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From koine to standard: the early modern origin of a key linguistic term

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In this paper, I explore the early history of the word standard as a linguistic term, arguing that it came to compete with the designation common language in the seventeenth century. The latter phrase was, in turn, formed by ideas on the Greek koine during the Renaissance and appears to have been the first widely used collocation referring to a standard language-like entity. In order to sketch this evolution, I first discuss premodern ideas on the koine. Then, I attempt to outline how the intuitive comparison of the koine with vernacular norms that were being increasingly regulated resulted in the development of the concept of common language, termed lingua communis in Latin (a calque of Greek hē koinḕ diálektos), in the sixteenth century. This phrase highlighted the communicative functionality of the vernaculars, which were being codified in grammars and dictionaries. Scholars contrasted these common languages with regional dialects, which had a limited reach in terms of communication. This distinction received a social and evaluative connotation during the seventeenth century, which created a need for terminological alternatives; an increasingly popular option competing with common language was standard, which was variously combined with language and tongue by English authors from about 1650 onwards, especially in Protestant circles, where the vernaculars tended to play a more prominent role than in Catholic areas. Of major importance for this evolution was the work and linguistic usage of the poet John Dryden (1631–1700). This essay uncovers the early history of standard as a key linguistic term, while also presenting a case study which shows the impact of the rediscovery of the Greek heritage on language studies in Western Europe, especially through the term common language.

Corresponding author: Raf Van Rooy, Department of Linguistics, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, E-mail:


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Received: 2020-05-07
Accepted: 2020-09-16
Published Online: 2021-10-20

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