Assess William Caxtons contribution to the English Language
Assess William Caxton’s contribution to the English Language
In this essay my main aim is to assess William Caxton contributed to the English language, Therefore to do this I am going to have to look at his life, some of the problems he faced and his influence on the language that we use today. In my opinion it is important to say that Caxton was not the inventor of the printing press but was the first person to set up a Printing Press in England and that he was neither a linguist or a scholar.
William Caxton is thought to have been born between the years 1415 and 1424. In the early 1440’s he went to Bruges as a Mercer, Whilst in Bruges he was appointed governor of the Merchant Adventurers. In 1469 he began work on his first translation which was a French account of the Trojan wars. Caxton went to Cologne in 1471 to learn the techniques of printing, This resulted with him setting up the first printing press within the precincts of Westminster in 1476 (Crystal 2003). Where he printed the works of Chaucer and Mallory and translated bestsellers from France (McCrum, Macneil & Cran 1986)
Firstly to look at one of his contributions we have to look at times before Caxton, where we can see that linguists before him had identified that there were many different dialects in the English Language (Harris & Taylor 1989). Caxton was the first person to see the problem that this posed for those who wanted to make an attempt to standardise the Language (Harris & Taylor 1993). This was because the various dialects of England were not only pronouncing but spelling words in different ways. Caxton explained this problem with his “egg story”; he noted that there were some regions where “egges” was said and in other regions “eyren” was used. The problems were that those that said one didn’t understand the other (Crystal 2003) and that these dialects were constantly undergoing changes and even went through several changes in his lifetime (Harris & Taylor 1993). His contribution was to start making English a standard language, this is “a language that provides the agreed norms of usage usually codified in dictionaries and grammars” (Graddol, Leith, Swainn, Rhys & Gillen 2007). He did this by achieving one of the four main processes of standardisation, the one he achieved was selection (Graddol, Leith, Swainn, Rhys & Gillen 2007). Caxton chose the area of London and the South East (this was the East midlands dialect). Caxton also realised that printing the different versions of the same books in different varieties would cost more money (Culpiper 1997). Caxton made the decision to set up his printing press in Westminster for many reasons which include not only being the geographic centre, but it was also the political, administrative and commercial capital of England (Culpiper 1997). Thus it was the language of his intended audience (Hogg & Denison 2006) and so he could see that this was where it would be most valued.
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For his second contribution we need to look at some of the historical events that took place in and around Caxton’s lifetime. From this we can see that Caxton was born around the time of King Henry V’s death. King Henry V’s reign had linguistic significance because he defeated the French at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, consequently becoming the first English King since before 1066. Therefore this marked the first time that the English language was not competing with French (Harris & Taylor 1989). When Caxton chose to print in English, for the first time English could be transformed into a language of learning (Mcintyre 2009) as it meant that the works of Greek and Roman scholars could be translated into “local languages” (Graddol, Leith, Swainn, Rhys & Gillen 2007). When he translated some of the classics, he bought in vocabulary that is still used in present day English for example from Jason (1477) we get abandon and from Eneydos (1490) we get abolish and absorb (Hogg & Denison 2006). Printing also meant that literature was made more accessible for everyone. However this meant Caxton was left with the problem of how to spell the language he had chosen (Harris & Taylor 1989), this was because before Caxton there were no dictionaries or grammars of the English language and no universally, agreed and assigned alphabet (Harris & Taylor 1989). Words had been spelt in a way that reflected pronunciation (Mcintyre 2009), as mentioned previously this meant that different regions had different spellings because of the conflicting dialectal variation, but “printing is a communications technology that requires uniformity.” (Harris & Taylor p.91 1989) Therefore he needed standardisation to make sure that the printing press would be a success. Therefore as part of his contribution Caxton made people for the first time think about the way in which their language should be spelt.
However, despite making people think about their language and the way in which it was written, his contribution may have not as been as great as what we would see at first glance. Since although attempting the standardisation of English, there is still evidence of visible inconsistencies in English up to 50 years after Caxton’s death (Crystal 2003). We can find many different reasons for this, one of the reasons found is that people were encouraged to use additional ‘e’s were added to the end of words that finished a line in order for the texts to be aligned neatly (Mcintyre 2009). Another is that when copying the scripts onto the printing press, these letters could be misinterpreted by the printer this could mean that there were differences in the spelling of words from writer to writer within the same printing press (Singh 2005). They could also be because of the different pronunciations from overseas employees, some of the spellings which we have in the present day english have survived from these employees. There are some people who believed that Caxton could not be trusted as an authority on the spelling of the english language as he had spent most of his life living abroad (Singh 2005). Because of these inconsistencies his contribution could have been seen as more of a hinderance than a help as he had some critics. These included Richard Mulcaster who complained that printing had made it more difficult to learn the English language because it had made books more accessible to the public, as numbers of books greatly increased after Caxton’s death (Baugh & Cable 2002). But the fact that spellings were so inconsistent from one book to another caused a great deal of confusion in the language.
Secondly, although I and other sources have claimed that Caxton can be credited with starting the process of the standardisation of the english language. This is not justified since when Caxton chose to standardise the dialect of London and the East Midlands. It would appear that this would have been an obvious choice; on first appearances it would appear that he had set himself a challenge; however before Caxton, the Chancery standard had already been established. The Chancery Standard was a first attempt at making this dialect a standard. It had come into use during the reign of King Henry V when his government needed a language that was clear and unambiguous that they could use to record official documents (Crystal 2003).
To conclude, in my opinion I think it is unfair to say that Caxton can be credited with contributing a lot to the english language as he did also cause some problems along the way. However, I think it is very important that Caxton realised how important it was that we as a country were all using the same words and spellings as it was essential for all the regions to move forward together. Instead of all the different regions moving forward at different paces in order to reach the same eventual goal. I think that although Caxton can not be credited with the invention of the printing press, by bringing it to England he helped us advance as “printing was the technological foundation of the European Renaissance”. (Harris & Taylor p.91 1989) From this quote we can see that it not only helped our societies but others in the rest of Europe.
Harris R & Taylor T J 1989: Landmarks in Linguistic Thought, Routledge, London
McCrum R, Macneil R & Cran W 1986: The Story of English, Faber & Faber
Graddol D, Leith D, Swann J, Rhys M & Gillen J 2007; Changing English, Routledge, Abingdon
Culpiper, J 1997; History of English, Routledge, London
Singh I 2005; The History of English: A students guide, Hodder Arnold, London
Mcintyre D 2009; History of English, Routledge, Oxford
Hogg R & Denison D 2006; A history of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, London
Crystal D 2003; Cambridge Encylopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, London
Baugh A C & Cable T 2002; A History of the English Language, Routledge, Abingdon