Monday, July 30, 2007

The English Language: from Codification to Standardisation

In last month's article I drew your attention to how, in the course of the 16th and 17 the centuries, the English language became subject to serious academic and scholarly attention. This, I tried to argue, was notably due to Latin’s fall into virtual disuse, which was finished off by (a) Henry 8th’s emasculation of the Catholic church and their hold on education, and (b) the need for a unified and codified language to serve the emerging nation-state of England.

Another reason was that practical interest in the mechanics of the language was generally appearing widespread, due to it being formally taught in the country’s schools. There was also the 'Rise of Science' to consider as well, which, in accordance with its spirit of independent scientific discovery, served to promote rational analysis of the language. Anyway, enough of the technical stuff: this time I’d like to show how the first efforts to codify our language inevitable led a process of standardisation, a standardisation that is still disputed even today.

One of the first grammar books to appear in English was William Lily’s 'A Shorte Introduction of Grammar', which was published in 1523. In fact, Lily limited himself to describing Latin grammar, which was of limited use to scholars of English! It does, however, explain why English grammar is full of obscure terms that were originally written for another language entirely, as the scrutinisers of our tongue adopted Lily’s terms almost wholesale. Take just ‘participle’, ‘decline’, ‘parse’ and ‘substantive’ as examples, words which today give little idea of their true meaning or function.

Our first true grammar of English came later, in 1586, in the shape of Bullokar’s 'Bref Grammar for English'. This book was, in fact, quite unique, in that it not only attempted to describe how English worked, but also tried to rationalise the spelling system and the language’s structures. It therefore intended to indicate how English should be, rather than merely how it was, and the rest of us have suffered ever since from teachers and pedants telling us how we really ought to speak and write. But, as I like to argue with my Arabic teacher, which is better; to talk like a book, or a real person?

By the late 16th century, the writing of grammar books such as Bullokar’s had become a political expedient. Every European state worth its independent Crown needed to be able to provide its own grammar of the national tongue. This so-called ‘spirit of linguistic patriotism’ typically involved attempts by vernacular grammarians and lexicographers to reject regional dialects and linguistic inconsistencies in an effort to somehow fix the language, to impose a linguistic conformity that never really existed.

In the case of English, this process of trying to establish one single variant of the English language was rather like nailing jelly to the wall. There were so many variants of the English language in existence at that time, as indeed there still are at present. In the late 16th century it was believed that the language spoken either in the provinces or by the lower orders was not fine enough to promote as a standard. George Puttenham, in his 'The Arte of English Poesie' wrote that the accepted language should be the following:

“...naturall, pure, and the most usuall of all his country’” and not that found “in any uplandish village or corner of the Realme, where is no resort but of poor rusticall or uncivill people”.

Neither, he advised “shall he follow the speach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, for such persons doe abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill-shaped sounds. But he shall follow the better brought up sort, men civill and graciously behavioured and bred.” So, the working classes were criticised for their diabolical pronunciation and their lack of overall culture!

Northerners also came in for a verbal bashing: “neither shall he take the terms of Northern-men, such as they use in dayly talke - not in effect any speach used beyond the river of Trent. Ye shall therefore take the usual speach of the Court, and that of London and of the shires lying about London within 60 miles.” So the message was that there was a standard, albeit an artificial one, created by ridiculing and deriding the everyday speech of the greatest part of the country. Fixing the ‘best’ English thus involved a high degree of social and regional exclusiveness.

In short, Puttenham’s hierarchical view of English came to be the accepted one, and any later notion of ‘Standard English’ involved a high degree of social and literary correctness. This idea was picked up in the early 18th century by writers such as Jonathan Swift and Dr Johnson, and, unfortunately, here is where we have to pause to take a breather as I’ve run out of space. So, next month, don’t miss the next thrilling instalment of “How your Language got put into a Straight Jacket”.


LCC said...

I too am an English teacher, in a high school in Arizona, and I too have written about the development of English, in a brief textbook used by students at my school. I'm just writing to let you know how much I enjoy not only the information in your accounts but also your lifely and informal style. Describing the pseudo-scientific, language standardization movement as like "nailing jelly to the wall" is my favorite this month.

