The spread of English since the late 16th century

1. Sum up the social-historical background for the spread of English since 1500.

• English was spoken by about 4 million people (around year 1600)

• Revival of learning – Renaissance (European Renaissance: approximately 14th – 17th centuries; The English Renaissance roughly covers the 16th and early 17th Century, and is often referred to as the “Elizabethan Era” or the “Age of Shakespeare”) The revival of classical scholarship brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the language.

• Religious upheaval – Reformation (English Reformation was a series of events in 16th century England, by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of Roman Catholic Church)

• Beginnings of the commercial Revolution, and a radical capitalistic change as a result

• William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476 and the East Midland dialect became the literary standard of English. In 1582, Richard Mulcaster proposed in his treatise "Elementaire" a compromise on spelling and by 1623, Henry Cockrum published his English dictionary. Publishing for the masses became a profitable enterprise, and works in English, as opposed to Latin, became more common. Up to 20,000 books were printed in the following 150 years, ranging from mythic tales and popular stories to poems, phrasebooks, devotional pieces and grammars, and Caxton himself became quite rich from his printing business (among his best sellers were Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Thomas Malory’s “Tales of King Arthur”).

• Black Death came to Europe in 1347, and stayed until about 1700. What the Black Death began was a severe labour shortage. Most of the ties of feudal bondage fell away.

• While all these important developments were underway, British naval superiority was also growing. In the 16th and 17th Century, international trade expanded immensely, and loanwords were absorbed from the languages of many other countries throughout the world, including those of other trading and imperial nations such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

French (e.g. bizarre, ballet, sachet, crew, progress)

Italian (e.g. carnival, fiasco, arsenal, casino, miniature)

Spanish (e.g. armada, bravado, cork, barricade, cannibal);

Persian (e.g. shawl, lemon, caravan, bazaar, tambourine);

Japanese (e.g. tycoon, geisha, karate, samurai);

• Before the expansion the use of the language as an everyday medium of communication very much depended on the settlement patterns of Saxons.

• Two rather contrary currents existed: tradition and modernization. Tradition – rural areas. Traditional dialects developed relatively independently of changes in the modernizing part of society. Isolated communities –no contact with other dialects. Modernisation - publishing sector – formulated something more or less like a particular variety of English. This variety spread in educational contexts, which very often meant in the form of writing. Grammar school were teaching Latin, but the language of instruction was English. Mass reading public – more and more people were in contact with written English (which associated with the standard). As a result of modernisation - koineization, koine (dialect leveling) – a leveling of different dialects, usually as a result of migration, resulting koine. For instance, London English in the late ME was undergoing it.

• The Age of Discovery (1492 – Columbus discovered America). European race of colonies. According to Hakluyt, there were four reasons for the colonization: 1) religious, 2) economic, 3) political, 4) technical-geographic. Permanent English colony in Jamestown (1610)

• Britain exported its surplus, usually English-speaking, population (there were some speakers of Gaelic and Welsh as well) to its colonial holdings. In North America - later also in Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand - they were settlers; in the Caribbean -later also in Papua, Queensland, and East Africa- they were plantation owners and overseers; in West Africa - later also in South and Southeast Asia - they were traders.

• The interesting point is that the kind of English which was exported as the language spread was the General English that had become established in the Southeast of England, most especially in London.

2. How did the process of urbanization affect the dialectal situation in England in this period? What other processes impacted the formation of Standard and General English?


  • brought people with varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds together
  • both ENL speakers of often very different regional varieties as well as indigenous and immigrant people with non-English language backgrounds.
  • this has resulted in a number of different but closely related standards

Two rather contrary currents at work in shaping English in the period

  1. Tradition
  • sedentary population in the predominantly rural areas
  • traditional dialects: while not unchanging, developed relatively independently of the changes in the modernizing part of society
  • relative lack of cultural& linguistic contact and mixing-> greater stability and slower change

2. Modernization

  • newly forming urban communities whose population consisted of people from all the dialect areas of England
  • "innovating central areas"
  • characterized by contact
  • greater social and linguistic instability-> the emergence of new forms and structural leveling

Spread of literacy

  • mass reading public
  • increasing numbers of people came into contact with the kind of written English which is associated with Standard English


  • such as the State, the Church, schools, publishing sector: selected and promoted a particular variety of English
  • this new variety was transmitted most prominently in educational contexts
  • extension of the Standard language to more and more domains

3. How do you understand Gramley's term General English (do we have similar term for Czech)? In which ways it is useful?

covers both StE and non-standard GenE X does not refer to traditional dialects or creoles
  • two poles - highly standardized variety used for published writing or formal discourse X colloquial type including a great deal of non-standard English
    • these non-standard items may be found across the ENL world and therefore they are similar enough to be easily comprehensible
      • e.g. third person singular present tense don't, the use of ain't or multiple negation
    • these two poles share most of their grammar, vocabulary and phonology
    • there is widespread agreement on the vocabulary and the central grammatical categories

-> the local, regional or national varieties are easily comprehensible and not likely to be misunderstood (e.g. despite different pronunciation)

  • for Czech we have similar term - Common Czech (obecná čeština)
    • an interdialect spoken in Bohemia and west Moravia

4. Give examples of the differentiation of the traditional English dialects and General English. Explain the history of those differences.

  • Grammatical gender in GenE and in traditional dialects:

GenE – only remnants of gender marking pronoun system

human – non-human distinction (relative pronouns who × which)

– masculine he, feminine she, neuter it (+ special cases – feminine reference to cars, boats etc.)

English West Country dialect

– every object – either masculine or feminine

count versus mass distinction

pitcher, tool, book, house, coat, cat, letter = he

impersonal, abstract – water, snow, air, weather, hay = it

more recent material – more mixing – it used in object position, he retained as a subject

when I saw the plough nobody valued it, if he had been kept dry he would have been good now

  • The present tense verb inflection {-s}

The use of non-third person {-s}

GenE – restricted to fixed uses, such as:

A: Says who?

B: Says I.

– usage in the vernacular, once more widespread

5. Characterize the spread of English in North America and Australia with regard to the dialectal and social status of the immigrants.

  • turbulent situation in 17th century England – suppression of religious dissenters → emigration
    • up to the Civil War: new middle class, better educated than average, familiar with the emerging standard
    • with the outbreak of the Civil War: poorer, less well educated people, uprooted from rural life, became part of the urban proletarian class = less affected by the written standard, but giving up their regional varieties in favour of the new spoken urban varieties (esp. London, to become GenE)
  • North America
    • early settlers were the better-educated separatists and Puritans that settled in New England, and the genteel classes that were to become planters of Virginia and the Carolinas
    • new waves of immigrants: from London, the Home Counties, the North of England, Scotland, Ulster = largely speakers of non-standard general English
  • Australia
    • officers in charge of the administration – closer to StE
    • transported prisoners – lower classes, non-standard English
  • the contact between the various dialects, the different environment, and different native languages English came into contact with caused changes to the language → new local standards developed and spread across the territory (North America, Australia, ...)

6. Describe and exemplify the proces of dialectical levelling (koineization) on the newly settled territories (e.g.North America)

- The mixing of people from different dialect regions led to evening out differences- koinéization

- Koinéization- process of leveling dialects

- Koiné- a language/dialect that has arisen a result of contact between these dialects

Example: Farmers in colonial settlement in North America could use for one referent Northern form stack, Southern mow, or rick. All three forms could be used alongside, but eventually people will opt for only one of them. So today in North America the predominant of the three would be stack (as it is used also in non-farm context).