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The Middle Ages
RP and its successors
The situation today
2. The Middle Ages
A new era of multilingualism and multidialectism dawned in the Middle Ages. As a result of the Norman invasion, England became a nation in which Latin, French, and English coexisted.
Educated people were trilingual as a matter of course. English would have been their mother-tongue. They would have learned Latin as the required language of the Church, the Roman Classics, most scholarship, and some politico-legal matters. And they would have found French essential - both for routine administrative communication within Britain and in order to be considered fashionable throughout Western European society.
As the Middle Ages progressed, we find English gradually making inroads into domains of discourse which had previously been the prerogative of Latin or French. By the sixteenth century, trilingualism was restricted to a specialized, chiefly legal elite. But even in Shakespeare's time and beyond, it was routine to speak Latin in school. And London was already a multilingual city, containing many speakers of Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and other languages.
The Middle Ages was also a period of significant population growth. Dialects and accents exist to express identity, and as a population grows and spreads, so regional variations proliferate. Thanks to the preservation of written materials, we can see a noticeable increase in the range of dialects during the period, but the names scholars have given to the dialects are not exactly the same as those recognized in Anglo-Saxon times.
Northumbrian is called Northern, and distinguished from the very different developments taking place in Scotland, where Scottish English was becoming one of the language's most distinctive forms.
West Saxon is called South-Western, or Southern.
Kentish is usually referred to as South-Eastern.
The old Mercian dialect area splits into two distinct regions, called East Midlands and West Midlands, the dividing line broadly following the path of the southern Pennines and the Cotswold Hills. An East Anglian area is sometimes separately distinguished.
The East Midlands - taking this to include the London area - proves to be of special significance for the later history of English, as it is the region which had greatest influence on the evolution of the standard language.
The most noticeable dialect differences in Middle English, as we would expect, are those between the parts of Britain furthest away from each other - the north and the south. And it is this difference which is represented in the very first 'dialect story', in which characters are represented as coming from different parts of the country. This is in one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
The various characters in the Tales come from all walks of life and regional backgrounds, but in only one story do they talk as if they do - in The Reeve's Tale, where two students from the north of England, speaking a northern dialect, defeat the trickery of a miller from Cambridgeshire, who speaks southern.
The period in which Chaucer wrote (Middle English) illustrates an age when all accents and dialects were equal. The written language permitted the use of a wide range of variant forms, each of which was acceptable. One person may not have liked the way other people spoke or wrote - that is a character-note for the human race - but there was no suggestion that they were somehow 'incorrect' as a result of doing so. Middle English is the only period in the history of English when we can see regional variation reflected in the written language so widely and so unselfconsciously.