Standard English (1450- ), also known as proper English or good English, is the English you learn at school and see in books, the kind you hear on the evening news, like on CNN or the BBC. It is the kind you see in The New York Times and The Economist.
Few people speak it natively, so it is probably not what you speak at home or with your friends. If you ever had the experience at school of something “sounding right” but being told it was bad English, then Standard English is not your native language. Even in England only one person in six speaks it natively.
Each country has a slightly different form of Standard English. But the differences are so slight that most people cannot tell which country a given piece of writing came from.
Once you learn the Standard English of your own country, it is easy to understand that of any other country. For example, most Americans in Jamaica cannot understand the English they hear in the streets, but they have no trouble understanding the evening news there.
There are dozens of kinds of English. Standard English is just one of them. It is not better than any other form of English except for two things:
- It is understood all over the world wherever English is spoken.
- It will not make you sound like you lack education or intelligence, which almost any other form of English will when used in the wrong circles.
Standard English started in the middle 1400s in London. That was when:
- The government made all its clerks write in the same kind of English no matter what part of England they came from.
- Caxton began to print books in English.
Caxton wanted to sell as many books as possible, so he used the English of the well-to-do of London. It was the same sort of English the government was using. Standard English was born.
Here is Caxton as an old man in London in 1490:
And certainly our language now used varies far from that which was used and spoken when I was born.
All I changed was the spelling, nothing else. It still makes sense 500 years later. So, as much as English had changed since the 1420s when Caxton was a boy, Standard English has changed little in the hundreds of years since then.
The main changes since the 1400s:
- The word “its” was added in the early 1600s, taking the place of all those whereofs.
- The loss of “thou“, “didst” and so on.
- The spelling became fixed in the middle 1600s.
- A huge number of Latin and Greek words were added in the late 1600s and again in the late 1900s.
- The grammar was partly modelled on Latin in the 1700s.
Standard English spread through the middle-class in the 1700s and then, with the rise of public education in the 1800s, to society as a whole.
– Abagond, 2008.