There is something that has to be understood straightaway about the British: As soon as you open your mouth, your listener puts you into a social category. "Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee," wrote the playwright Ben Jonson as early as 1641 to point out that your life could literally depend on the way you spoke. The principle of respecting the King's English was already well established by the mid-seventeenth century and we have to go back some two-hundred years further to find where it all started.
In the Middle Ages, Latin and French had been the languages of government and diplomacy, but during the Renaissance the change to vernacular languages was happening all over Europe, and England was no exception. As yet, English had little or no standard spelling and existed in a thousand different varieties and dialects. Only around the start of the fifteenth century did a standard form of English begin to be adopted for government business in London, thus establishing a court English as opposed to a country English. When William Caxton set up his printing press later that century, this was the standard he adopted, initiating an industry so successful that here we are, still at it, making books.
As for the actual expression, "the King's English," Thomas Wilson appears to have been the first to use it in his Art of Rhetorique of 1553, where he takes to task the pretensions of those who infect the English language with fancy foreign borrowings, or what he calls "strange inkhorn terms." Wilson was so irritated with what he saw as a departure from plain speech that he wrote, "they forget altogether their mother's language. And I dare swear this, if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell what they say, and yet these fine English clerks will say they speak in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the King's English."
Over the next three centuries, many other writers pursued the same ideal, driven by their annoyance with lax standards to publish guides and norms for good writing and speaking. Educationalists followed suit, with the newly founded grammar schools teaching good practice.
Language was increasingly the key that opened the door to elegant society, employment, and advancement. Lessons in elocution-the art of speaking properly-became a necessary part of the education of any young lady, especially those, like Jane Austen's heroines, in search of a husband with estates and an income of more than three thousand a year.
Perhaps the most famous example in literature of the social power of received English is found in George Bernard Shaw's 1916 play Pygmalion , popularized in the 1960s stage musical and movie My Fair Lady . Here, Shaw complained bitterly, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."
To give a flavor of Shaw's irritation, we need only turn to the opening scene of the play where Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, encounters the mother of a young man who asks her how the girl knows her son:
ELIZA. Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them? [Shaw's note: Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]
Eliza, painfully aware of her dreadful Cockney accent, goes to see Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, to ask him for elocution lessons. The professor, spurred on by a bet with a friend, takes on the challenge of changing the flower girl's speech and manners to make her acceptable to upper-class London society. In the end, like the sculptor Pygmalion in the classical myth, he falls in love with his own successful creation.