Standardization of the English Language

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  • Topic: English language, Middle English, Modern English
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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Standardization of the English Language

There are several important events before 1500 that when listed together show a series of steps in the struggle for English language supremacy. These steps are mainly governmental, legal and official events that pushed English usage. In 1356 The Sheriff's Court in London and Middlesex were conducted in English for the first time. When Parliament opened in 1362 the Statute of Pleading was issued declaring English as a language of the courts as well as of Parliament, but it was not until 1413 that English became the official language of the courts everywhere. Thirteen years later in 1423, Parliament records start being written in English. 1400 marks date that English is used in writing wills, a seemingly small step, but one that impacted many people and began a legacy of record keeping in English. In 1450 English became the language used in  writing town laws and finally 1489 saw all statutes written in English. But it was not until 1649 that English became the language of legal documents in place of Latin.

The formal rules intended to keep the use of French in official capacities were not enough to combat the effects of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War between France and England, which both contributed greatly to the rise of English and fall of French. By the fourteenth century, English was again known by most people, although French was not forgotten, and the people who spoke French were generally bilingual. The  Statute of Pleading made it law that English and not French would be used in the courts. However, it needs to be emphasized that at the end of this statement, it says that after the pleadings, debates, etc. in English were finished, they should be entered and enrolled in Latin. English became the official language of the court in 1413, but French was permitted until the eighteenth century.

More than the official bureaucratic changes in rules and law were the changes in the use of the language by the everyday speakers. The changes that distinguish Early Modern English from Middle English are substantial. The rules for spelling were set down for the first time. The key is the new consistency used by teachers, printers and eventually by the general populace. The sign of maturity for English was the agreement on one set of rules replacing the spelling free- for-all that had existed.

Out of the variety of  local dialects there emerged toward the end of the fourteenth century a written language that in course of the fifteenth century won general recognition and has since become the recognized standard in speech and writing. The part of England that contributed most to the formation of this standard was the East Midland type of English that became itst basis, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London. East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect areas. There were also two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. In the fourteenth century the monasteries were playing a less important role in the spread of learning than they had once played, while the two universities had developed into important intellectual centers. So far as Cmbridge is concerned any ist influence was exerted in support of the East Midland dialect. That of Oxford is less certain because Oxfordshire was on the border between Midland and Southern and its dialect shows certain characteristic Southern features.

Written London English of the close of the fourteenth century as used by a number of Middle English authors, such as John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer, had not achieved
the status of a regional standard but was soon to become the basis for a new national literary standard of English. It was the language of the capital. Geographically, it occupied a position midway between the extreme North and the extreme South. Already by 1430, this new standard had assumed a relatively mature form. It was spread throughout England by professional clerks in the...
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