London Standard English

London Standard English is the speech that came to be used throughout England after the fifteenth century, with occasional regional features interspersed. London had started out with its own dialect in the eleventh century, so local in nature that it differed even from that of Westminster, two miles to the west. By the fifteenth century its dialect had almost merged with all of the other East Midlands dialects, and a century later, it is only with assiduousness that one can find any non-London dialect forms in written texts. It is obvious what has happened. London has grown so important that its speech has become the speech of all England. The first shepherd in the Second Shepherds Play complains that Mak the sheep-stealer affects a "Southern tooth.”[1] Poor shepherd, all of his grandchildren will seem "southern-toothed" to him. By 1589 Puttenham advises that books should be written in the speech "of London and the shires lying about London within 60 myles, and not much above."[2] The use of London English has become a matter for precept as well as automatic habit.

When did this process of standardization occur? Moore states that by 1450 London speech was standard for public documents, and that by 1500 private correspondence shows few non-standard features.[3] Still, Caxton, writing in 1490, complains that the language spoken in one shire varies from that of another so greatly that the most common words may be unintelligible.[4]

However, when Caxton tells his story of the confusion between "eyres” and "egges, " he says that it happened “in my days.” Thus, this incident could have occurred many years back (Caxton was probably born in 1422), and Caxton himself may be unaware how fast the language is standardizing. Yet Wyld claims that even in the sixteenth century Standard English was confined to persons frequenting the Court or directly influenced by it. The various regional dialects, modified by the habits in vogue at Court and in the universities, continued to be spoken by all classes in country districts. Even as late as the eighteenth century many country squires were still speaking regional dialects.[5] Thus, while London speech has by 1500 become current in all English writing, it is still not universally spoken. Since 1500 is the date by which the modern inflectional patterns of English nave been established, it is tempting to choose it also as the date for the establishment of the London Standard. But it would be more circumspect to say only that Modern English had developed by that date, that its London form was generally used for writing, and that its spoken form was the fashionable emerging standard.

Even London speech of the fifteenth century was not itself standardized. Wyld finds two different types of London speech, one with more south-eastern and East Midland forms, and the other with more southern forms.[6] The southern form was used in literary works and by the court, and adopted by others with varying degrees of strictness proportionate to their exposure to the court. However the number of middle and lower class persons who had some degree of learning was a steadily expanding population in the fifteenth century; the lowest gentry, the merchants, and even very prosperous artisans were able to read.[7] The writings of these people show the more eastern forms. Bloomfield claims that this non-upper class speech is the 'dialect' which by the next century developed into Elizabethan Cockney, a speech illustrated in the diary of Henry Machyn.[8] Yet this non-upperclass speech must also have influenced later upper-class speech, which gradually become less southern and more eastern in form. For this reason it seems arbitrary to label only upper-class speech "Standard" as does Wyld,[9] or to dismiss lower class speech to its own and separate development, as does Bloomfield. For at least two centuries more, lower and upper class speech develop in a similar direction, although at different paces. These two speeches are so intertwined in evolution that I think neither without the other can be labeled as the exclusive Standard speech.

What were the regional characteristics of London speech? we have Just seen that in the fifteenth century the population of London was divided between a small group speaking a partially southern speech and a larger group with generally East Midland-south eastern forms. In the earlier centuries of its development, London speech had been, according to Bloomfield, part

Kentish, part southern,[10] but according to Wyld it was southwestern.[11] Certainly this dispute may be merely semantic, since London was near the boundaries of all three districts. Certain London forms, such as the palatalized g (yive, yate) and c (chare for care) are characteristics of both Kentish and Southern speech. By Chaucer's time, London speech was southeast Midland, and by

Caxton's time the Kentish influence bad so far disappeared that Caxton could say that his native Kentish speech was without doubt "as brode and rude Englissh as is in ony place of Englond."[12]

This and the following period brought much immigration from the North, accompanied by such Northern speech forms as a instead of o before nasals,[13] the non-palatalized g, k, and s, and the

plural pronouns “them” and "their. " Caxton and Malory used these new forms of the pronoun as well as the older "hem" and "hir". By 1500, however, "hem" and "hir" had disappeared. From the

North also came the present indicative third person verb ending -es, although the Southern -eth ending remained in conservative texts as late as the translation of the King James Bible in 1611.

Throughout this period change in language was so rapid that Caxton complained in his old age that the English of the time of his writing was far different from that spoken in his youth.