Keep up the good work.

EnglishTeacher365 said...

Thanks very much for your comments, LAnce - they are well appreciated!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article! Very much enjoyed it - I am studying Linguistics and the History of English and the moment, and found this an informative but light hearted read. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

i dint understand how did english codify in dictionaries and grammer books

The Essay Wizard said...

History of how English has been codified in grammar books and dictionaries
Codification is a term that refers to the method which language is captured and elucidated into the English dictionaries. The first codification process occurred in 1490 when William Caxton translated the Virgil’s Aeneid to an English language (Demaria, 1986). Thus, Caxton introduced a new form of technology known as printing to allow his books reach a wider audience. However, he faced challenges with dialectal diversity because his books were not read and understood with many individuals in the country. However, in the eighteenth century, English codification took place at large as witnessed with the publication of many dictionaries, which included Samuel Johnson dictionary, Noah Webster dictionary and Routledge dictionary (Hitchings, 2005). The publication of the grammars and dictionaries at this period intended to teach the English language to the welsh population. In 1536, the Act of Union was established between the Wales and England that allowed the improvement and correction of the English language (Demaria, 1986). The process allowed a codification process that was influenced by the kings English to cater for legal and administrative language. In addition, the codification process at this period incorporated literary English that governed the great literature used in publishing and printing. Lastly, the codification language incorporated oxford English to be used for education and religious purposes.
Therefore, codification in this period affected standard language because it influenced its spoken form. For instance, the influence of education in codification affected pronunciation in the nineteenth century because of the rise of public schools. Nonetheless, the extensive use of radio and television gave rise to BBC English that influenced individual’s pronunciation and media English became acceptable to the society because it was widely understood(Hitchings, 2005).

Plolific Writer said...

Reasons why dictionaries were commissioned
The reason why dictionaries were commissioned is to help provide standard rules that will govern the English language. For instance, Dictionary of English language was commissioned by a group of authors in London to ensure that English language followed specific language. Before commissioning dictionaries, English language was unruly and messy; thus, this called for some kind of discipline to disentangle the mess of the language.
Moreover, modern education ensured that English education gained ground and was the main source of medium to transfer ideas and information. For instance, in India educational papers were written in English such as the Cuttack standard that promoted English journalism. At this period, the need for education was a subject topic in various Odia periodicals and newspapers such as Utkala Darpana(1873). The Odia newspapers published government notices, notifications, important reports and advertisements published in the English language. Therefore, both odia and English language was restored in schools to be used as formal education \. However, with modern education it became important to formalize Odia and English language. Therefore, this called for commissioning of dictionaries to provide bilingual dictionaries that could be used for specific schools purposes. Already existing dictionaries underwent commissioning to allow the inclusion of odia and English language. For instance, an advertisement in a book prepared for the use of Orissa government schools wrote that it contained updated words of sancrut origin and definitions to cater for the people common language (Mishra & Sridhar, 2017). As such, it is safe to say that dictionaries were commissioned to form a part of a reference material that would help translate textbooks published in the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, the commissioned dictionaries written in bilingual language helped the local to read and learn the English language.

Topnotch Writer said...

Criteria used to include words in the dictionary
Four major criteria are used to integrate a new word in the dictionary, which includes evidence, new words, removal of old words and including words in the ELT dictionaries. For new words to be integrated into the dictionary there should be proof of evidence that is created with an entry word known as dord. The case of dord highlights that when one writes a dictionary there should be research evidence that provides practical usage of the word (Lynch, 2004). Thus, for a word to be inputted in a dictionary, it should have been used regularly and widely. The criteria were established because early lexicographers relied on their knowledge to include things that caught their eyes in the dictionary. Thus, this called for vast quantity of evidence where dictionary makers established if the hard evidence was efficient to include a word in the dictionary.
Second, new words in the oxford dictionary were integrated when the word fit the English lexicon. If the editors of the oxford dictionary established that a word was consisted with the rules of the English lexicon, it was included in the dictionary. More importantly, the word will be included in oxford dictionary if it has appeared in more than five times in different sources such as print and media over a five-year period. However, some exceptions are made if the words are used frequently because the five-year period provides an inconvenient time lag for a word to be formally recognized in a dictionary.

