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Rhodes > English Language and Linguistics > Latest News

How Standard English got that way

Date Released: Fri, 4 November 2011 00:00 +0200

Most people treat the rules of Standard English as though they dropped down out of the sky.  In a special departmental research seminar on Tuesday 1 November, Prof. Raymond Hickey, an accomplished visiting linguist from the University of Duisburg and Essen in Germany, showed how these standards were constructed by a few rival lexicographers and grammarians in the 18th century.

Before the 18th century, there was no such thing as a “Standard English”, but the language of the royal court in London gradually became seen as a guideline for English-speakers.  Then suddenly in the 18th century, a flood of new books came out prescribing rules for every aspect of English usage, from spelling and pronunciation to syntax. 

One of the first and most famous of these was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.  This was the first major monolingual English dictionary, and became the model for future dictionaries including the Oxford English Dictionary.

In grammar, Robert Lowth became known as the original prescriptive grammarian when he published A Short Introduction to the English Grammar in 1762.  This book included some notorious rules which are still debated today, such as “Don’t use a double negative”, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” and “Don’t put anything between to and a following infinitive verb”. 

After Lowth, a cut-throat grammar-book industry sprang up, with a whole variety of writers racing to publish their grammars and dictionaries before the others, or better their competitors’ earlier publications.  They also produced books on elocution, or how to pronounce words correctly.  Interestingly, these grammar-writers were more often Scottish and Irish than English, and Hickey attributes this to the idea that because these people grew up speaking non-standard dialects of English, they had a sharper view of what the standard was.

The debate over what is and isn’t Standard English and whether there should be a standard English at all continues to rage on into the present day.  These days, there are far more people who speak English as a second language than as a first language, and those people have affected the language to the point where linguists no longer speak about just one English, but “world Englishes”, new standard varieties of English developing in countries like China, India and Nigeria as well as South Africa.  There is still a vigorous “language industry” that includes countless websites, books and consultancies all loudly proclaiming the rules for using English “correctly”.  However, linguists take a sceptical view on all this, believing that there’s nothing intrinsically better about Standard English or worse about colloquial speech and dialects.