By D. Leith
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Additional info for A Social History of English
22 EMERGENCE AND CONSOLIDATION There has been some controversy about the extent to which this state of societal bilingualism was realised at the individual level. Some have argued that French was very widely learned throughout English society; others, that its use was very limited. One thing that we can be sure about is that French did not displace English. Unlike Latin in the age of Empire, Norman French did not offer linguistic unity or a prestigious, literate language to linguistically diverse, uncentralised tribespeople.
The superstructure of political and economic power based on the ownership of land—was then almost exclusively wrested from English hands and given to Norman friends of William the Conqueror. The positions of power, in respect to both king and Church, were thus in the hands of French speakers, who spent the next 150 years ‘commuting’ between their possessions on both sides of the Channel. It was only when this ruling class lost its possessions in Normandy at the beginning of the thirteenth century that it could begin to think of itself as English.
These examples show the inextricability of language standardisation and social, political, and economic processes; and we shall be seeing this again in Part 3. STANDARDISATION: ACCEPTANCE OF THE DOMINANT VARIETY By about the middle of the fifteenth century, the East Midland dialect had been accepted as a written norm by those who wrote official documents. But its acceptance was tacit rather than explicit, a matter of convention rather than diktat. For when Caxton—who had spent much of his life on the continent—came to set up his press, he did not realise that the variety he was printing was already a written norm.