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Review of  The Development of Standard English

Reviewer: Lamont D. Antieau
Book Title: The Development of Standard English
Book Author: Laura Wright
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.697

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Laura Wright (ed), (2000) The Development of Standard
English, 1300-1800: Theories, Descriptions, Conflicts.
Cambridge University Press, 236 pp.

Reviewed by Lamont Antieau, University of Georgia

A collection of papers first presented at the International
Conference on the Standardisation of English in 1997, this
book examines the development of Standard English from a
variety of perspectives. Although earlier works would have
you believe that the case of the rise of Standard English has
been solved, Laura Wright shows in the introduction of this
book that some of these accounts are rather contradictory and,
on the whole, not very satisfying. In reopening the case of
the rise of Standard English, the book offers 12 papers
written by various scholars, particularly those working in
historical and sociolinguistics. The papers are divided into
two sections of six papers each. The first part is entitled
"Theory and methodology: approaches to studying the
standardisation of English" and deals with the evolution of
the Standard English ideology. The second part is entitled
"Processes of the standardisation of English" and focuses on
ways of investigating the spread of Standard English.

Part one
1. Historical description and the ideology of the standard
language (Jim Milroy)
In trying to look at language as scientifically as possible,
linguists typically try to avoid popular notions of
"correctness." In this article, however, Milroy shows how
scholars working in practically all areas of linguistics have
been affected by the ideology of Standard English to some
degree - from the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th and 19th
centuries to linguists currently working within historical,
generative, and even variationist frameworks. For historical
linguists, this problem is created by the standardization of
texts by editors who are influenced by what they think texts
should have looked like. In doing so they create the illusion
of a more homogenous language than the raw data would actually
suggest. Linguists working within the generativist framework
are affected by the ideology in their dependence on their own
idiolects for data, idiolects that have undoubtedly been
affected by Standard English at some point in their academic
careers. Variationists are also influenced by the ideology of
the standard, particularly those who propose that prestige is
one of the primary motivations for linguistic change as
speakers consciously adopt features used by speakers of the
upper socioeconomic classes. Milroy suggests that
variationists might focus on the avoidance of stigmatized
forms as motivation for language change rather than
continuing the current emphasis on prestige.

2. Mythical strands in the ideology of prescriptivism (Richard
J. Watts)
Watts describes the standardization of English as the byproduct
of a number of myths that have been created and perpetuated
concerning the English language. One of these myths, for
example, is the "language and nationality myth," which is the
use of standardized language to create the illusion of cultural
homogeneity within a nation. As Watts points out, one of the
interesting things about these myths is the paradoxes created
by their interaction. For instance, in opposition to the
"language and nationality myth," the "language variety myth"
proclaims the virtue of English based on the great dialectal
variety that it allows. It is these myths, and the
interaction between them, Watts argues, that form the
foundation for the ideology of prescriptivism that began its
rise in the early 18th century.

3. Rats, bats, sparrows and dogs: biology, linguistics and
the nature of Standard English (Jonathan Hope)
In this article, Hope argues that in historical linguistics
the family-tree model has gone from being a useful metaphorical
device to an inflexible model that shapes how linguists look at
their data. The effect this has had on the study of individual
languages has been the tendency for scholars to postulate a
single dialect as the ancestors of languages, in contrast to the
multiple dialects one might expect to find, the study of which
would better explain, for instance, "the hybrid nature of
Standard English" (49). Rejecting the notion of a single
ancestor does more than merely allow the construction of an
alternative model of the standardization process of English, but
allows for the redefinition of what is meant by the term

4. Salience, stigma and standard (Raymond Hickey)
Salience is one of many words used in linguistics that are
seldom defined in a very rigorous manner. This article
discusses salience as evidenced by linguistic stereotyping and
ridicule, particularly with respect to Irish English. Hickey
also discusses a number of phenomena that trigger salience,
including homophonic mergers, deletion and insertion, and
grammatical restructuring, as well as possible reactions to
salience, including hypercorrection, phonological and lexical
replacement, and the use of salient features for local
flavoring. Hickey observes that salient features originate
from language-internal causes, but quickly take on
sociolinguistic value as they become part of colloquial
registers in a locale, sometimes developing into stereotypes
that others incorporate into their models of speech for a

5. The ideology of the standard and the development of
Extraterritorial Englishes (Gabriella Mazzon)
During the time of the English colonization of America,
Australia, and New Zealand, prescriptivism was very much in
vogue in England. In this article, Mazzon examines the effect
that prescriptivism had on these new varieties of English. One
result was that the new varieties, when finally recognized as
varieties in their own right, were compared to the standard by
speakers in England. Eventually British English speakers
developed an attitude of linguistic superiority over colonial
speakers, reinforcing the attitudes of linguistic insecurity
that existed in the colony. Mazzon also finds that linguists
have in some cases made comments that have actually perpetuated
this notion of the inferiority of Extraterritorial Englishes.

