During the Middle English period English language was divided into a number of dialects. There was on standard English that the English people could follow throughout the country for written and verbal communication. But towards the end of the fourteenth century of one the local dialects emerged as a written language that in the course of the fifteenth won general recognition and has since become the recognized standard in both speech and writing. The part of England that contributed most to the formation of this standard was the East Midland district, and it was the East Midland type of English that became its basis, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London. Several causes contributed to the attainment of this result.
In the first place, as a Midland dialect the English of this region occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south. It was less conservative than the Southern dialect, less radical than the Northern. In its sounds and inflections it represents a kind of compromise, sharing some of the characteristics of both its neighbors. This intermediate position was one of the factors that helped the Midland dialect to gain popularity.
In the second place, the East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect areas. The land was more valuable than the hilly country to the north and west, and in an agricultural age this advantage was reflected in both the number and the prosperity of the inhabitants. The political prominence of Middlesex, Oxford, Norfolk, and the East Midlands all through the later Middle Ages is also another evidence of the importance of the district and of the extent to which its influence was likely to be felt.
A third factor, more difficult to evaluate, was the presence of the universities, Oxford and Cambridge, in this region. In the fourteenth century the monasteries were playing a less important role in the dissemination of learning than they had once played, while the two universities had developed into important intellectual centers. So far as Cambridge is concerned any influence that it had would be exerted in support of the East Midland dialect. That of Oxford is less certain because Oxfordshire is on the border between Midland and Southern and its dialect shows certain characteristic Southern features.
The influence of Chaucer was also another factor that helped the rise of the standard English. There is a controversy as how much Chaucer influenced the rise of the standard English. It was once thought that Chaucer’s importance was paramount among the influences bringing about the adoption of a written standard. But the recent studies show that though he lent support to the Midland dialect , his influence was confined to a limited circle. Chaucer was a court poet, and his usage may reflect the speech of the court and to a certain extent only literary tradition.
The Importance of London English
By far the most influential factor in the rise of Standard English was the importance of London as the capital of England. Indeed, it is altogether likely that the language of the city would have become the prevailing dialect without the help of any of the factors previously discussed. In doing so it would have been following the course of other national tongues—French as the dialect of Paris, Spanish as that of Castile, and others. London was, and still is, the political and commercial center of England. It was the seat of the court, of the highest judicial tribunals, the focus of the social and intellectual activities of the country. By the fifteenth century there had come to prevail in the East Midlands a fairly uniform dialect, and the language of London agrees in all important respects with it. In the latter part of the fifteenth century the London standard had been accepted, at least in writing, in most parts of the country. To sum up, the history of Standard English is almost a history of London English.
It would be a mistake to think that complete uniformity was attained within the space of a few generations. Even in matters of vocabulary dialectal differences have persisted in cultivated speech down to the present day, and they were no less noticeable in the period during which London English was gaining general acceptance. However, the above mentioned factors helped the rise of what has been accepted as the standard English.
A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.