BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

29 October 2014
Your Voice

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Language and time by Prof David Crystal
Also on Voices
Received Pronunciation and BBC English
Language ecology
In the beginning...

In Your Area
What do you think about your local accent?
Talk about Voices in your area

Did You Know?
95% of people in Northern Ireland think of themselves as having a moderately strong accent, compared to only 63% of people in the east of England.
Voices poll results

Page 3 of 5
The Middle Ages
Standard English
RP and its successors
The situation today

3. Standard English

During the Middle Ages, the south-east of England - in particular the triangular area with focal points in London, Oxford, and Cambridge - became a region of special social and economic influence. Social change always has linguistic consequences. It was inevitable that the speech of those south-easterners in routine contact with the worlds of courtly culture, commerce, and learning would increase in prestige, and begin to be evaluated as a more polished, elegant, and altogether more desirable medium of communication than the varieties available elsewhere. The stage was set for the emergence of a standard language.

table top
play video Devonshire denigrated

The linguistic climate of a community changes as a standard language grows. When one dialect achieves a special social position, associated with power and prestige, and begins to be described using such terms as 'correct', 'proper', and 'educated', the nonstandard varieties - the regional varieties, in particular - begin to be ridiculed and condemned. But it takes time for this situation to become established, and in Britain the opposition between 'standard' and 'nonstandard' or 'substandard' did not fully manifest itself until the end of the eighteenth century.

There was no inferiority associated with dialect variation in Shakespeare's time. Indeed, there are some famous cases of people achieving the highest positions in society while retaining their regional speech. A contemporary of Walter Raleigh's, the judge Sir Thomas Malet, observed that Raleigh 'spoke broad Devonshire to his dying day'. And when James I of England (and VI of Scotland) and his entourage arrived in London, they brought their Scottish way of talking with them. Nobody dared criticise that - at least, not in public!

The eighteenth century changed everything. It was a century of manners, class, and politeness, and one of the ways in which class distinction was expressed was through language, and especially through the way one spoke. There was a new concern to find the 'rules' governing polite usage, and a climate grew in which writers attempted to formulate them. The second half of the century saw the first big dictionaries (Dr Johnson), grammars (Bishop Lowth), and pronunciation manuals (John Walker), and soon there was a prescriptive era in which the recommendations of such writers were seen as authoritative. Only by following their rules would speakers be perceived to be educated.

At this point, the status of regional dialects and accents went into serious decline. And as the Industrial Revolution increased the class divisions in British society, so further contrasts evolved between the speech of different social groups, with urban and rural dialects becoming increasingly polarized. This was the period which fostered the antagonism towards city accents that is still found today, with urban accents (such as Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow ) still widely abused by people who should know better.

But nobody - and certainly not a few lexicographers, grammarians, and elocutionists - can keep under control the powerful human drive for the expression of social identity. And within a few decades of its arrival, the notion of a 'standard' English, conceived as a uniform mode of linguistic behaviour uniting English speakers everywhere, began to fragment. Johnson, Lowth, Walker and the other prescriptivists were busy inserting the remaining bars into a cage which they thought would keep English under proper control in Britain. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the cage-door was about to be opened by Noah Webster, who was proposing a different set of linguistic norms for American English.

As the eighteenth century reached its close, English had either been established, or was about to be established, in as many as seven regions outside the British Isles and the United States: in the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, South Africa, South Asia, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. In each of these places, English was adopted and then immediately adapted to express the new circumstances and identities of the people. And it would not be long until the birds came home to roost, with fresh patterns of immigration introducing these new accents and dialects back into the mother country.

previous next

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy