Learning standard English by accident

Speakers of minority languages that shifted to English in the early modern period ended up speaking a form of standard English. This is often thought to be because they were (forcibly) taught standard English in schools. But in my new article, I argue that in fact, these speakers ended up learning standard English by accident. 

It has long been observed that the English of areas where a different language was spoken previously is more standard-like than that of neighboring areas where English has always been spoken. Comments to this effect have been made for Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Shetland. There has never been any systematic research into why this is, but off-hand comments suggest it’s because minority language speakers learned English in schools, and obviously what is taught in schools is standard English. But there are problems with such an account.

These language shifts took place in the early modern period, roughly the 16th to 18th centuries. Education in these peripheral areas was not very widespread. There will have been some, focused on basic reading and writing, simple sums, and the catechism, but by all accounts the level of this education was rather low and literacy often did not go much beyond being able to scribble your name. The early modern period was also the time when English became standardized — the production of grammars, dictionaries and elocution guides for the rising middle classes took off in the 18th century. If these basic schools even taught standard English, what even was it?

A much more likely scenario is that these minority language speakers learned English just by speaking to other English speakers. But their models for language acquisition were quite a varied bunch, often English-speaking migrants from different areas. The English that the minority language speakers learned was a dialect mixture, and from work on different situations of dialect mixture (most notably in New Zealand) we know that first-language acquisition in a dialect mixture situation leads to a more standard-like language. There is no reason to assume it has a different effect on second-language acquisition.

A standard language itself is often the result of dialect mixture as well. Many standard languages, including English, is based in the dialect of large cities, where the population history shows migration from different dialect areas. Any language planning is also often aimed at removing marked local features, exactly the kinds of features that disappear from a dialect mixture in a migration context.

All things considered, minority-language speakers probably didn’t learn standard English in schools, but by speaking to English speakers learned a variety of the language that looked like the standard simply because learning a language in a dialect mixture situation gets rid of “weird stuff”.

This blogpost is based on article I recently published in the Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics 1(2) (2015) 189–211. (Users with a University of Groningen login click here.)