English Language
Standardisation of English

Standardisation of English

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The History of Standardised English

The English language has a long and complex history, originating from the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in 5AD. Today, it is the official language in over 50 countries and has numerous variations. Thanks to the process of standardisation, people from different parts of the world can communicate and understand each other in English seamlessly.

However, English was not always a standardised language. Let's take a closer look at its origins.

The Factors that Led to Standardisation

The standardisation of English did not occur overnight, but rather evolved over centuries. Various factors played significant roles in this process. Let's explore them in detail.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, French and Latin became the dominant languages among the upper class, especially in official writing. During the Middle English period (11th-15th century), English had different regional forms and was mostly used for daily communication. These regional variations were evident in both speech and writing, leading to a variety of pronunciations and spellings.

The Influence of the Printing Press

In 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to Britain and published the first book in English. The printing press played a crucial role in standardising the language by normalizing regional variations. Caxton needed to choose one form of English for his printing, which would then be distributed to the population through his books. He opted for the Chancery Standard, based on the dialects of London and the East Midlands. This was the same dialect used by the Chancery in official documents and by Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous novel, The Canterbury Tales (1387).

Although there were still discrepancies in printed texts, the availability of books meant that more people could learn to read and write following the more fixed standards of English. This led to a heightened linguistic awareness and recognition of regional varieties, giving rise to new vocabulary like 'dialect' and 'accent' to describe these differences.

The Role of Dictionaries

Throughout the Middle English period, spelling and vocabulary continued to be standardised. The first English dictionary, Table Alphabeticall, was published in 1604 by Robert Cawdrey. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1755, Samuel Johnson published the Dictionary of the English Language. This extensive work provided detailed definitions of words and included quotes showing how to use them in context. The publication of dictionaries played a pivotal role in standardisation as they helped stabilize spelling and definitions, resulting in the development of the English language as we know it today.

The creation of dictionaries was a crucial factor in influencing the standardisation of the English language.

Defining Standardised English

The term 'standardised English' or 'standard English' refers to the form of the language that is widely recognized and accepted as 'correct'. It follows regularized grammar rules and is commonly used in formal or polite situations. Standard English is evident in all aspects of life, including textbooks, news channels, official documentation, political speeches, and more.

Variations in Standard English

However, 'standard English' does not refer to one specific form of the language. In fact, it varies from country to country. In Britain, the standard variety is British English, while in the US, it is American English. Differences between these standards include variations in vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. For instance, what is known as a 'car park' in the UK is referred to as a 'parking lot' in the US, and 'colour' in the UK is spelled 'color' (without the 'u') in the US. Despite these slight differences, English speakers can still understand the different varieties of the language.

The Characteristics of Standard English

When examining the features of standard English, we focus on four main areas that have become standard norms. These include phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. Let's take a closer look at each one.


Every English-speaking country has its unique accent that is considered the standard form. However, due to globalization and the widespread use of media, accents are becoming more homogenized, leading to a shift in what is considered the standard accent.

The Significance of Standard English in Communication and Education

Standard English, commonly known as the Received Pronunciation Accent (RP) in the United Kingdom, the Standard American Accent in America, and the General Australian Accent in Australia, is the widely accepted and proper form of the language. It is used by official organizations, news channels, and in teaching English as a foreign language.

The Influence of Standard English in Education

During our school years, we are taught the "proper" way to use English through textbooks and teachers. We are given specific rules, such as using the active voice and avoiding double negatives. This perspective of standard English as the "correct" form is known as prescriptivism.

The Impact on Vocabulary and Semantics

Standard English tends to exclude slang and instead favors more formal language derived from French. This can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The adoption of French words during the Middle English period resulted in the language gaining over 10,000 new words. However, with the end of the Norman influence, English once again became the dominant language in writing and literature.

The Uniformity of Spelling

In standard English, there is an expectation to use the "correct" spelling. This standardization is reinforced by dictionaries, which serve as records of the language. Although there are slight variations in standardized spelling across different countries, there are "gatekeepers" of the English language who uphold these standards. Organizations like the Cambridge University Press publish educational materials in standard English, contributing to its preservation.

However, the spelling of modern English remains irregular, making it challenging for both native speakers and new learners. The poem "The Chaos" by Gerard Nolst Trenite, written in 1922, showcases the inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation.

  • "Dearest creature in creation,
  • Studying English pronunciation,
  • I will teach you in my verse,
  • Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
  • I will keep you, Susy, busy,
  • Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
  • Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;
  • Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer."

This poem highlights how inconsistent modern English spelling can be, even when compared to how words are pronounced. It also showcases that words can have the same spelling but different pronunciations, such as "tear in eye" and "dress you'll tear".

The Evolution of English Vocabulary

The standardization of the English language has played a significant role in vocabulary, influenced by external factors such as invasions and events like the establishment of the dictionary. With the introduction of the dictionary, words and their meanings were standardized, helping to create a unified language. Many of these standardized words are still in use today.

The Importance of Standard English in Global Communication

In modern times, the significance of standardization in everyday life is evident. Standard English is used globally for international communication and teaching English as a foreign language. Its consistency and uniformity make it easily teachable and understandable for learners worldwide. Despite the existence of regional dialects, standard English remains a vital tool for communication and education across English-speaking countries.

How English Became Standardised

English is a widely used language, known for its consistent grammar rules and its usage in formal and polite situations. It has four main areas of standardisation: phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. The language has evolved over time, incorporating various influences and gaining global recognition for its stability and consistency.

The standardisation of English was a gradual process, influenced by various factors. One of the key events was the introduction of the printing press in 1476, which played a crucial role in stabilising spelling and grammar by promoting a specific standard of English known as the Chancery standard. Additionally, dictionaries were instrumental in standardising the language by defining and regulating the spelling of words.

When Did English Become Standardised?

The standardisation of English has been an ongoing process for hundreds of years. As such, there is no specific date as to when it became standardised. However, two significant events greatly influenced this process - the introduction of the printing press in 1476 and the establishment of dictionaries in 1604 and 1755.

Why Standardise English?

The standardisation of English ensures its stability and consistency, making it a universal language for international communication. This also makes it easier to teach English as a second language, as standardised English is used in textbooks and learning materials.

What Sets Standard and Standardised English Apart?

Standard English refers to the accepted variety of the language, while standardised English refers to the process through which it became the standard. This process is ongoing as the language continues to be standardised through education and learning materials.

Who Contributed to Standardising the English Language?

The standardisation of the English language cannot be credited to a single person. However, certain individuals have significantly impacted this process. These include William Caxton, who introduced the printing press, Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote during the Middle English period, Robert Cawdrey, who published the first dictionary, and Samuel Johnson, who produced a highly influential dictionary.

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