A Brief History of the English Language Part 4 - The People's English

Part 1 briefly covered the period from the 5th century CE to the 14th century.
Part 2 describes Chaucer's influence on the development of English.
Part 3 covers the period from Chaucer to the Elizabethan age.

The People's English

When people adopt rules for a language, most especially when they do it without conscious thought, the mere fact of a large number of language users thinking the same way leads to a convergence, a uniformity. The grammar of a language cannot be imposed by schools - it must evolve naturally or the language will die out.   But a grammar, having once evolved naturally can assist the budding author or orator in creating a unique personal style based on a mixture of established uses and personal artistic flourishes.

The English language, especially in the matter of literary language, took about one hundred years after Chaucer to develop into a form that writers could recognise as a standard, and conform to. There were no schools giving formal instruction in English. There were no books of English grammar, no English dictionaries, nor even any spelling books. There was no uniform foundation on which to erect literary monuments. It is all the more astounding, then, that so many acheived so much with the newly rising English language.

There are invisible forces at work in any human language tending to modify it. Two of the most powerful forces are the rule of analogy and the rule of euphony. When people are unsure how to make a variant of a word, they mostly use as a model any word which seems to them to be somewhat similar. With the dropping of the sound of final 'e' in many English words, people were at a loss to know how to form the correct inflection to suit the purpose.

In the absence of a clear rule of grammar, in every language people will tend to use the most regular form available. In English that led eventually to the classes of regular verbs and nouns, the regular possessive with s and the loss of grammatical genders. The rule of euphony causes people faced with a choice of pronunciations to choose the one that either 'sounds right' or is easiest to say. It might well be called a rule of fluency. The rule causes words to conform with a high frequency of ocurrence to an overall 'shape' or orthography.

The medieval grammar schools.

In the age which gave us Cristopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, schooling was Latin based.  In that age there were many scholars who could speak Latin fluently.  Latin was still the universal language of much of Europe.  It was a subject for study in its own right. English pedagogs soon followed the lead of Petrus Ramus.   It was thought desirable to teach, not the naturally evolved vernacular Latin grammar of the medieval age, but a 'pure' form. But where to find that purity? The mythical 'everybody' agreed that only the Latin of Cicero was worth teaching, and it soon became the only Latin taught in England.

A generation of schoolboys being punished for using 'vulgarisms' was enough to establish Cicero as the source of all things Latin. If anybody wanted to study grammar, they studied Cicero. Rhetoric? Cicero. Examples of quality literary prose? Cicero. And so more and more Latin grammars came to contain only words from Cicero, phrases from Cicero, patterns from Cicero. A language confined into too small a space suffocated and dies. In England, a land where Latin once flourished, it died out, coming to be found only in dead books written by long dead hands.

" ... all barbary, all corruption, all Latin adulterate, which ignorant blind fools brought into this world, and with the same hath distained and poisoned the old Latin speech, and the veray Roman tongue which in the time of Sallust and Virgil was used — I say that filthiness and all such abusion, which the later blind world brought in, which more rather may be called Bloterature than Literature, I utterly banish and exclude out of this school."
John Colet (January 1467 – 10 September 1519) - text modernised.

In a climate of 'Ciceronian' studies, much of great worth in antiquity was ignored for many years. Just at the time when this old knowledge was being rediscovered there was a boom in the arts and the sciences. At a time of the discovery of new lands, academia was rediscovering old fields. Casting aside the rigid frames imposed on writings by pedagogs, great works of magic were done with the English language by pen and by press.
"From jigging veins of riming mother wits
And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay
We'll lead you to the stately tent of war,
Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine
Threatening the world with high astounding terms
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword."
Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593)

In the course of a few decades English began anew to adopt new coinages. By their very newness these words were considered 'hard words', hard for ordinary people to say and to write. For a brief period, many alternative spellings could be found, but the rise of literacy helped to stabilise the language once more.

The humbler writings of tradesmen are often overlooked in studies of English. The value of these writings is that they show a remarkable conformity of spelling and vocabulary with the literary writings of the age. This tends to prove that the language was evolving in its day-to-day use by ordinary people. Most people have heard of Samuel Pepys diary.   Few will have heard of the diary of Henry Machyn.   He lived about 1480 to 1560, exact dates unknown.

The same day be twyne a xj&xij a fore noon the lady
Elizabeth waſ proclamyd quen elsabeth quen of England
France&yrland deffender of the ffeyth by dyverse
harold of armeſ&trumpetorſ&dukeſ lord&knights
the wyche waſ ther present ye duke of norfoke my
Lord tresorer ye yerle of shrovsbere ye yerele of bedford & the
Lord mayre & ye althermen & dyuer odur lord & knyghts
The same day between eleven and twelve before noon the Lady Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, by divers heralds of arms and trumpeters and dukes, lords, and knights. The which was there present the Duke of Norfolk, my lord treasurer, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Earl of Bedford, and the lord mayor and the aldermen and divers other lords and knights.
Henry Machyn Diary, 17th November 1558

The entire group of people who use a language, which I call the commune of that language, cause the language to evolve into a communal form, the collective, a language having the collective properties injected into it by each and every user. The collective is formed by the commune through the democracy of a free choice exercised by each user.  Once in a while a language user will so freely exercise a choice of style as to influence a majority of the commune into copying that style of language.   Such a man was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare had the good fortune to have been educated in a grammar school of the English Renaissance. Whilst still very much Latin based, the schools were now teaching a broader base of classical studies.   Little is know about Shakespeare's early life.  However, from the contents of his plays it may be seen that he had a very broad knowledge, a breadth of knowledge in fact greater than that of most academics of his time. Language, law, history, geography, all these and more were Shakespeare's to command.

In a new era the English language blossomed anew.  It was the Elizabethan age. It was the age of adventure, age of exploration, age of discovery.  Into that age came a man whose turn of phrase so delighted the people that they took his words and phrases into the language.  Modern English owes much of its power and flexibility to Shakespeare.  The new English could produce laughter or tears, gasps of amazement or shudders of horror.  When at last a dictionary of the English language was compiled, by Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare was cited more than any other author.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle raine from heauen
Vpon the place beneath. It is twice blest,
It blesseth him that giues, and him that takes,
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned Monarch better then his Crowne.
His Scepter shewes the force of temporall power,
The attribute to awe and Maiestie,
Wherein doth sit the dread and feare of Kings:
But mercy is aboue this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of Kings,
The Merchant of Venice

The Elizabethan era gave a new vigour to the English language.   William Bullokar produced pamphlets in an attempt to standardise English grammar and orthography, but it was Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson who gave English its first true book of rules, English Grammar in 1640.  However, it was not adopted in the schools.   Queen Elizabeth herself gave much to the language.
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.
Elizabeth I  speech at Tilbury.

Thus far the English language was the people's English, shaped by the people, nurtured and grown by the people, used freely and artistically by the people.  But it came to be called the King's English.  What belongs to the King must be governed and safeguarded.  No academy was created to safe guard English.  Its guardians have always been self-appointed.  In every age since Chaucer there have always been champions ready to fight against the 'terrible wrongs' done against the 'purity' of the language.  None of them seems to have troubled themselves to study how language works and to discover that the tide of change in English has grown to be unstoppable.

Continued in Part 5