Where did prescriptive grammar come from? Where did the idea of “Standard” English come from? Both ideas have their origins (as they do in many other countries that have proposed a “standard” language) in the belief that language variation can lead to misunderstanding. Such concerns about English emerge as early as the fourteenth century.
Al the longage of the Northumres and speicialliche at York is so sharp slittynge and frontynge and vnshape, that we southern men may that longage vnnethe [= hardly] vnderstonde. (John de Trevisa, 1385)
Oure language is also so dyuerse in it selfe that the commen maner of spekynge in Englysshe of some contre can skante [= scarcely] be vnderstondid in som other contre of the same lond. (Lydgate, 1530)
Dialects spoken in the North and West of England were stigmatized during this time, and Southern varieties of English, spoken in and around London by the upper classes, were perceived more favorably. In The Arte of English Poesie (1589) George Puttenham proposes that respected men should not “follow the speech of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferior sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne … for such persons doe abuse good speeches by strange accents or ill shapen soundes, and false ortographie.”
We see these language attitudes reflected in literature as well. Chaucer often used different Middle English dialects to express certain (usually comic) aspects of character; a speaker of a stigmatized Northern dialect, for example, may end up hoodwinking the gentleman with the more prestigious Southern speech. Shakespeare, writing during the sixteenth century, also often used dialect to express different favorable or unfavorable aspects of character.
Other factors led to Southern dialects becoming more highly valued. One of the earliest factors that set the process of standardizing English in motion was the printing press, brought to England in 1476 by the merchant William Caxton. Caxton set up shop in London, the center of commerce and education at the time, and printed far more books and distributed them far more widely than ever before. For practical reasons Caxton printed books in the East Midland dialect, the dialect (or collection of dialects) of London’s rising middle and upper classes, and the East Midland dialect became considered the “standard” dialect of English.
Latin, the language of the Christian church, was the language of scholarship in medieval England. As English inevitably began to compete with Latin as the language of commerce, literature, and scholarship, English was found sorely wanting, and was considered corrupt. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries scholars set out to “fix” and “improve” English, introducing spelling reforms, borrowing many Latin words into English, and attempting to codify its grammatical rules. Dictionaries also played a part in this process of standardization. Perhaps the most famous example is Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, completed in 1755. Although Johnson himself was aware of the futility of trying to fix meanings of words of a living language, his dictionary was nevertheless taken as authoritative, and others followed. In 1828 Noah Webster published Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, and the Oxford English Dictionary first appeared in 1884 and continues to be the foremost authority on the English language today.
English grammarians attempted to establish a language academy, like those in France and Italy, which would codify and enforce this “improved” version of English. Scholars in the eighteenth century, which was often referred to as the Age of Reason, strove to find order and harmony in the natural (and divine, with Latin as the model of a perfect, divine language), and some extended this idea to grammar as well. Grammarians took it upon themselves to improve English by establishing the rules of English grammar, and attempting to enforce them to prevent future change. John Dryden supported an academy, as did Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), and Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. Dryden’s Defence of the Epilogue, written in 1672, criticizes supposed grammatical errors, stating (quite unapologetically), “From [Ben] Jonsons time to ours, it [English] has been in a continual declination.” By the publication of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755, the idea for an academy had died. (The idea for an English academy became fodder for political battles between Whigs and Tories, and was criticized by others who thought an academy was too authoritarian. John Adams’ proposal for an American academy met a similar fate.)
During this period, the idea arose that using the correct form of English was essential for social success. How-to books on English grammar began to appear, and to be used in schools. Here is a quote from the preface to Joseph Aickin’s The English Grammar (1693): “My Child: your Parents have desired me, to teach you the English-Tongue. For though you can speak English already; yet you are not an English Scholar, till you can read, write, and speak English truly.”
Although people were certainly aware of language change and variation, people also believed that in order to be socially accepted and admired, one had to adopt the linguistic practices of those who were accepted and admired. Thus emerged the “grammar anxiety” we still see today and which has its source in two central ideas: that we must speak and write correctly for social acceptance and advancement, and that language, or more specifically grammatical change and variation, can be overcome and controlled. Moreover, what came to be considered “Standard” English was not a specific dialect, but rather whatever language was associated with speakers with social prestige (the literate middle and upper classes in Southern England) at the time. Although the idea of a standard, correct form of English continues to be widely accepted today, what is considered standard actually varies from speech community to speech community, and from the local to the national to the international level. Many of us have different ideas about what is considered Standard English (and we each have our own pet peeves), and teachers and others who are considered language authorities don’t always agree on what is considered standard, either. Today, with English spoken around the world, what speakers in Birmingham, Alabama consider standard is not the same as what speakers in Bangor, Maine do, and what is considered Standard English in New Zealand is different from what is considered Standard English in Australia, the United Kingdom, or in India.
What is considered Standard English not only varies from place to place but changes over time. To take an obvious example, what was considered Standard English in eighteenth-century England is hardly recognizable to us today. Linguist John McWhorter (2012) offers examples of expressions from the nineteenth century that speakers considered “mistakes unworthy of polite company.” But these expressions seem just fine to us today. You were to say the two first people, not the first two people; a well-lighted street, not well-lit; and the house is building, not the house is being built. And although many took Johnson’s dictionary as a definitive authority on English of the day, many modern dictionaries and grammar guides embrace language change (though many still do not). The Oxford English Dictionary is constantly adding new words and documenting changes in meaning of existing words.
Indeed, there is little consensus on exactly what Standard English is, and we will certainly not try to define it here. (We offer you the opportunity to explore some of the proposed definitions and descriptions of Standard English in the Exercises.) What we do know is what Standard English is not, namely it is not a single fixed and uniform variety of natural language. We also know that the labels “standard” and “non-standard” are based on social rather than linguistic criteria, and that we stigmatize the speech of groups we stigmatize, and value the speech of groups we accept and respect, just as people did centuries ago in England. We return now to a more in depth investigation of descriptive grammar, which, unlike prescriptive grammar, is not based on rules we consciously learn in school or from studying grammar books, but rather on the unconscious rules we use to produce and understand language.