A ridiculously brief, outrageously selective and painfully simplified history of Standard English

Standard English is one of many dialects of English. It’s the dialect that public affairs, the media and administration overwhelmingly use, and is the one most associated with education, prestige and power. Here I’m looking at Standard British English, but many of the points apply in other English-speaking countries.

Standard English dominates public life but not private conversation: only a minority of English speakers (largely defined by class) use it with friends and family, although far more switch into it when the occasion demands. It’s important to be able to do this, because Standard English opens so many doors in life.

Because of its status, many people think of it as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English, and scorn those who speak other varieties. But as well as being rude, this is mistaken. If you say ‘I seen them books but I didn’t buy none’ in the company of other people who talk that kind of dialect, that’s fine. If you say it in a job interview at the BBC, you may have a problem. Your error is one of judgement, though, not grammar.

Non-standard dialects are perfectly ‘correct’ – on their own terms. In fact, they’re mostly the same as Standard, but of course what we notice are the differences. And where they differ, they do so according to their own rules – not a lax application of Standard rules, as snobs like to imagine.

For example:

  • Standard uses the possessive ‘my’ and ‘your’ to form the reflexive pronouns ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’, but not the possessive ‘his’ and their’ to form ‘hisself’ and ‘theirselves’. Other dialects have a regular system that does use the possessives consistently this way.
  • Standard doesn’t allow multiple negation – ‘I didn’t want none’ – but most other dialects do (along with some other languages, but je ne sais pas how many).
  • Some dialects make much more use of flat adverbs (without the ‘-ly’) than Standard, such as ‘they talked real slow’.
  • Standard has varied verb endings – ‘you like’ but ‘she likes’ etc. – while other dialects may use the same form, whether ‘likes’ or ‘like’, across the board.
  • Some dialects use singular noun forms for plurals after a number – ‘they walked five mile’. Standard doesn’t, although it does something similar in constructions like ‘a five-mile walk’.
  • Standard has lost the old distinction between singular ‘thou’ and plural ‘you’, while some dialects maintain it. Others have developed new distinctions, using ‘you’ for singular but ‘youse’ or similar for plural.
  • Irregular verbs may differ in the past and perfect tenses. Standard says ‘I spoke’ but ‘I have spoken’ while Tyneside English says ‘I spoke’ and ‘I have spoke’. On the other hand, Standard says ‘I got’ and ‘I have got’ while Tyneside says ‘I got’ but ‘I have getten’ (a relative of the old ‘gotten’, which still thrives in the US).

So in some cases Standard English draws more distinctions than other dialects, in other cases fewer. Some of its conventions are more consistent and some less consistent.

It also isn’t the same thing as formal language. Standard English can range from ‘The consequences of further inaction would be somewhat vexing’ to ‘You’d better get your skates on or I’ll be pretty pissed off’. Standard can be casual, idiomatic and obscene. That said, the situations in which it’s used are more likely to be formal.

The linguists’ label ‘Standard’ reflects status, not quality – and that status is the result of historical accident. So let’s race through a millennium or so…


Old English was a family of dialects used in the regional kingdoms that developed out of the Germanic invasions of Britain in the first millennium AD. The most notable was the West Saxon tongue of Wessex, whose later kings were pivotal in the unification of England in the 10th century.

West Saxon might have developed into a national standard, but then the Normans arrived.

1066 would transform English – but mostly indirectly. The language of the new aristocracy and government was Norman French, with Latin that of religion and scholarship. The bulk of the population, though, continued to speak their local varieties of English (with some new words acquired from the new elite).

The big consequence was that the seat of political and commercial power moved from Wessex to London. West Saxon declined, and as the dialects gradually grew into those now known as Middle English, the London dialect became more important.

Then as now, London drew migrants from the rest of England – particularly from the counties to its north and east. These migrants brought their language with them, so the London dialect changed, inheriting some of the Norse influence from these areas.

The status of English grew, particularly from the 1300s as the Hundred Years War broke out; the Norman kings felt the need to differentiate themselves from France and form a closer bond with their subjects. When Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, he was the first king since the conquest to have English as his mother tongue.

The prestige and reach of London English were bolstered from the late 1300s by the success of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s Bible, and by a growing body of government legal documents in the 1400s.

Caxton’s printing press, set up in 1476 in Westminster, accelerated this, as well as enabling greater consistency.

But the language, as ever, continued to change, and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1485) is far more comprehensible to us today than Chaucer is.

The authorised Great Bible of 1539 (based on Tyndale’s earlier version but minus the heresies) promoted this strand of what was now Early Modern English as much as it promoted Henry VIII’s religious reforms. And the literature of the 1500s proved the language’s expressive power, augmented by more and more words borrowed from Renaissance Europe.

