A Brief History: English Standardization


Hello and welcome to another philology post!

This time I want to talk about the standardization of the English language (and with want I mean; also kinda have to because the exam is nearly upon us :O). I might have mislead you there a tiny bit with the title, because it’s going to be as brief as I can make it (the can depending on what I think is worthy of being in this blogpost). I have based this blogpost mainly on my notes from the lectures & tutorials, and The Stories of English by David Chrystal (if you want to read a book about English standardization, this book is a great start). Any other sources will be mentioned in the text (if online source there will be a link to the website).
I don’t claim to know everything, so if you find a flaw in my work do let me know!


  1. Stages of the English language
  2. English: an etymological multi language
  3. Dialect before standardization
  4. The standardization process
    1. selection
    2. acceptance
    3. diffusion
    4. maintenance
    5. elaboration of function
    6. codification
    7. prescription
  5. English now

Stages of the English language

There are roughly 5 stages of English:

It is not so that one stage ended abruptly and another stage began. There was a period of adjustment between the stages, and during the stages the language changed as well due to exterior and interior influences. During these stages there were a couple of individuals who tried to standardize the English, each one in their own way in their own time period, but no standard was created before the end of the Middle English period (when the standardization process started).
Examples of those who tried to standardize the language are the Late West Saxons (got so far as scribal consistency, and a school in Winchester, but the attempt was brought down by the Norman Invasion in 1066), and Orrm (who wrote Orrmulum around 1200 CE. He created idiosyncratic spelling, and his work was a resource that could help people read out loud by indicating long/short vowels etc).

English: an etymological multi language

Old English was already made up of English and Latin, and during the Middle English period French was added to that list. But, there was another language that had a great influence on the English language (influences that we still see today): Old Norse.
Latin was used for texts about religion, law, and scholarship. French was not only used for texts on religion and law, but was also used in certain social positions, for administrative texts, in politics, high culture, and even cooking.
It was Old Norse that had the most influence on everyday words and grammar even. Examples of those influences are the words ‘they’ and ‘she’ instead of the Old English variation ‘Hie’, ‘Heo’ and ‘Hé’ (this change possibly crept in because it was difficult for the northerners to keep apart all the different forms starting with an h). Another change that was made because of pronunciation is the 3rd person singular present -s. ‘Is’ and ‘are’ were also brought into the English language by Old Norse, as were the words ‘take’ (instead of niman) and ‘give’ (instead of giefan), and the ‘sk’ sound.


(Source: Görlach, Manfred. 2004. Text Types and the History of English. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter).

This is a figure in which you can see the use of Latin, French and English Dialects/English until the 19th century.

Dialect before standardization

Dialects before standardization were all equal in status, there was no prestige or supra-regional variety of one dialect. Most texts are geographically localizable in this period. The dialects themselves occur in regions:

  • Northumbria -> Northern
  • Mercia -> East/west Midlands
  • West Saxon -> Southern
  • Kentish -> South eastern.

There was a part of the country that is now referred to as the East-Midland-Triangle. This triangle was the area around London, Oxford, and Cambridge. Even though this was a wealthy area, the dialect itself wasn’t linguistically superior. Many of the 14th century texts would be written in this dialect.

The standardization process

The standardization process would be one from the bottom up as you will see later in this post. Before this entire process starts, there is one very important reason why English even had a shot of becoming a national language and a standard; war. Because England was at war with France, French became the language of the enemy, because of the war the English aristocracy lost their French estates.

The second half of the 14th century was a very important period for the English language. Parliament opened in English for the first time in 1362, and writers first started to write in English in this period. Chaucer was the first one to make fun of the French language that was used by the Prioress in his Canterbury Tales, Trevisa wrote the Poluchronicon in 1387, and John Wycliffe translated the bible into the English language.

Guilds also started to converse and do business in English before the selection of a standard English. First the London Pepperers guild in 1365.

Selection, Acceptance and Diffusion

During the selection period, the prestige of English as a language changed from low to high. Meaning that from a spoken language, it got a higher influence and was now also used in writing (both formal and informal).

