and commercial centre of England. It was the seat of the court, of the; highest judicial tribunals, the focus of the social and intellectual activities of the country. To it were drawn in a constant stream those whose affairs took them beyond the limits of their provincial homes. They brought to it traits of their local speech, there to mingle with the London idiom and to survive or die as the silent forces of amalgamation and standardization determined. They took back with them the forms and usages of great city by which their own speech had been modified. The influence was reciprocal. London English took as well as gave. It began as a Southern and ended as a Midland dialect. By the fifteenth century there had come to prevail in the East Midlands a fairly uniform dialect and the Language of London agrees in all important respects with it. We can hardly doubt that the importance of the Eastern countries, pointed out above, is largely responsible for this charge. Ever such northern characteristics as are found in the standard speech seem to have entered by way of these countries. The history of Standard English is almost a history of London English.

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