Modern English dialects

The London standard
Chancery practice

HISTORICAL OUTLINE 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 dark /ɫ/ in the south versus a clear /l/ in the north. 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 east. The latter show ‘initial softening’ as in single, father, think with the voiced initial sounds /z-, v-, ð/ respectively.

The rise of the 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.


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.