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“Middle English – The newly arising standard until the 15th century”

English is the most spoken language all over the world and you can find it almost everywhere in daily life. But even the dominant English language had to undergo remarkable changes in the past before it became the language as it is read and spoken today. It is the process of standardization that is highly responsible for today’s variation of English and you can find the beginnings of its development in the Middle English period.

In the text “The Development of Standard Englishes” by Manfred Görlach, published in 1990, I focussed on the third chapter which deals with the linguistic changes during the Middle English period, lasting from ca. 1100 until ca. 1500. During that time first steps were made to get a universal standard of the English language while it was or had already been influenced heavily by other languages like French, Latin and Scandinavian languages. Therefore this chapter is most interesting to look at for understanding which events exactly gave the impulse for the development of standardization.

Görlach puts the historical events and linguistic changes resulting from those in chronological order so that they base on each other in a coherent way. He starts with the very beginning of the Middle English period, saying that by 1066 the spoken and written language had already drifted apart in England because of the increasing numbers of spelling mistakes. The problem at that time was that a “widespread syncretism had taken place” in speech, leading to a further loss of typical Old English inflection in the following centuries. Another problem was that there were no binding written norms in England and contemporary authors as well as copyists wrote in the regional dialect they were most familiar with. This led to the use of individual mixtures of local writing conventions and personal linguistic habits. At that time you really couldn’t talk about a standard in English yet.

The first remarkable beginnings of standardization took place from the 14th century onwards. Important factors for the development of the standard were the reduction of the use of French, which had been dominant in areas like e.g. court cases and education, the rise of London after the Black Death, a devastating plague which led to an increased immigration into wedged out London, and the spread of translations of religious writings into the common tongue of those days. Görlach also lists the four leading varieties in Middle English: koiné (central Midland dialects), the traditional dialect of London and its surroundings, a strong admixture of London’s dialect and Midland elements (used by e.g. Chaucer) and the chancery standard (used in many official documents after 1430 when French was abandoned as the language of administration). So London got a major role in the process of standardization since it lies “where the boundaries between the Midland, western and south-eastern dialects are assumed to meet” , especially because of the mass immigrations after the Black Death.

During the Middle English period aboriginal writing traditions deriving from Old English merged with French conventions which led to a few improvements of English. But there was still a greater variability in spoken English rather than in written English, even if the mixing of dialects in London, caused through the mass immigrations, had laid the early foundations for the later preferred prestige pronunciation. Regarding morphology and syntax, most inflectional morphemes had disappeared by 1400 and the “means of expressing complicated syntactic patterns were not sufficiently well developed” .

Görlach puts an emphasis to the relevance of the mixed vocabulary caused by the high proportion of borrowings during the Middle English period. French or Latin synonyms of an English word often enjoyed greater prestige and there was also some vocabulary of Scandinavian origin, deriving from the language mixing that had taken place in the Danelaw in the 10th century. A lexical loss found in 15th century sources was led by sociolectal levelling and the merging of heteronyms from different dialects. Those lexical gaps had to be filled so that English could cope with its new referential and stylistic functions.

The last topic Görlach mentions in this chapter is, eventually, the spread of standard which already began to be established step by step. There were some factors that led to the development of the new standard and its rapid spread in the whole of England, like the economic power of London, the emergence of a new bourgeois class of readers and the growing awareness of the value and possibilities of the mother tongue, which was increasingly the only available written language for everyone. Furthermore, a supraregional literary language found a fairly paved way being established through Caxton’s printing press, invented in 1476.

So, the foundations for the establishment of a standard in England were laid and in the following centuries the interest in a standard of English grew bigger as Görlach continues in the following pages of his work. There he goes further in describing in how far the process of standardization in England took place but in my review, as just said, I want to concentrate on the very beginnings of the development and rate the way Görlach depicts the historical facts and linguistic changes.

All in all Görlach reduces his descriptions to the most important facts and events of England’s history which influenced the process of a standard so that the reader doesn’t get lost in a flood of technical terms and dates. His English is understandable even for non-native speakers, but the reader should already have some basic knowledge of a few linguistic terms and dates because Görlach does not explain every single item and concept in great detail. He pares down his statements to the minimum but not that much that you get the sense of something very important is missing. Nonetheless I had to look up a few linguistic terms which were not that present to me anymore or which I have never heard before. That interrupted the flow in reading but if you postpone consulting those terms after you read the whole text and then reread the difficult passages the flow won’t be disturbed. The form of the text is very clear and you can find some pictures and graphics on numerous pages that illustrate the described terms and concepts.

The chapter or even the whole work is good for getting an overview about the most important factors of the process of standardization but if you want to get to know every single term which led to phonological and morphological changes you should read a book which focuses on one special period in England’s linguistic history, or describes everything very detailed. It is a work for interested parties like students of the English language or if you are just at the beginning of an English linguist education, but it is not so useful for already skilled linguists.

Görlach, Manfred. “The Development of Standard Englishes” in: Manfred Görlach. “Studies in the History of the English Language”. Heidelberg 1990:9-64.