The origins of the notion of "Standard English”

Martin Davies, Stirling

If we ask what the origins of "English” are, the answers will be found in the textbooks and are well known. If we ask what the origins of "standard English” are, with one or with two initial capital letters, the textbooks have no answer. If we ask what "standard English” is, and consult The Oxford Companion to the English Language, its editor, Dr. Tom McArthur, wrote the relevant article and begins: Standard English is "a widely used term that resists easy definition but is used as if educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to”, using what for me is the key word, "educated” in his characterisation of the phenomenon.

And it appears to have no origins not because it sprang fully armed from the head of Athene or arose from the sea like Venus but because, as a language, it doesn't actually exist. As Quirk said many years ago (in The Use of English), it is not a variety of English: it is not a dialect, and it is not a register of English. Standard English exists "as an ideal”; and he adds, like all ideals, it is "imperfectly realised”. I take this to imply that it only exists as an ideal. Like all languages, the semantic, formal and phonological paradigms of English can be described, but to do this they have to be abstracted from text, and so it is, firstly, abstract, and second, distinct from text. Language is to text as system is to product. And it is this abstract system which may or may not be "standard”, if anything is. Texts such as the present one, may then be, entirely or partially, "in” standard English, but they are not themselves English, in the sense 'the English language'. "English”, in the sense 'the English language', is the term for the system, not the products. But this is the system of English, not of standard English. We know it is English because in the first instance it was what came to be called "English”, in the 9th century, and for many centuries it was spoken and only spoken in England. Wales the Isle of Man and Cornwall spoke their own languages; Scotland was differently defined geographically, and the distribution of Gaelic and Northern forms of English fluctuated over the centuries, but centrally English was spoken by the English, in England. Its identification was a combination of geography and language. But the identification of Standard English is not so easy.

Raymond Williams, in The Long Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 1961), has a chapter called "The growth of 'Standard English'”, in which he gives much the same account of its development as I shall give, but dates its beginning earlier than I do. I wrote much of what follows before seeing his work, and find that, like me, he gives little evidence for his views, and he does not relate his work to the sociolinguistic work I shall cite, since it had not then been done. More importantly for my purposes, he does not distinguish between standard English and the idea of standard English; nor does he distinguish between language and text. And moreover, like the rest of the world, he doesn't define standard English, characterise it, or specify it; nor does he distinguish it from "educated English”, "pure English” or "correct English”, or relate it distinctly to any of these; nor does he say how we can identify given forms as standard or non-standard. Nevertheless, I believe what he says is essentially right and not only because he agrees with me provided we interpret the term in the way I shall attempt to do, and provided we assume that if he were to make the distinctions I have just listed, he would do the same the same as he did and the same as I have done.

The starting point of my own work was discovering (as Williams had also done) that whereas the first citation of the single word "English” in the OED, to refer to the language, dates from the 9th century, the first citation of the collocation "standard English” in the OED is not until 1836. This refers only to speech,

1836 Q. Rev. Feb. 356 It is, however, certain that there were in his sc. Higden's time, and probably long before, five distinctly marked forms, which may be classed as follows:-1. Southern or standard English, which in the fourteenth century was perhaps best spoken in Kent and Surrey by the body of the inhabitants...
and it was so used by Sweet, three-quarters of a century later, in 1908:
1908 H. Sweet Sounds Eng. 7 Standard English, like Standard French, is now a class-dialect more than a local dialect: it is the language of the educated all over Great Britain...
whereas in current Educational parlance it more usually refers to writing, and writing of a relatively restricted variety, that in a formal style, used chiefly in legal documents, academic writing (although not always, thank goodness), and examinations.

The origins of the ideal (if it has been so understood) have been traced by R W Bailey (in Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language), which is cited in Mazzon. Bailey does not, so far as I can see, take account of the way in which the establishment of universal education established also the idea of a standard, as in the OED, s.v. "standard, sense 12: a definite level of excellence... ” under which heading the first mention of "standard English” is given, related explicitly to the establishment of "standards” in Elementary Schools, where "standards” means both 'classes of children' and 'degrees of competence or skill in those classes'. Bailey, however, switches from notions of a prestige variety as reported by Bede, for example where the value set upon the prestige variety is related to social rank and power, to later notions of "pure” English, as in Spenser's use of the phrase "a well of English undefiled” to refer to Chaucer, where the value of the form is explicitly associated with purity, although the notions of prestige were still present, chiefly to do with literary quality but also to do with rank and power. Later, notions of "correctness” developed during the 17th and 18th centuries by Swift, Johnson and others, were very much associated with the notion of "purity”, seen as parallel to Golden Age as opposed to Silver Age Latin, which had been used earlier by Ben Jonson, and also by Shakespeare. (Cf. "Priscian a little scratched, but 'twill serve.” Loves' Labours Lost, V.i.31.) These notions identified Golden Age Literature with Golden Age language, and Silver Age Literature with Silver Age language, i.e. it conflated language and texts, to the detriment of both. Pure English was now what was endorsed by its use by "our best authors” (Johnson). Then in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, there were significant movements of population from the country to the towns, as mechanisation reduced the need for man-power on the land, and increased the demand for labour in the manufacturing towns. The country-dwellers brought innumerable local varieties of English with them, and used these to ask for work. They wished to be taught how to "talk proper”, so that they would appear trustworthy and employable, and like Caxton 400 years earlier, they thought that there must be some sort of "comyn Englysshe”:

And certainly our language now used varyeth ferre from that which was used and spoken whan I was borne... And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayne marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse [Thames] for to have sayled over the see into Zelande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of them named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after 'eggys'. And the good wyf answered that she coude speke no Frenshe. And the merchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges, and she understode hym not. And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde have 'eyren'. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo! What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, 'egges' or 'eyren'? Certaynly, it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of language.
(Wm. Caxton: Preface to Eneydos, 1490; quoted in D. Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, 2nd Edition (1997), p. 5.)
The 19th century migrants wanted to be taught what would secure them employment, and public pressure of this kind seems to have combined with previous beliefs in purity and correctness, and contributed to the belief that standards could be identified and then achieved. So when the Education Acts established universal elementary education for all, parents wanted their children to be taught this standard, and the education system had to respond. It was not equipped to do so (and indeed still lacks insight into the nature of the task). But it tried, with mixed results.

Recent work in social psychology, by Lambert and others in Toronto, and in socio-linguistics by Labov, Trudgill and others (cited in Mazzon), and notably by Macaulay in Glasgow, have shown how we judge others by means of a number of social cues, including linguistic ones. (I still supervise a PhD student who is studying Finnish pronunciations of English phonetically in this way.) Recent work on perceptions of accents and dialects as being associated with trustworthiness, integrity, conscientiousness and so on, or their negatives, has recently been taken out of the academic world by a tele-sales firm, which discovered that in the population of England generally, among those to whom the firm hoped to sell, the highest-rated accents for those variables (i.e. of trustworthiness, integrity, conscientiousness, and so on) was (i) Scottish (seen as unitary, despite McIntosh's work in the Edinburgh Linguistic Survey, identifying 17 major dialects in Edinburgh; and despite the exclusion of Glasgow accents!), and (ii) North-East England. Since apparently they aren't going to try to sell to Scots, they are going to set up their base near Newcastle-on-Tyne, and employ Geordies to sell their goods, i.e. down the phone. Macaulay's work showed how judgements of this kind entered into Glasgow managers' perceptions of potential employees, usually to their disadvantage.

Perceptions of character relying on evaluations of accent and dialect have always been with us, sometimes humane, sometimes oppressive. There can be little doubt that they played a part in the selection of individuals by managers in the course of the population movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is likely that evidence for this can be found in industrial novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, but such evidence has yet to be identified, although it has already been done by Lynda Mugglestone in George Gissing's novels. (See her Talking Proper, Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1995.) What is relevant for my argument is that then as now, people judged each other in part by their speech; and knew that they themselves were also judged by potential employers as such. They therefore wished to learn how to "speak well”, and when appropriate to write well. "Well” meant what would be accepted by employers as good: in the lower ranks of industry, it meant a good clear handwriting, usually copper-plate, as described in the Education Codes from 1852 onwards, and by Matthew Arnold in one of his Inspectorial reports, outlining the syllabus for those intending to be teacher-pupils (in the 1860s). (The report was published posthumously in 14 Reports on Elementary Schools 1852-1882, London: Macmillan, 1889.) At higher levels of employment, mere copying would not be enough: one had to be able to write "decent English”, "decent” at first in its etymological sense of 'appropriate' and then later in what was seen as 'good because appropriate'. What was "appropriate” was a good, clear, unambiguous, and polite style, one which gave no offence, either on grounds of "correctness” (primarily orthographic correctness but also grammatical and collocational), or on grounds of taste, decency and respect (for the expected reader/manager/share-holder).