6. Metropolitan values: migration, mobility and cultural
norms, London 1100-1700 (Derek Keene)
In this paper, Keene examines the historical evidence of London
and its effect on the rest of England, including such things
as records of migration into the city and records of debt to
Londoners. In order to determine the influence and power of
Londoners, Keene look at how decisions made in London on such
things as measurement standards impacted all of England.
Showing the complexity of relevant cultural patterns that have
been simplified in previous discussions of the development of
Standard English, Keene argues that explanation of linguistic
change should not only take into account the social, political
and economic forces that potentially motivated those changes,
but also the political agendas of the historians documenting
those forces. Although he leaves it largely to linguists to
explain how language change results from these patterns, Keene
proposes that historians and linguists should work together to
find answers to questions such as those dealing with

Part two
7. Standardisation and the languages of the early statutes
(Matti Rissanen)
Rissanen examines The Statutes of the Realm for evidence of
standardization of English in the 15th century. Opting to focus
on features besides spelling conventions found in these texts,
Rissanen focuses on the distribution of shall and will, the
occurrence of multiple negation and compound adverbs, and the
use of provided (that). By doing so, Rissanen finds that the
language of the early statutes provides a great deal of evidence
0in the standardization of English, particularly noting that
these features occur in the Statutes long before they turn up in
the standard elsewhere.

8. Scientific language and spelling standardisation 1375-1550
(Irma Taavitsainen)
Taavitsainen compares spelling in scientific writings during
the period of 1375 to 1550 to various Central Midlands text
types, particularly with respect to the words such, much and
any. Taavitsainen explains the differing patterns of adopting
standard features in each of the text types as the result of
conflicting forces due to the prestige held by scientific
writings, making the spread of standard features in these
writings slower than in other text types.

9. Change from above or below? Mapping the loci of linguistic
change in the history of Scottish English (Anneli Meurman-Solin)
Meurman-Solin uses the Helsinki Corpus of Scots and the Corpus
of Scottish Correspondence to investigate whether linguistic
change occurs as the result of conscious decisions to emulate
the speech of the upper classes or as the result of unconscious
decisions that develop in the lower classes. The data Meurman-
Solin examines suggests that the standardization of English in
Scotland proceeded without the pressure from above that existed
in England. Furthermore, the data shows that among some texts
there is a movement toward Standard Scottish English, while in
others the movement is toward Standard English.

10. Adjective comparison and standardisation processes in
American and British English from 1620 to the present (Merja
Kyto and Suzanne Romaine)
Kyto and Romaine use the Corpus of Early American English and
the ARCHER corpus to examine diachronic variation with respect
to the earlier use of inflectional comparative adjectives (e.g.
faster), the more recent periphrastic comparatives (e.g. more
fast) and the use of the double comparative (e.g. more faster),
which occurs less frequently than the other two construction
types and is considered a nonstandard feature of English. The
periphrastic comparative was a linguistic innovation that went
along with the trend of English as it moved from an inflectional
language during the Old English period to a more analytic one.
While in some places the periphrastic form almost totally
eliminated the use of the older inflectional form, in other
places there was a gradual "comeback" of the older forms. The
set of data Kyto and Romaine examines shows that speakers of
British English were at the forefront of this change with
American English speakers not reincorporating the inflectional
construction until later.

11. The Spectator, the politics of social networks, and
language standardisation in eighteenth-century England (Susan
In this paper, Fitzmaurice discusses the influence of the
English periodical The Spectator on the prescriptive
grammarians of the 18th century. Examining such evidence as
the citations of the periodical in works such as the Dictionary
of English Normative Grammar, as well as grammatical rules
issued by The Spectator and later adopted by prescriptive
grammarians, Fitzmaurice finds that The Spectator served as a
model of language for the prescriptivists, not because of its
linguistic purity, but because of its extreme popularity among
literate, middle-class Englanders.

12. A branching path: low vowel lengthening and its friends
in the emerging standard (Roger Lass)
In this paper, Lass traces the development of /a:/ in English,
as well as the evolution of its status among grammarians from
description to evaluation. Examining the work of various
grammarians dating back to the middle of the 16th century, Lass
traces the development of /a:/ in English, as well as the
evolution of its status from what in Labovian terms would be
an "indicator" to a "marker" or even a "stereotype." This
negative evaluation caused the use of /a:/ to recede for awhile,
although later it began to spread once again. Lass notes that
the interesting thing about this linguistic change is not only
the two reversals of spread and recession, but the long amount
of time the change took to complete.

This book is a well-written and well-organized examination of
a topic that does not get the attention that it deserves.
Perhaps the greatest contribution the book makes is in the
length to which it goes beyond spelling to look at other aspects
of language, particularly morphology and the lexicon. Another
impressive feature of the book is the great variety of methods
used by its authors, including the examination of historical
corpora, grammar books, scientific texts, and legal documents.
The variety not only kept this reader interested in the subject,
but gave me many ideas of how to go about conducting my own

One thing the book does not address much that would have been
interesting is how other languages may have helped shape
Standard English, either through immigration or external
pressures. French, for example, is rarely mentioned in the
book, though one might suspect that French had some part to
play in the standardization of the language during the period
under investigation. However, answering the question of the
influence of foreign languages on the standardization of English
might very well be a book in its own right. Nevertheless, this
book performs a valuable service by questioning earlier
assumptions about the topic and using new methods to look for
alternative answers.

The reviewer: Lamont Antieau is a Ph.D. student at the
University of Georgia, where he teaches introductory linguistics
and English composition. His research interests are in
dialectology, corpus linguistics, pidgins and creoles, and


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