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 emerging London standard
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).
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.
Changes in late modern 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/
In 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. 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.
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.
For information on grammatical developments of this period and somewhat earlier, click on this link and then consult the sections Change in the verbal area and Change in the nominal area.
The rise of prescriptivism
These came to be associated with social class and social accetability 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 chaos. Frequently this merged with the view that regional varieties of English were to be dismissed as inferior. The basic difficulty which the present-day linguist sees 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.
Writing of grammars
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
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 legacy of the elocutionists can be seen in the concern in British society with pronunciation as a social symbol and a yardstick for determining social acceptance.
Mugglestone, Lynda 2003. ‘Talking Proper’. The rise of accent as social symbol. 2nd edition. Oxford: University Press.
The codification of American English
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
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