However, none of these had the notion of a "standard” to which beginning writers might aspire, or which tyros and neophytes might try to emulate. That was the achievement of the Educational profession. In the 1870s, in response to considerable social pressure, the government passed a series of Education Acts, whose purpose was to establish universal education in a series of Elementary Schools. These would be funded by the government if they met certain criteria. That is to say that to qualify for grants, they had to maintain certain building standards, they had to follow certain principles of organisation, and they had to observe certain syllabuses. Organisationally, they were organised in "Standards” (i.e. what we now call "Classes”). There were six of these - hence the modern VIth form as the top class, with a further class reserved only for those who were going to become teachers. To move up from one class to the next, a pupil had to achieve the appropriate standards in all subjects, which included "reeling, writhing and 'rithmetic”, as Lewis Carroll put it, as well as various other subjects. The complete list was: Reading, English Grammar, Writing and Composition, Arithmetic and Mathematics, Geography, History, Drawing, Music and Religious Knowledge. The boys had to do more Euclid than the girls, because the latter needed some time to learn needlework. Reading is very little specified: in the first year, "to read with fluency, ease and expression”, and in all subsequent years, simply "improved articulation and expression in reading”. Presumably, higher standards were required in terms of the difficulty of the texts set in successive years. English Grammar specified that Latin Grammar could be substituted, after admission, and year by year the requirements always allowed for this to happen.

The normal requirements were: "For admission: To point out the parts of speech in a simple sentence. End of 1st Year: The noun, the verb, and adjective; with their relations in a simple sentence.” (Note that, as usual in English education, this confused grammatical classes and functions.) "End of 2nd Year: The pronoun, adverb, and preposition; with their relations in a sentence. End of 3rd Year: The conjunction with the analysis of sentences. End of 4th year: Recapitulation of the preceding exercises, and to know the meaning in English of the Latin prepositions.” (Anyone who has taught English as a Foreign Language will know the pitfalls in this.) "End of 5th Year: Recapitulation of the preceding exercises, and an account of the sources and growth of the English language”. (it may be of interest to say that I had to go through the remnants of a good deal of this in the 1940s, although the history part (which I later found most interesting) was never treated systematically, and only came in en passant, being offered as "explanations” of "why” words now mean what they don't! And the same sorts of assumptions were made later, when I became a school teacher, and my pupils informed me that our headmaster thought I should not call my spouse my "wife”, because that word "meant” 'a prostitute'. Knowing the passage in the OE chronicle he had in mind, I was able to enlighten my pupils, to the indignation of that headmaster.)

It is a pleasure to record that Matthew Arnold had serious doubts about this curriculum. Writing on the topic of pupil-teachers, he says:

On one other topic, in connection with the subject of pupil-teachers, I am anxious to touch in conclusion. In the general opinion of the advantages which have resulted from the employment of them (he means 'the pupil-teachers'), I most fully concur; and of the acquirements and general behaviour of the greater number of those whom I have examined I wish to speak favourably. But I have been much struck in examining them towards the close of their apprenticeship, when they are generally at least eighteen years old, with the utter disproportion between the great amount of positive information and the low degree of mental culture and intelligence which they exhibit. Young men, whose knowledge of grammar, of the minutest details of geographical and historical facts, and above all of mathematics, is surprising, often cannot paraphrase a plain passage of prose or poetry without totally misapprehending it, or write half a page of composition on any subject without falling into gross blunders of taste and expression. I cannot but think that, with a body of young men so highly instructed, too little attention has hitherto been paid to this side of education; the side through which it chiefly forms the character; the side which has perhaps been too exclusively attended to in schools for the higher classes, and to the development of which it is the boast of what is called a classical education to be mainly directed. (op.cit., pp. 18-19. My emphasis. M.D.)
In the light of subsequent history, it is ironic and sad to see his touching faith in the "side of education which... chiefly forms the character”, a belief he shared with many at the time. (The argument that had been used to persuade landowners at the beginning of the century that they should fund the establishment of elementary village schools had been that by educating and forming the moral character of their villagers a school would help to diminish the prospects of sedition and rebellion. And later, F R Leavis was to argue that the study of literature would have moral effects, a belief which it might be difficult to substantiate.)

It might be expected that the term "standard English” would arise naturally in the context of this curriculum, as being the kind of English pupils needed to achieve in order to proceed through the school. But in the period up to 1900, the term "English”, as the name of a subject or as the name of the language, has not yet been found in the syllabuses, nor yet the term "standard English”. This was to come later, at the beginning of the next century, at the same time as the development of the idea of the phoneme, and of the notion of Received Pronunciation.

This is not surprising. The people who devised the syllabuses had to be graduates, but at that date they could not be graduates in English because English did not exist as a degree subject. And it did not exist as a school subject, either. So the inspectors' degrees were in subjects that were available, i.e. classics, theology, and mathematics; and as we have seen, school subjects did not include English but reading, writing, arithmetic. Nevertheless, public pressure for instruction in how to "talk proper” did not diminish, and led eventually to a brief spell in which elocution was taught. But this was a failure, and despite lone voices, does not seem likely to return.

Once schools had been established, and inspectors wished to inspect, it was possible to "inspect” pupils' writing but less easy to "inspect” their speech, although inspectors' reports do comment on hearing pupils read aloud from texts, usually unfavourably, the faults normally being related to regional accents. This does not now happen, and people sometimes complain that it does not, though more think the disadvantages of reviving it would seriously outweigh any advantages. (Nevertheless, first year students of English Literature, when asked to read a passage aloud in seminar, have been known to give up in despair, with a comment such as "I can't read this stuff,” an admission plentifully witnessed in their subsequent essays on that text.) These difficulties and others led the inspectors to concentrate on writing.

