Standard dialect codified and written English established

Göran Wolf (Technische Universität Dresden)

A few findings of English linguistics of the past decades constitute the basis for this paper. Firstly, the spoken and the written variety of Present Day English differ. Quite obviously, they differ because they are different media. However, the paper will adopt the more elaborate view of well-known pieces of orality/literacy studies, such as Biber 1988 or Oesterreicher 2001 who see speech and writing as opposite ends of a continuum. Within this continuum some variations, e. g. the varying usage of negation ( I haven't seen anything./I haven't seen nothing .) and the opposition of pronominal usage ( It is they ./ It is them . or She is taller than I ./ She is taller than me .), can be explained with reference to the varying characteristics of speech and writing. The origins of these variations, however, cannot be explained along these lines. Secondly, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century grammars are often said to be prescriptive, because they gave strong statements of what was regarded as good or bad English. Whether strictly prescriptive or not - because to be prescriptive a grammar needs to be descriptive first of all -, early English grammar writing, as one form of codification within the standardisation process suggested by Haugen (1966), greatly contributed to the development of the standard variety of English. Some aspects of the latter will make up the third of this paper's foundations. That standardisation is an on-going and a conscious process is a fundamental view of the field, and in this paper is of importance with reference to the present as well as to the early grammarians. After rendering some basic ideas of the aforementioned fields of English language study, I would like to propose a view which accounts for the given variations with regards to the mentioned period of the history of the Standard English dialect. Looking into a number of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century grammars the paper will show that quite a lot of the variations which nowadays occur along the spoken/written divide equal those features which early grammarians, such as Robert Lowth or Joseph Priestley, discussed referring to good or bad language use. Therefore, I would like to argue that the grammatical structures found in spoken or written Present Day English originate from suggestions for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Standard English.


Biber, Douglas (1988).Variation Across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: CUP 1988.

Haugen, Einar (1966). "Dialect, Language, Nation." American Anthropologist 68 (1966): 922-35.

Lowth, Robert (1763/1995). A Short Introduction to English Grammar. London: Routledge/Thoemmes 1995.

Oesterreicher, Wulf (2001). "Sprachwandel, Varietätenwandel, Sprachgeschichte." Varieties and Consequences of Literacy and Orality. Formen und Folgen von Schriftlichkeit und Mündlichkeit. Hrsg. von Ursula Schaefer und Edda Spielmann. Tübingen: Gunter Narr 2001, 217-48.

Priestley, Joseph (1761/1969). The Rudiments of English Grammar. Menston: The Scholar Press 1969.