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The development of the dialect of London into a national language
The dialects of the period of the Norman Conquest
The Norman Conquest put an end to the supremacy of Wessex and its dialect. With the Norman Conquest French became the official language of the country, and those dialects spoken during the Germanic invasion were of local importance.
Traditionally we isolate five major dialects of that time: Northern, Midland, East Anglian, South-Eastern, South-Western. The Northern dialect area of Middle English extends from the middle of Yorkshire to Scotland. The Midlands area, which extends from London to Gloucestershire, is traditionally split into East Midlands and West Midlands. East Anglian is posited as a separate dilect area, as a number of texts display markedly different forms from those found in East Midlands dialects. The South-Eastern dialects cover an area that is closely related to the extent of Kentish in the Old English period, while the South-Western dialect area correlates with the OE West Saxon region, and dialectologists occasionally also separate out a Middle South dialect area.
The history of the London dialect reveals the sources of the literary language in Late ME and also the main source and basis of the Literary Standard, both in its written and spoken forms.
The history of London extends back to the Roman period. Even in OE times London was by far the biggest town in Britain, although the capital of Wessex – the main OE kingdom – was Winchester. The capital was transferred to London a few years before the Norman conquest. London eventually became the commercial and cultural capital, and it clearly had a central role to play in the emergence of a standard dialect in Britain. However, the dialect that developed into standard is not simply the London dialect. It had both East Midlands elements and southern elements. But gradually East Midlands elements took the upper hand, so that the London dialect had comparatively few elements from other dialects.
There were some other factors that contributed to the development of the English national language. The popularity of Geoffrey Chaucer helped a great deal in the development of the London dialect into a literary language. Chaucer’s literary language, based on the mixed (largely East Midland) London dialect, is known as classical ME; in the 15th and 16th c. it became the basis of the national literary English language.
Of greatest linguistic consequence was the activity of John Wycliff. His most important contribution to English prose was his translation of the Bible completed in 1384. It was coped in manuscript and read by many people all over the country. Written in the London dialect, it played an important role in spreading this form of English.
A major reason for the standardization of the London dialect was the introduction of printing by William Caxton in 1476. Caxton probably did more to standardize English in his time than any other individual, since it was expedient for him to edit the works he printed to resolve the dialect variants in order to gain the broadest readership possible for his publications. Strong dialectal traits disappeared from written works by the mid-15th c. and by the end of the 17th c. most orthographical variants had been standardized.