But, as Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson soared, scholars fretted about the intellectual respectability of a language that had emerged, higgledy-piggledy, from such vulgar origins. So they sought to codify it. Following William Bullokar’s 1586 effort, many tried to model English grammar on that of their ideal language, Latin – an awkward and imperfect fit. This school of thought’s influence was reduced as others pushed back, but it has still handicapped the teaching of English grammar ever since.

In the 1600s, after a couple of centuries of changing pronunciation, the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ pretty much came to an end. Spelling became more standardised too, and more great works cemented English’s reputation at home and abroad: Hobbes, Milton, Dryden and, most of all, the King James Bible.

Amid all this, the other regional dialects persisted (as did the non-standard dialect of those Londoners who were beneath the notice of the literate), and all changed in their own ways. But the differences between them diminished as the London standard’s influence grew and their own status dwindled. For the ambitious, speaking the emerging Standard English was a must.

The 1700s saw the rise of the grammarians, who catered to the market of anxious social climbers – and sought to impose greater order on the language – by publishing guidebooks. Some of their guidance was sound on how Standard English worked, but a lot of it was based on superficial research and their own tastes. They also often drew little distinction between rules of grammar and advice on style. This led to many of the prescriptive rules that still dominate usage debates but still struggle to take root even in educated people’s language.

Most of these books came and went, but a few – Lowth’s and Murray’s stand out – joined Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary on society bookshelves and in schoolrooms for decades. They had some standardising effect, but this was mostly in areas where they were articulating what was already majority Standard usage rather than pushing their own pet peeves.

A case study: For over 250 years, a small but determined cult has been trying to convince us that ‘than’ must always be a conjunction and never a preposition – which means we must say ‘taller than I’ and not ‘taller than me’. Some people are taken in by this and some are intimidated into doubt, but most people pay no attention. This imagined rule has been refuted by usage going back over 400 years. But the cult persists, because, like all good cults, it can rationalise away the evidence and turn its unpopularity into a virtue.

Since the early 1800s, the grammar of modern Standard English has changed relatively little, and spelling has mostly stayed the same too. Habits of punctuation and pronunciation have continued to shift.

What’s changed more since Victorian times is that stylistic fashions have come and gone; non-standard and non-British dialects have seeped in here and there; new ways of communicating have brought new linguistic conventions; new words have appeared; and existing words have found new uses.

Every generation finds new ways to use the language. Their parents are always aghast and their children are always puzzled to be told there was ever a controversy.

The speed varies but change is a constant.

While Standard English has been more thoroughly codified than other dialects, and subject to more attempts to reduce variation, it remains a perpetually mutating line of mongrels – always learning new tricks without being taught but also, when disciplined too harshly, tending to bite.

If you want to know more, I strongly recommend Henry Hitching’s The Language Wars, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and Peter Trudgill’s Standard English: What it isn’t. These are my sources for most of the above.

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  • Andrew Ingram  On February 6, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Hi Tom,

    I really enjoyed this – I can see your challenge in crunching it down.

    I had two initial thoughts

    1. Isn’t Standard English now a sociolect rather than dialect? Dialect seems to have the heart of its meaning in geographical location, although it can cover social/class groups (I just looked it up to see if I was spouting nonsense). Meanwhile sociolects are not about place but about types of people or situation.

    2. I’m uncomfortable with using the word “snob” to describe the peevers I encounter. Actually some of them are truly snobbish, but most of them are people who were taught a set of strict rules at a tender age, and find it really hard to unlearn them. We were bellowed at – “Don’t say Mark and me, say Mark and I!!” – and even thumped at times for ignoring parental advice, be that about spelling, grammar, pronunciation, sitting with our mouths open, referring to females as women rather than ladies, etc. etc. etc. I was one of them, as you can probably tell.

    It makes me wonder if my work (our work, indeed) in teaching people the realities of current grammar is more a kind of rehab.

  • Margie Brizzolari  On February 8, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Hi Tom. I loved this. Makes interesting reading and explains a lot of the anomalies that we find in English Grammar and spoken English today. You can imagine the difficulty of teaching it to second language students and explaining why so much of what they read is in contradiction with what they’ve been taught. I try not to be rigid about rules, but sometimes it’s difficult.

  • raydiwriter  On February 14, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Reblogged this on raydiwriter.

  • 9to5adventurer  On February 15, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Reblogged this on Getting Lit Fit.

  • Beatrice Hendon  On February 19, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Thank you for posting this. 🙂

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