Exploring the English language
Exploring the English language

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Exploring the English language

2 Standardisation

Activity 6

Timing: Allow about 60 minutes

Now read the textbook extract linked below. This chapter describes key developments in the English language from the end of the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century. You should read the whole of the chapter now to gain an overview. You can then return to it later as you need to.

Click here to view Chapter 3, ‘Modernity and English as a national language’. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

As you have just read in the extract, the period in which modern English arose was characterised by fundamental changes in the structure of society. The key linguistic process associated with these changes is standardisation: English was transformed from a vernacular language into one with a standardised variety that could be identified with England as a nation state.

Activity 7

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

From the reading in Activity 6, you have learned that a standard language is one that provides agreed norms of usage, usually codified in dictionaries and grammars, for a wide range of purposes such as education, government and science.

What are the four main processes of standardisation? Make some notes about each process.

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You may have made fuller notes than these but the following is a selection of significant points.

The four main processes of standardisation are:

  1. Selection: of an existing variety, usually that of the most powerful group in society. Key to this process was the invention of printing and its introduction to Britain by Caxton.

  2. Codification: loss of some variability, with the establishment of norms of vocabulary and preferred grammatical forms. In the written form, includes standardised spelling. You may have particularly noted the discussion of the first grammars and dictionaries.

  3. Elaboration: development of new specialised words, phrases and other resources to cope with new purposes. There is considerable material about innovations in the language; you may have particularly noted the explanations and illustration of Latin and Greek entering English especially in the realms of scientific and other intellectual domains.

  4. Implementation: the distribution of texts; through formal education and other means encourages the prescriptive promotion of the standard variety. The Bible itself was an important ‘focusing agent’ through which the standard language was spread among the populations.

Activity 8

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

This activity asks you to use basic skills in retrieving and interpreting numerical information about the elaboration and growth of the English vocabulary in the Early Modern English period.

Look again at Figure 3.3 in ‘Modernity and English as a national language’ (relinked here) which illustrates changes in the English vocabulary 1500–1700. You can find this figure on page 88. Based on this figure, answer the questions below.

1. What happened to the size of the English vocabulary every year between 1500 and 1700? Select one of the options below.






Sometimes grew, sometimes decreased

The correct answer is a.


Every year the English vocabulary grew. You can only see positive numbers on the chart.

2. From the following alternatives, in which decade did the vocabulary grow the least? Select one.







The correct answer is a.


Between 1510 and 1520 the vocabulary grew by less than 500 words. In the other decades it grew by more. In 1610 to 1620 a greater number of words were being added to the vocabulary each year than in the other two periods mentioned.

You may well have found this exercise easy. If you have difficulty interpreting this sort of information, you may like to study the OpenLearn courses Working with charts, graphs and tables and More working with charts, graphs and tables, which offer advice on study skills involving information retrieval and working with numbers.


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