There was a ‘choice’ between 4 different types of English (low to high):

  1. Lollard (John Wycliffe’s followers were called Lollards)
  2. Manuscripts from the greater London Area
  3. Chaucer
  4. Chancery standard

Eventually, it would become the Chancery English that would become the basis of the new standard English. The Chancery was a new civil office that was created due to the increasing administrative load in the 15th century. This office was hierarchical and highly trained with mostly a uniform hand and language (Examples of the Chancery handwriting click here).
The Chancery English even had a royal background, because the writing of Chancery English has features of King Henry V his handwriting. Because there was an hierarchical structure within the Chancery, many apprentices were accepted (more than they actually needed or had room for). When these apprentices went back home after their training, they would unavoidably take the Chancery style with them, and so Chancery English was wide spread (most administrative texts that circulated in England were also in the Chancery hand by that time.

I already mentioned Guild before, and it was in 1422 CE that another guild started to use English for communication (following Henry V): the London Brewers Guild.

Travelling and immigration also resulted in more linguistic contact than there had been in previous centuries. People were able to become socially and geographically mobile.


English was maintained through the invention of the printing press.
William Caxton, who lived in the 15th century, didn’t invent the printing press, but he brought it to England in 1476 CE. (More about Caxton click here).

Elaboration of function

Around the year 1700 CE there came calls for an English academy (that didn’t happen), and a real standard English. English was replacing Latin, but the lexicon, spelling, grammar, and style was still based on Latin.  This classical influence on the English language was from about 1473-1474 CE – about 1650 CE, and during this time the use of the vernacular increased even more. English started to take over the ‘high’ functions that were previously only for Latin or French, and in 1611 CE the King James Bible was published. Not only that; sciences were now written down in English, and glossaries were compiled by translators for all different kinds of texts about architecture, fencing or heraldry for example.

But people thought that the English lexicon was insufficient, and the language was ‘enriched’ using compounders (affixation), archaisers (back to older styles of English) and neologisers (loanwords).

Codification and Prescription

Codification can be seen as a law code, in this case a source of reference that contains the rules of the language. It is in this stage that grammars, dictionaries, and pronunciation guides were created. This codification was (like the increase of the importance of the English language) a movement from below, but in this case the booksellers and publishers had a say in the matter. First, dictionaries were published, followed by the grammars and the pronunciation guides.
In the last stage of standardization, the usage guides were introduced. these were language advice manual and they can be seen as an ‘all in one’ device, containing spelling, vocabulary, grammar, style and pronunciation. These guides also contain usage problems and how one can solve them. These usage guides were  written for a target audience, namely those who were insecure (social climbers, immigrants, or ‘grammarless’) and needed a guide that would give them advice on how to use the language properly.

English now

A mature standard was reached in the eighteenth century, but then the American independence happened, and throughout the last couple of centuries other Englishes were established in former colonies. Today, there’s no longer just one English because English has become the lingua franca, and is used ever more across the world either as a first, second, or foreign language.

This was my brief history of English standardization. Like I said in the introduction; I don’t claim to know everything so if you find a flaw in my work please contact me and I will adjust it! I hope that you’ve learned something from this post, and if not that at least this post has been somewhat interesting. There’s always more to know of course, and I will probably elaborate on this subject in some time, but this is it for now.

Until next time!


2 thoughts on “A Brief History: English Standardization

  1. An excellent review – I enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s worth stressing just how gradual the transitions between the development stages would have been. I’ve dabbled in the development in the German language (dabbled is the operative word). Much the same happened there. Indeed the similarities are striking (obviously the Saxon influence). You haven’t mentioned how ‘English’ evolved north of the Scottish border, in the Kingdom of Strathclyde and elsewhere.
    The very best of luck with your exam – you’ll ace it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I made my exam about an hour ago and I have a pretty good feeling about the result ^^ and you’re right, I haven’t mentioned that in this post. This simply because I haven’t touched the subject of the north of the UK at all in my course, and I didn’t want to risk making a mistake when talking about that subject. Thanks again for your comment and your faith in my ability to pass my exam haha

      Liked by 1 person

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