Language in London


Sources include:

Second (ME) and third (EmodE) volumes of Cambridge History of the

English Language. Passim.

Ekwall, Eilert. Studies on the population of medieval London. Stockholm:

Almqvist & Wiksell, 1956.

Nevalainen, Terrtu and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg. Historical

Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Longman, 2003.

Samuels, M.L. “Some applications of Middle English Dialectology.”

English Studies 44 (1963). 81-94.


You start finding metalinguistic comments about English in the 14th century


By the late 16th century, there are explicit metalinguistic comments about the prestige of London English


It’s understandable why the English found in London acquired prestige and probably ultimately formed the basis of the modern standard

-from ancient times, a political capital

-its setting on the River Thames had obvious advantages for trade and commerce


Important center for English and prestige varieties of it

-influence of kings and courts

-and of civil service: need for a variety of English that is as precise as


-activities of wealthy and powerful merchants (political as well as trade)

-lots of contact among speakers of different dialects

          -need for intelligible variety of it

                   -standards often based on variety of capital

                             -but diffused ‘supra-regionally’


There have been arguments for other centers being important

-London records have attracted more scholars so we find what we look for

-many copies of the Wycliffite bible done in the Central Midlands (around Oxford?) and widely circulated

-Samuels has argued this ‘standard literary language’ affected later London conventions


London’s language may always have been quite heterogeneous (scholars argue over this)

-one big problem: MSS tend to have written conventions that don’t correspond with speech

-geographical location put London on the boundary of many dialect areas

-early variation explained by oral/written, class, regional influences?

-modern standard English contains a hodgepodge of forms

          -north: pronouns like they, 3 sg verb in –s, are

          -south: lexical items like vat and vixen

          -Kent/Essex: reflexes of OE /y/ like merry and bury

          -different ways of leveling strong verbs

                   -under singular form (e.g. wrote): northern strategy

                   -under past participle (e.g. found): western strategy


What everybody does roughly agree on is that its character changed a lot from the early to the late medieval period

-in 12th and 13th centuries, basically southern (arguments over if and what kind of mix)

-in 14th and 15th centuries, basically midland


Primary cause of this change almost certainly immigration

-late 13th-mid 14th especially from the East Midlands

-other factors: lingua franca in the London, Oxford, Cambridge triangle


How do we explain the consequent linguistic change?

-prestige of speakers

-language contact situations: modern studies of urban dialects argue that you need particular kinds of social networks if dialect contact is to result in

-> key idea: if you have a loosely knit social structure it will promote variation and change


As well as being ‘instrumental in promoting dialect mixtures’, London was also instrumental in spreading linguistic innovation

-existing trade routes: wool, meat, etc.

-prestige of Chancery: copy documents that you receive

-in 16th century, prestige of court (Nevalainen)