Formal education and assessment has therefore concentrated on written texts, because writing is permanent rather than fleeting, and moreover it can be posted to distant examiners. (This was long after the establishment of the Penny Post.) Also, in the classroom, writing could be "corrected” much more readily than speech, and the teachers must have had to decide what was "correct” and what was not. What they had themselves been taught drew upon a tradition of descriptive grammar derived from Renaissance grammarians, which gained wide acceptance through the publications of Lowth (1762) and even more that of Lindley Murray (English Grammar, adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, 1795), which earned the latter the soubriquet "the father of English grammar”. (Note the reference to "classes of Learners”.) Lowth (who believed that Hebrew was spoken in paradise) has been credited (or debited) with the invention or at least the dissemination of the notion of "prescriptive” grammar; but as so often happens, he was much more sensible than many of those who used his work, and was aware of what he called "the idiom” of our language, and wanted to be sensible about it, and was.

The term "standard English” was not in evidence in their work (any more than it was in, for example, Johnson's dictionary), and so is not cited from them in the OED. Nor, a century later, has it yet been found in the writings of the Inspectors of the late 19th century. There was no standard for the teachers to adhere to then, as there is not now (although an attempt to enforce one is currently being made by the National Curriculum for English). But the pressure on teachers both from below and above meant that they had to do something, as they still do. And they still get no help from the leaders of the profession, who remain uninformed and misguided. Above all, they need help, not only in the nature of standard English and of grammar, but also in understanding how grammar in writing differs from grammar in speech, through the absence of any explicit signalling of Information Structure in the orthography, although the part of the grammar expressed as Information Structure is signalled explicitly in speech by means of intonation. In writing, there being no representation of intonation in the orthography, the Information Structure is implied by means of non-prosodic cohesion, and it is this which children learning to read have still to learn when their teachers say "they can read the words but they can't read for meaning”, as children also have to do in languages other than English, e.g. French and Czech, and probably all the European languages, depending upon the nature of their writing systems. (A paper on this was given at the Ninth Euro-International Systemic-Functional Workshop at Halle in June, and less technical versions have been prepared for other seminars at ESSE / 4, but it lies outside my scope here.) The signs of pedagogic unease show themselves in requests for help with teaching punctuation, which is certainly an important issue but which is an epi-phenomenon: writing is not a way of representing speech on the page, but a medium of language in its own right. (Teachers of German lament that whereas German has a codified and widely accepted system of punctuation, English lacks this, having both "rhetorical” and "grammatical” punctuation and widely varying preferences for one or the other or for different mixtures. In fact, the German system is not as fixed and as rigid as some teachers like to think - it would be so helpful if it were (!) - and it is not long since it was officially revised, amid considerable controversy.)

Writing as a medium in its own right requires a separate paper for its elucidation. But English does have a standard graphology, and we are just beginning to understand this (although the education service has done little if anything to help develop that understanding). What is important is that children who have difficulty with the written medium should be helped. They should not be impeded as at present they are by teachers' folk-linguistic notions about "correctness” or standard English. They should be taught how to master the medium and use it effectively, not to please teacher but in order to live.

The present paper only reports on-going work, which is as yet incomplete. But it is offered in part because it is intended to suggest a way forward out of some of the difficulties historical linguistics is suffering at the present time. It does so by combining both education and linguistics, and within the latter, both diachronic and synchronic. If teachers of English as L1 are required by our masters to teach the grammar and vocabulary of standard English, then they have to know what they are, in detail. History shows us how difficult it is going to be to specify them, and may move us to move the goal-posts. Perhaps we shall have to content ourselves with teaching "Educated English” rather than standard English”, in which case we can use the descriptions which lie to hand in Quirk and Greenbaum's works. In which case we shall have to recognize the wide variation in English, both geographically and socially, and learn to tolerate this variation and indeed draw upon it.

Teachers of English as L2 already do this, of course, at least in most European countries. And, as some of the target papers have shown, some of them also take history into account. But I am not aware of work which incorporates historical insights into the teaching of English as a synchronic system. Always it is offered as a form of diachronic explanation. And it may be that it is not possible: that history as synchronic explanation is a self-contradictory idea. I do not know enough to say. But I would hope not, and I expect that better informed heads than mine can show that it is not. If so, then they will have to adopt a functional perspective.


  1. Lambert, W E et al, "Evaluational reactions to spoken language”, Journal of abnormal and social Psychology, 60, 44-51
  2. Macaulay, R K S: Language, Social Class, and Education, Edinburgh: University Press, 1977