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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England

Contemporary Views

The capital was often singled out in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century commentaries as having a special position on the dialect map of England. The language spoken in and around London was proposed as a model for literary composition in the sixteenth century. In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham explicitly warned aspiring poets against using certain regional and social dialects. He remarks that undesirable language mixing took place in port towns, at frontiers and in the two universities, and strictly dialectal usage was associated with rural areas, including the north. The language of the lower ranks, 'the inferior sort', was similarly to be avoided, regardless of region, as uneducated. For the aspiring poet, Puttenham recommended neither the official documents nor the printed books of the time, however, but the language of the 'better-brought-up sort' of London, and of the Royal Court in particular. Similar comments can be found, for example, in the writings of John Hart, the London orthoepist, some 20 years earlier (Dobson 1968: 64).

In the early modern period, nonlocalizable usages were called the 'usual', 'customary' or 'common' language. As was the case with Hart and Puttenham, reference was usually made to the spoken idiom. In his Logonomia Anglica (1619 [1972: 102, 104]), Alexander Gil combines regional and register criteria when he divides the dialects of England into 'the general, the Northern, the Southern, the Eastern, the Western, and the Poetic'. His 'general' dialect, communis dialectus, is identified as the language of 'persons of genteel character and cultured upbringing'. What Gil, the headmaster of St Paul's school, had in mind were the sociolects spoken by the wealthier sections of the population, in particular, in the capital region.8 These comments suggest that there was in Early Modern English a difference between traditional dialects and what count, at least grammatically, as predecessors of modern mainstream dialects, Standard English among them. Moreover, London and the Royal Court emerge as having played an important role in the formation of the supralocal usages considered worth imitating by people like aspiring young poets in search of patronage.

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