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By D. Leith

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Before the printing press, spelling habits were characterised by spectacular diversity. When we look up a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, we are immediately confronted by a bewildering range of spellings. There are two main reasons for this. First, scribes wrote in their own dialects, so there were different spelling systems in different parts of the country. Second, scribes were more often guided by their own speech-habits than by written precedent, which meant that changes in pronunciation were often mirrored in spelling.

The concept of Standard English makes most sense when we limit discussion to the written word. It is not only that speech, by its very nature, is less amenable than writing to being fixed. Writing can be seen to be an indispensable component of standardisation. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the process without the existence of a written form. At the same time, the existence of a writing system does not presuppose the existence of a standard, as we saw in the last chapter. But once a particular variety has become dominant, writing is a powerful agent for its dissemination especially as literacy spreads and printing makes written materials more readily available.

Moreover, some poets like Spenser and Sydney had written works that many felt were a match for any literature. And with this new-found selfconfidence came a self-conscious delight in the flamboyant manipulation of stylistic levels. We can see this in the way Shakespeare sets off the native English idiom against the polysyllabic Latin one, by associating them with different kinds of character, or different moods. Also, he dramatises such differences of vocabulary, either by juxtaposing them within the same speech, or by intensifying a dramatic moment with the most simple language.

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