Non-standard language in earlier English

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The concept of ‘non-standard’ remains somewhat fuzzy during the Early Modern English period. Language change and especially ongoing standardization can make it difficult to pin down an individual feature at any given time as clearly non-standard. Contemporary views of ‘good’ language, which we also discuss here, need to be taken into account and may lead to a more socially restricted idea of standard and thus a wider area of non-standard. Regionally restricted uses, both with regard to the lexicon and pronunciation, are investigated with the help of (comparing) sources like Ray’s dialect dictionary (1674) and the Corpus of English Dialogues, and shown to be relatively rare in writing. Socio-stylistic variation or evidence for non-standard forms, including lower-class, uneducated, and emotive uses (often called ‘vulgar’ or ‘low’ by contemporaries), is investigated with the help of metacomments, pauper letters and the treatment of taboo usage. Two case-studies on demonstrative them and non-standard third-person subject-verb concord show the features to be very rare in the Corpus of English Dialogues and to occur predominantly in authentic spoken contexts and with lower-ranking speakers. We argue that rarity is an indicator for non-standard status, but also that the status of these features is different from that of modern sociolinguistic markers.


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