Project Description

Emerging Standards: Urbanisation and the Development of Standard English, c. 1400-1700

The objective of the project is to illuminate the complex processes involved in the emergence and development of Standard languages. Individual accounts of emerging Standard languages in, for instance, Early Modern Europe (cf. Deumert and Vandenbussche, eds., 2003) attach great importance to the role that language policies and authorities with power and prestige play in the standardisation processes (language history “from above”), while more covert factors such as the effects of national and international trade, work migration, and the book trade, have often been marginalised. By using the example of the emergence of Standard English, this project explores the role of such factors in the origin and spread of a formal written Standard. To this end, a novel inter-disciplinary approach will be applied that combines historical linguistics, socioeconomic history and textual history. As this project explores an alternative history of language standardisation in England, the focus that was traditionally on the pre-eminent urban community – London – will be shifted to regional centres. More precisely, urban vernaculars of major regional centres with high levels of literacy and text production (manuscripts as well as printed texts from 1476 onwards) will be systematically investigated over the period 1400-1700 with respect to factors such as time, text type, and migration patterns The study focuses on the vernaculars of York (North), Bristol (Southwest), Coventry (West Midlands), and Norwich (East Anglia). A comparison of the results of these longitudinal studies, and results from studies on London English, is expected to (a) clarify our understanding of the origin and spread of formal written English, and (b) make a fundamental contribution to the field of language standardisation in general. Moreover, new empirical English data from the period c. 1400-1700 will be made publicly available in the form of electronic corpora.

In order to unravel the complex processes involved in the emergence and development of Standard languages, as illustrated by the case of English, a number of questions need to be answered:

Q1 In what ways and to what extent did historical urban vernaculars – notably York, Bristol, Coventry and Norwich (as well as London) – have an effect on the shaping of written Standard English?

To be able to answer Q1, the following research questions need to be addressed first:

Q2 What internal variation (spelling, morphology, syntax and lexis) do Middle English and
Early Modern English written sources from York, Bristol, Coventry and Norwich exhibit?
The focus will be on variation with respect to time, text-type and, data permitting, gender
and social stratification.
Q3 What patterns in the diffusion of language change can be determined (a) in the selected
urban vernaculars and (b) from them into the emerging supra-local norm?
Q4 How can we account for the dissemination of (selected) linguistic features? Both internal and external factors of language change will be scrutinised.

These questions will be tackled in four sub-projects, the ultimate findings of which allow us to answer the main research question (Q1):

  • Sub-project 1: The Urban Vernacular of the City of York (c. 1400-1700) (carried out by the PI Anita Auer)
  • Sub-project 2: Language Variation and Change in Coventry (c. 1400-1700) (Completed Ph.D. project – Tino Oudesluijs)
  • Sub-project 3: The Urban Vernacular of Late Medieval and Renaissance Bristol (Completed Ph.D. project – Moragh Gordon)
  • Sub-project 4: The Development from Urban Dialect to Supra-local Norm –
    the Case of Norwich (c. 1400-1700) (collaboration project)

For further details please contact Anita Auer (