The particular English dialect that began to be adopted as standard more than half a millennium ago came from the UK, mostly the region encompassing London, Oxford, and Cambridge.
This part of the country was the hub of society, politics and education at the time, serving also as a bridge between northern and southern modes of expression. In Our Language, Simeon Potter writes that the East Midland dialect ‘had assumed an acknowledged ascendancy’.
According to David Crystal‘s The English Language, the clinching factor was William Caxton, who established his printing press in Westminster in 1476 and used the speech of the London area ‘as the basis for his translations and spelling’. By the end of the 15th century,
the distinction between ‘central’ and ‘provincial’ life was firmly established. It was reflected in the distinction between ‘standard’ and ‘regional’ speech — the former thought of as correct, proper, and educated, the latter as incorrect, careless, and inferior — which is still with us today.
From then on, standard English gradually secured its status as a prestige dialect in the English-speaking world. It was taught by educators guided by grammar books and dictionaries, to spread and sustain a (more or less) common set of norms in spelling, grammar and usage; the process continues today, overseen by editors and other authorities.
In ‘The Rise of Prescriptivism in English’ (PDF), Shadyah A. N. Cole says that before 1650, ‘tolerance with variation in language abounded’. Subsequently it was felt that the use of the language should be ‘regularized, standardized, codified, and unified’. Eventually:
As a result of the slowing of changes in pronunciation and other linguistic changes, the influence of the printing press, and spelling reformers, written English now had a form that varies only a little from what is current today.
Today, many people use standard English when circumstances demand, and default to other registers the rest of the time. Or rather: they use a form of standard English — it’s not as uniform and definitive as the name might suggest, and there is no little variation in the standards that obtain in different countries and contexts.
Still, there’s no mistaking the non-standard quality of lines like the following, though they are fully suited to the context in which they are naturally expressed:
Your Aunt Edith seen it happen and run out and drug him in.
‘Fine view,’ I said, ‘iffi’n only that barn warn’t there…’
There’s people got so much faith they can believe what ain’t…
Somebody said as how the town ought to clean Ogilby’s statue — become plumb pigeonfied last few years.
These are from Robert Arthur’s short story ‘Obstinate Uncle Otis’, which I read last week in Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery anthology. As you might guess, the story’s regional language, far from diminishing my reading experience, hugely enhanced it.
Yet a practice exists of censuring non-standard words, pronunciations, and grammatical forms. The internet abounds in sneers at variant usage. Even reputable news outlets publish articles that pour scorn on particular speech patterns; readers are tacitly or explicitly invited to join in, which they enthusiastically do.
So you’d be forgiven for supposing that standard English is inherently better: more logical, consistent, robust and so on. Not so: it’s riddled with illogic and inconsistency. Kory Stamper recently said that the language is ‘a lovely, powerful mess’, and this is as true of standard English as any other variety.
Here is a pertinent passage from one of my favourite books on writing and language, Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:
. . . we ought to rethink the widely shared notion that every feature of standard English has some kind of self-evident, naturally determined “logic” that makes it intrinsically superior to its corresponding form in nonstandard English. In educated written English intended for general circulation, ain’t is socially “wrong.” But we ought not try to convince ourselves or anyone else that ain’t — along with most other errors of its kind — is wrong because it is inherently defective and is therefore evidence of an inherently defective mind. Such errors are “wrong” because of historically accidental reasons. Until we recognize the arbitrary nature of our judgments, too many of us will take “bad” grammar as evidence of laziness, carelessness, or a low IQ. That belief is not just wrong. It is socially destructive.
In ‘Ideology, Power, and Linguistic Theory’ (PDF), Geoffrey Pullum writes:
Unjustified and perhaps unjustifiable, the rules of the prescriptive ideologues, dimly grasped and often misunderstood, nonetheless form the backbone of what the general public understands and believes about English grammar. . . .
It is a familiar pattern for people to reify an unjustifiable set of regulative rules that are supported mainly by the taste of the person making the proposal, to treat them as if they were the constitutive correctness conditions for some language that people do not speak but should, and to call that language English.
Standard English, though a minority dialect, enjoys an exalted position in the family of English dialects. But this is a matter of historical happenstance. Socially privileged it may be, linguistically superior it is not. Variation makes communication more interesting, and it can be savoured rather than disdained.
Language Hat has a good discussion of some of the issues raised in this post.