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Alternative Histories of Standard English


Admission requirements

A BA degree in English Language and Culture or in English Linguistics (or equivalent)


Linguists agree nowadays that standard languages are idealized constructs that are resistant to variation in writing and speech. What is more, these idealized constructs are often politically biased and are imposed by educational institutions (amongst others). But where does this standard language ideology come from, who was involved in its creation, when did it emerge and how do standard ideologies relate to the linguistic reality?
Traditional students’ textbook accounts of the emergence of written Standard English tend to trace its beginnings back to a particular place and time in history; it was directly derived from a Middle English written variety that was used in the London area. The argument that is generally provided for this hypothesis is that this variety gained wide currency due to the prestige it was attributed as the language of the capital, the government, and the London elite. More recent studies, however, have convincingly challenged this single-ancestor hypothesis and propose that the development of standard English comprised a complex set of processes that were at work concurrently in various urban centres.
Within the context of the history of the English language, this course will trace the standardisation processes of written English, as well as the development of the standard language ideology. We will critically discuss conflicting accounts of the development of Standard English and explore alternative approaches. Most notably, we will shift focus to standardization processes in other urban centres and zoom in on supralocalisation and dialect leveling processes. Taking a historical sociolinguistic angle, we will look at language change within its sociohistorical context and scrutinize what factors may play a role in (linguistic) standardisation, e.g. language policy, dialect contact, social stance, urbanization and migration, literacy practices, text-type conventions. Covering the period 1400-1800, we will study a variety of text types such as Late Middle English civic records and Early and Late Modern letters to trace the development of a few linguistic features that have become part of what we now call written Standard English. Examples are the replacement of third persion singular -th by -s, (he walks vs he walketh) and the development of the relative pronoun who.

Course objectives

The successful participant will:
-have a good understanding of various aspects of dialect convergence and relevant linguistic standardisation theories
-be able to critically evaluate relevant literature
-have gained knowledge about the socio-historical context in which written English developed
-have a good overview of major linguistic changes that took place between 1400-1800
-have gained experience reading and transcribing older handwritings
-have gained experience analysing historical linguistic data
-have gained experience applying historical sociolinguistic research methods, i.e. corpus linguistics


The timetable is available on the MA Linguistics website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

  • Time spent on attending the seminars: 26 hours

  • Time for studying the weekly background literature and doing weekly assignments: 130 hours

  • Time to prepare for making a presentation (40 hours) and writing a research proposal and paper (84 hours) (including reading/research): 124 hours

Assessment method

  • presentation 20%

  • a research proposal 20%, resulting in a final paper 40%

  • weekly reader response 20%


The final grade consists of the weighted average of the above components.

To pass, your final weighted average grade should be a 6 at the lowest and no component mark should be lower than 5. Students who fail the course can only rewrite the paper and/ or the presentation.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Course information, including course preparations

  • Online discussion and general communication

  • Submission of assignments

  • Provision of additional materials

Reading list

-Gordon, M.S. (2017) The urban vernacular of Late Medieval and Renaissance Bristol. Utrecht: LOT (downloadable as free open access PDF)
-Articles and chapters that can be downloaded from the university library


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte
Registration Contractonderwijs


Please contact Student administration van Eyckhof for questions.

The coordinator of studies is Else van Dijk


Much of the theory and material that will covered in this course is based on the work of the Emerging Standards Project. For more info, go to: