Standard English, the sort of English you learn at school and read in books, the kind I am writing in now, was born in the government offices of London in the early 1400s and given shape by London printers in the late 1400s and early 1500s.
In the 1300s there was a great poet – Chaucer – and a famous translation of the Bible – Wycliffe’s. Either one could have led to a standard, a model of written English that most people follow. It was not to be: Chaucer’s English was too different than spoken English, even back then, and Wycliffe’s Bible became suspect when he got in trouble for his religious views.
Likewise, there is no proof that England’s two great seats of learning, Oxford and Cambridge, had any effect on creating a standard.
Instead the standard was formed by those who produced the most written material in English: the government and the printers in London.
Most well-to-do people in London (but not the poor) spoke in a East Midlands dialect because that was where most of them came from: the East Midlands region north of London. In those days people in the south of England could not understand those in the north – but everyone could understand people from the East Midlands. So that made middle- and upper-class London English a workable standard.
Standard English began to take shape about 1400 among the clerks of the Chancery. They wrote legal documents that went to courts all over the country. Being used to writing in Standard French and Standard Latin, they tended to write English in a standard way too, preferring certain forms and spellings over others. They wrote English in their own dialect, the London English of the well-to-do. It became the language of government.
The spellings graciously, humbly, said, these, them and any, for example, go back to the Chancery clerks. So does -ly, as opposed to -li or -lich. That was where and when the k and e in knife were said and therefore written. And the same for all those other silent letters. To us English spelling is half mad. To them it was how it sounded. Even see and sea sounded different to them – and so to this day we write them differently.
Chancery English, as the language of government, spread beyond its offices so that by 1450 it became hard to tell where most pieces of written English came from.
In 1476 William Caxton opened the first printing press in London. Others soon followed. Each printer produced books in its own particular sort of London English, each loosely based on Chancery English. Over time their English became more and more alike so that by about 1525 there was a clear standard, which by then had become unstoppable.
In the 1600s its spelling and grammar became more or less fixed in its present form. In the 1700s people began to see it as “good” English, everything else becoming “bad” or “dialectical” – even though Standard English itself is just as dialectical.
– Abagond, 2010.