The Variability of London English

But what was the English spoken in Tudor and Stuart London like? Many writers on the topic agree on one thing: the strong impact of migration on London English at all times. To begin with Late Middle English, Burnley (2000: 17) points out that a distinct London dialect is identifiable in a few documents in the fourteenth century but that most of them will have to be labelled dialectally as 'diverse mischsprache'. In other words, there were very few distinct London features to be found in writing at the time. This continues to be the case in the fifteenth century (Samuels 1981: 48-52).

But many researchers also argue in favour of detectable dialect ancestry for London English. One of the classic studies is Eilert Ekvall's work based on surname evidence. Ekvall (1956: lx-lxi) suggests that in the thirteenth century London immigrants largely came from the Home Counties, but that the pattern changed in the fourteenth century, when a sizable number of immigrants to the City came from the Midlands, from the East Midlands in particular. This East Anglian presence in London, it is then argued by Kristensson (1994: 107), among others, gave rise in the late fourteenth century to a London sociolect that was associated with both wealthy merchants and government officials. But unfortunately our information on the immigrant input into London English suggested by the surname data remains incomplete. Ekvall never published his extensive material on the southern counties (Wright 1996).

There are also those scholars who, on the basis of textual evidence, detect both Southern and East Midland influences in London English in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of them is H. C. Wyld (1936), who argues in favour of two distinct spoken varieties in London, one for the Court and the other for the City:

It seems likely that there were at least two types of English actually spoken at London, one strongly tinged with E. Midland and SouthEastern characteristics, the other possessing less of the former, at any rate, and more of purely Southern features. [ . . . ] I am inclined to hazard the hypothesis that the spoken language of the Court and upper classes belonged rather to the Southern type of London English, that of the lower, and to a slightly less extent perhaps, that of the middle classes, to the Eastern type. (Wyld 1936: 84)

Wyld was, however, more interested in tracing the history of Received Pronunciation (RP) than observing patterns of linguistic variation, and detected a Standard Spoken English in London as early as the sixteenth century. Unlike RP today, which is not associated with any geographical area in Britain, Wyld's early speech norm not only allowed a good deal of variation but was also practically confined to those who frequented the Court or were under the influence of Court speech (Wyld 1936: 103).

The argument in favour of social dialect differences in London is taken further and generalized by Gorlach (1999). He, too, assumes the existence of a standard norm quite early on:

regional features had no great chance of being accepted into the standard after 1500; such 'influences' are rather to be expected, especially as far as pronunciation and syntax are concerned, in 'vertical' diffusion, i.e. they reflect an interchange of coexisting social and stylistic varieties within London English. (Gorlach 1999: 473)

But what remains an open question here is the regional input into the various sociolects of London English. As demonstrated in Chapter 3, migration to London continued in Tudor and Stuart times with a large number of the immigrants coming from the north in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is this continued magnetism of London which was instrumental in increasing the population of the capital. Combined with a higher-than- average death rate, it also speeded up the population turnover in the capital throughout the early modern period. John Stow writes in his famous Survey of London (1598) that London's population was 'by birth for the most part a mixture of all counties, by blood gentlemen, yeomen, and of the basest sort without distinction' (cited in Rappaport 1989: 86).

This constant flow of variable inputs into London English across time suggests that we cannot talk about focusing in the sense understood by present-day sociolinguists who study new towns like Milton Keynes. We may perhaps distinguish the City from the Royal Court on the basis of previous research - and this is what we shall do in the empirical part of this chapter

- but we cannot take dialectal continuity for granted. Basing their argument on court records, Coleman and Salt (1992: 27) report that no more than 15 per cent of Londoners had in fact been born in the capital in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that over two thirds came from at least 50 miles away. Adult population therefore predominated in London. As we saw in section 8.1., this is a feature that may accelerate linguistic simplification but at the same time delay focusing. Despite a number of literate young adults such as apprentices, lack of universal schooling could also have retarded linguistic focusing.

Population movements of all kinds give rise to changes in the communities' social network structures. We may therefore assume that the rapid urbanization and phenomenal growth that took place in early modern London despite the high mortality rate increased loose-knit and single-function social networks among the population. As suggested by Milroy and Milroy (1985b: 375), circumstances like this are particularly apt to promote language change: 'linguistic change is slow to the extent that the relevant populations are well established and bound by strong ties, whereas it is rapid to the extent that weak ties exist in populations'. Although London English influenced wider regional and nationwide use from the Late Middle Ages onwards, these demographic developments suggest that the influence need not have remained stable dialectally.

 
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