London speech spread quickly throughout England for several reasons. Trevisa, translating Higden's Polychronicon in 1385, writes that "men of myddel Englelond, as it were parteners of the endes, understondeth bettre the side langages, Northerne and Southerne than Northerne and Southerne understondeth either other."[14] Also since London was in the largest and wealthiest region of England, and carried on the most national and European trade of any city, persons from other parts had good reason to visit it. Canterbury, the seat of the English archbishopric, was to the south, and Westminister contained both the royal court and the law courts. Cambridge and Oxford were nearby, although no one has determined what influence their presence had on standard English. Oxford spoke a more southern dialect than London, so whatever influence it had merely retarded prevailing trends.

People have sometimes expected that Chaucer should have fixed and influenced English formations of speech, much as Luther did in Germany. Yet Chaucer wrote a literary, conservative speech, whereas English was becoming a less inflected and less Southern language. His imitators were chiefly other poets, who imitated him in markedly superficial and "stylistic" matters, trying to obtain his musical effects in a language which was changing its rhythm, and attempting to duplicate his romance vocabulary by coining "aureate" neologisms. Obviously Chaucer was considered primarily a great master of rhetoric rather than an advocate of a particular form of language. Robertson and Cassidy quote two phrases, "the first finder of our fair language," and "the well of English undefiled,” to imply that Chaucer has been mistakenly credited with the establishment of standard English.[15] Yet these are statements by Hoccleve and Spenser respectively, and are tributes of disciples to the master from whom they have learned to versify.

Caxton likewise revered Chaucer for embellishing English, with no thought of linguistic consequences. In his preface to Chaucer's translation of the Consolation of Philosophy, he describes Chaucer as "the first foundeur and embelisher of ornate eloquence in englissh…making the sayd langage ornate and fayr. which shall endure perpetually." And in the preface to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Caxton states that Chaucer “for his ornate wryting in our tongue may wel have the name of a laureate poet/ For to fore that he by hys labour embellyshyd / ornated / and made faire our englisshe / in thys Royame was had rude speche.”[16] Caxton was very concerned with the "rudeness" of English, and had tried to introduce Latin rhetorical devices into his writing. It was therefore natural that he should admire Chaucer for doing what he himself wished to do-- speaking with eloquence in an irregular and ill-reputed language. Thus Chaucer's early admirers did not mistakenly credit him with helping to establish standard speech; they praised him only for excellence in the sylistic matters with which they were more concerned.

Early printing in England affected London standard speech in many details. William Caxton printed the first English book in 1475, some twenty years after Johannes Gutenburg had first set moveable type in Mainz, Germany. In this twenty-year interval, 30 presses had been established in eight continental countries, before Caxton, a wealthy retired Kentish merchant under the patronage of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, set up his own press at Bruges (Brussels). He began to translate the Recuyell of Histories Troye in 1468, but put down his project in discouragement at his inability either to translate French or to write English with sufficient correctness. However his patroness oversaw and corrected the first portion of his work, and commanded him to continue. It was published in 1475, followed shortly afterwards by The Game and Playe of the Chess.

At this time Margaret suffered reverses and was no longer able to support Caxton, so in 1476 he returned to England and set up his press at Westminster. Hereafter instead of one patroness whose English usage governed his, Caxton had in general a different patron for each book, and took his works to different noblemen and women for correction. Through this means the idiosyncracies and inconsistencies of titled individuals may well be preserved for us in Caxton's books.

In fifteen years Caxton is known to have printed 100 books, and he may have printed others also. In 1477 he brought out Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, Lydgate's Temple of Glass, two editions of The Horse the Sheep and the Goose, and The Churl and the Bird. The next year he printed three small works by Chaucer, The Consolation of Philosophy, Anelida and Arcite, and The Parliament of Fowles. Some of Caxton's publications were small projects, others were arduous and ambitious labors. In 1477 he published The History of Jason, and in 1478 the first of two editions of the Canterbury Tales, 372 pages in folio. In the next decade he re-translated into current English Trevisa’s translation of Higden's Polychronicon, printed the Confessio Amantis and Le Morte d'Arthur, and brought out his most popular book, The Golden Legend, his translation of a thirteenth century French romance. He also claimed to have translated the Metamorphoses, but no copy remains.

Other presses were established at Oxford and St. Albans, but these at first printed only in Latin. The first printer to locate in London was Jean Lettou, who published Latin legal texts. It was not until 1483 that his former assistant, William de Machlinia produced the first book in English to be printed in London. When Caxton died in 1491, his materials passed to his assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, who published continuously until his own death in 1534. It was Machlinia's assistant, Richard Pynson, however, who of all Caxton's successors printed the most illustrious books, including Lydgate's Fall of Princes, of 1494, Mandeville's Travels in 1496, and Barclay's translation of the Ship of Fools in 1509.

