Origins of Standard English and Ups and Downs of Dialects

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., University of Columbia

The English language is a standard that is considered a patchwork of different dialects. It follows a cycle in which a standard today becomes outdated tomorrow. There are facts about the linguistic problems in some countries and confusion about whether some languages are dialects or not. Explore these issues in detail.

Picture showing multiple alphabets and a man speaking.
Language goes through an ongoing process where a standard at one time becomes obsolete at another. (Image: lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

Origin of Standard English

Standard English was spoken in the region where London was, a center of power, with large universities near it. Before this, English was a patchwork of very different dialects. The pioneer printer, William Caxton, in the late 1400s, had gone eastward to the region of Kent where Kentish was spoken. It was so different that when the Caxton tried to make himself understood to somebody, she thought that he was speaking French. He wanted to have eggs. The woman did not know what that meant because the word for ‘egg’ in Kent was eyren. That was how different the dialects were.

That was the way English once was. Standard English became the English that was spoken in a particular region of London that rendered Kentish plus all of those British dialects as exotic.

Dialects in France

Map explaining the different dialects in various French regions.
There are many languages including Provencal and Occitan that are closely related to French. (Image: Langues de la France1.gif: Taken from Lexilogos.com with permission from the copyright holder/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

France was the same way. Even today, into the south of France, there are Romance languages spoken, often under the cover term Occitan. Provencal was another term more often heard, technically one variety of that group.

But those languages were closely related to French. French people understand them to a very large extent, but they are different enough to be separate languages. Provencal was one variety, the language of the Troubadours, who pioneered the queer notion of courtly love. It was very much a language back in medieval times.

Learn more about how language changes.

Linguistic Problem in France

When France became a nation, rather than the vague region known as Gaul, there was a problem that there were all those dialects of French plus others in the south that were completely different. A Catholic priest, Abbot (Abbé) Grégoire was worried about this linguistic problem and he mentioned it in one document in 1789.

According to him, “France, home to eight million subjects, of which some could barely mumble a few malformed words or one or two disjointed sentences of this language: the rest know none at all. In Lower Brittany, and beyond the Loire, in many places, the clergy is still obliged to preach in the local patois, for fear, if they spoke French, of not being understood.”

France, which is not that big, is where French now very much rules the day. That was something that was artificially imposed upon people who, in a not-too-distant day, grew up with different languages, even if they were part of the French polity. The French dialect of the Ile-de-France region was imposed for practical reasons. It was not that the dialect was coherent or somehow naturally endowed with a larger vocabulary but just a grand old accident.

Process of Obsolete Dialects

Every language is a bundle and often the process goes in reverse. Something which is standard today becomes just the dialect that is abandoned tomorrow, and sometimes it goes in reverse. This is exemplified by the Ukrainian language that is similar enough today that for a Russian it is safe to say that learning Ukrainian teeters between learning a new language and adjusting to something that is a whole lot like their own.

Learn more about the Proto-Indo-European that was spoken 6,000 years ago.

Power Game of Russian Dialects

Ukraine was once cordoned off as a separate region within the Soviet Union. There was a time when Ukrainian was thought of an odd peasant’s way of speaking Russian. Even before the Soviet Union, in old Russia, going to the Ukraine someone would consider they were hearing Russian spoken in a particular, uncultivated way. People would make fun of Ukrainian and would think it was good for jokes and folk songs. The idea of government documents in Ukrainian was considered absurd.

Map showing different groups of Ukrainian dialects.
The Ukrainian dialect went through many stages of being an uncultivated language to being a model for Russians. (Image: Map_of_Ukrainian_dialects.png: Alex Kderivative work: Angr/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

But back in time, it happened that the center of power in Russia for a period was in Kiev. At that time, Ukrainian was considered the right kind of Russian. Dealing with the archeology of Russian, one had to deal with a peculiar phase, in which Ukrainian forms were thought of as a decent model for all of Russia. It was just a matter of how the power went. Then, there was a phase where the power moved to Moscow, and the Ukraine was considered the fertile but backward and quaint region with a peculiar way of speaking.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Transitioning Ukrainian Language

Today, Ukraine is a country of its own, and even under the Soviet Union, it was an S.S.R. republic. So the language was standardized, moving from being considered the height of Russian and the model for what the language could be, to the speech of peasants, then to a language of its own, part of a separate country—the Ukraine. How people feel about whether Ukrainian was a language or a dialect was based only on who had the geopolitical power and when.

Variations in Dialects

Dialects are when a language changes into various other varieties, and it has not done that for a long time for there to be separate languages. Instead, there are variations on a theme, which are dialects. Understanding the rest of the natural history of language, there is a need to get rid of a perfectly understandable habit of thinking of the dialect as some sort of outsider.

Learn more about English and its earliest roots in Proto-Indo-European.

Views about the Dialects

It is very important to realize that all dialects being okay is not politics. Often the argument that dialects are okay is made with a political motive in mind, that of defending the people who speak nonstandard dialects. So often, when dialects are defended, it is with a certain ‘up with people’ view that may strike people as based more on ideology than on science, whatever the benefits of the argument. Dialects are legitimate, a scientific view of how all languages are bundles of variations.

Common Questions about the Origins of Standard English

Q: What is the dialect of France?

In France, Romance languages are spoken under the cover term Occitan. Provencal is another term, closely related to French. Provencal was one variety, the language of the Troubadours, very much a language of medieval times.

Q: Is Ukrainian a dialect of Russian?

Ukrainian was once thought of as an uncultivated way of speaking Russian. For a long time, it was considered a dialect of Russia until Ukraine became a country and Ukrainian was a language in itself.

Q: Does English have dialects?

English has dialects that were common in different places in Britain.

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