Third, dictionary makers use the reading and marking process of sourcing published material to find out information about new uses of existing words. Other publishers use spell checkers and apply to new texts to retrieve a list of times that is not included in dictionaries. Nonetheless, before the new word is added in the dictionary, the editor must ensure that it has enough citation to indicate that it has been used widely. In addition, dictionaries publishers monitor the development of English new words by conducting a language research on the internet and public journals. The publishers gather data from online tests, printed materials, glossaries and encyclopedia. After retrieving information, the publishers will establish the frequent occurrence of a particular word to determine its potential inclusion in the dictionary (Lynch, 2004).
It is worth noting that the main consideration for dictionary publisher use to include a word in a learner’s dictionary is the intended use of the dictionary. For instance, an advanced learner’s dictionary will contain a broad coverage of words as compared to low-level dictionaries. For the advanced learners dictionaries, the level of word include will use more derivatives, idioms and fixed expressions to five a detailed sense of classifications. As such, this indicates that new words are more likely to be integrated in high level dictionaries because they have a huge scope an extended coverage as compared to level dictionaries.

Research Guru said...

Extent the dictionary is either prescriptive or descriptive
Prescriptivism is the enforcement of standard set of rules per an individual or institution. Prescriptivism in dictionaries outlines the language rules that one should follow in language usage (Abecassis, 2008). Usually, the prescriptivism dictionaries are traditional and pass down wisdom to teach people about new terminologies. On the other hand, descriptivism in lexicographical means the language has a set of behaviors and usage examined by editors.
For instance, language comprises a set of characteristics that is obtained from a study and has an explanation offered. So in essence, prescriptivism used in dictionaries provides logic and rules while descriptivist’s words have no standards as they use expressive words to derive a certain mood. Thus, American English dictionary that have a historical survey and terms of American history are largely prescriptivism. For instance, the Webster dictionary (1939), American heritages (1969) were written in a prescriptive manner to indicate the traditional and liberal way of English thinkers (Abecassis, 2008). Besides, the prescriptive dictionaries were written for marketing purposes as they helped translate English language published on texts. For people to purchase large texts, the dictionaries had to define various terms in the publications to allow the texts to reach a wider audience. Therefore, the lexicographers analyzed large numbers of previous texts to understand the written text and learn about new language and words used. Thereafter, the lexicographers had a responsibility of explaining the texts to folks in dictionaries to promote an understanding of the written text.
Nonetheless, descriptivist dictionaries use large uses of data that people could use as a reference material. The dictionaries had an input of panels of experts that provided advice on language matters to help the lexicographers input acceptable time. Therefore, most words used in descriptive dictionaries are used to describe common debates to provide meaning and resolve confusions associated with linguistic behavior. In fact, descriptive language is used to help provide guidelines for effective language use for modes of speech and writing. For example, the oxford English dictionary is a descriptivist because it has excellent etymologies, perfect use of citations and contains comprehensive historical perspectives (Abecassis, 2008).

In conclusion, prescriptive language use in dictionaries is criticized, as it does not take into account any stylistic and language changes. Critics feel that prescriptive grammar impose the norms of conservative people to all English language users. Thus, linguistics feels that this characteristic of prescriptive grammar exemplifies the specific attitude of language usage. As such, it is advisable that dictionaries incorporate both descriptive and prescriptive language to cater for the needs of the new generations that have new languages. Descriptive language plays a significant role in dictionaries because it provides a description of linguistic structures that will help enrich utterances of native speakers.

Abecassis, M. (January 01, 2008). The ideology of the perfect dictionary : how efficient can a dictionary be?. Lexikos, 18, 1-14.
DeMaria, R. (1987). Johnson's dictionary and the language of learning. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Hitchings, H. (2006). Dr Johnson's dictionary: The extraordinary story of the book that defined the world. London: John Murray.
In Sridhar, M., & In Mishra, S. (2017). Language policy and education in India: Documents, contexts and debates Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Johnson, S., & Lynch, J. (2004). Samuel Johnson's dictionary: Selections from the 1755 work that defined the English language. Londres: Atlantic Books.