All of these early printers were of foreign extraction except Caxton, who had spent several years on the continent. Their non-English spellings naturally influenced early English orthography. Caxton, for example, used the Flemish gh spelling for the non-palatalized g, and is one of the sources of our spelling of "ghost." The French "gue" and 1”que” endings were easily transferred to English, so that the words which Chaucer spelled "tonge and "prologe" continue as "tongue” and "prologue” to the present. Many words temporarily acquired these spellings, but have since dropped them, as in "musique” and "publique.” Even "dogue" ( “dog”) had a brief existence.[17]

Not only were many early printers foreign, but for awhile much of the printing of books in English was done on the continent. Caxton himself had first published in Bruges, and after his death many English books were printed in Holland. Also some of the translations into English were done by non- Englishmen, and some of these were so bad as to be scarcely readable. The printing of Tyndale's New Testament at Worms in 1525 marked the beginning of English Reformation expatriate literature. After this time foreign presses printing in English were kept busy with polemical texts, and all English literary works were published in England.

Even when not introducing foreign spellings, printers tended to fix arbitrary spelling conventions. They carefully indicated long and short vowels--a short vowel must be followed by two consonants before the next vowel, a long vowel must be followed by only one consonant before another vowel, or be indicated by a double letter--at a time when distinctions of quantity were beginning to disappear from the language. It is unfortunate that printers were so careful in recording vowel quantity while neglecting to record more important distinctions of quality. At the same time that the great vowel shift was changing the sound of every stressed vowel in the language, printers went to medieval manuscripts as spelling guides, thereby preserving the spellings for sounds no longer spoken, and transcribing the historical, rather than the current pronunciations of words. As different groups of letters, each for its own reason, came to have the same sound, homonyms developed. "Muse", with the rounded u [ü]directly from the French, had the same sound as "mewes", the plural of the noun for a particular sea-bird. "Made" came to have the same sound as “maid”, but preserved its old spelling. The final e was fixed in spelling, as well as silent l before k and other consonants, as in "yolk", ''folk", and "would. " G or k before n, as in "gnat" and "knight" are spellings forever with us, as well as gh before t, which in the medieval period had indicated a gutteral Germanic [ɣ] as in "mighte, 11 "nighte."

Thus printing spread formal London speech, and accelerated the development of a uniform national language, Yet at the same time, in the century in which the English language was changing perhaps more than at any other time in its development, printing calcified the graphic representation of words, and preserved until the present medieval methods of transcribing medieval sounds.

In the fifteenth century, when English was undergoing the last series of violent grammatical, syntactical, inflectional, and phonological changes rendering it into its modern form, some mixture of the court and common speech of London became almost completely established as England's standard formal speech. Yet since there are no laws for defining "standard" speech, researchers can only report in generalities when London Standard speech appeared and what were its linguistic and social delimitations. Finally, one of the factors hastening the establishment of a common speech throughout England, printing, also introduced foreign spellings and fixed medieval characteristics in the language.

[1] The first manuscripts of the Towneley Cycle date from the fifteenth century.

[2] Albert Baugh, History of the English Language (New York, 1957), p. 235.

[3] Samuel Moore, rev. Albert Marckwardt, A Historical Outline of English Sound and Inflections (Ann Arbor, 1965), p. 130.

[4] Rolf Kaiser, Medieval English An Old English and Middle English Anthology (Berlin, 1951), p. 567.

[5] Henry Cecil Wyld, A History of Modern Colloquial English (Oxford, 1953), p. 103.

[6] Op. cit., 84.

[7]  Schlauch, Margaret, The English Language in Modern Times (since 1400) (Warsaw, 1959), p. 39.

[8] Bloomfield, Morton W. and Leonard Newmark, A Linguistic Introduction to the History of English (New York, 1963), p. 218.

[9] Op. cit., p. 103.

[10] Bloomfield and Newmark, op. cit., p. 216.

[11] Wyld, op. cit., p. 49.

[12] Kaiser,  Middle English, p. 564.

[13] Schlauch, The English Language, p.46. In Moore, o before nasals is considered an exclusively West Midland form, but Schlauch must consider that it is general Southern and Midland. Caxton, whose speech is certainly not West Midland, used o before nasals extensively, as in the preceding quote.

[14] Baugh, History of the English Language p. 232

[15] Stuart Robertson and Frederick Cassidy, The Development of Modern English (Englewood Cliffs N. J., 1963) p. 50.

[16] 16 Kaiser, Medieval English, p. 566.

[17] 17 George H. McKnight, Modern English in the Making (New York, 1920), p. 61.