English Language Change and the Advent of Printing

Elizabeth Dickens


copyright 2005



Introduction: Framing the Arguments


That the introduction of the printing press into England in 1476 had an impact on the English language is a statement that historians of the English language almost take for granted. Volume III of The Cambridge History of the English Language takes 1476 as its starting date because of Caxton's press, yet the authors allow printing to stand in the wings of their discussion, scarcely addressing it as its own topic. In A Biography of the English Language, C.M. Millward devotes half a page to the influence of printing on language change; she acknowledges that the two are intertwined and gives several reasons why, among them the standardization of English spelling and the spread of the London dialect (224). None of her statements are inaccurate, but neither are they nuanced with historical details. John H. Fisher, in The Emergence of Standard English, comments almost in passing that "No one denies the eventual influence of printing upon the standardization of the language," yet he makes no efforts to explain this influence himself (124). Turning from historians of the English language to historians of the book, however, we find a similar gap in information. Book historians have reconstructed fifteenth century printing establishments and impressively described and contextualized incunabula, their printers, and their readers, yet with the possible exception of David McKitterick, they have largely neglected printing's impact on English language change. Despite the relative lack of dialogue between these two schools of thought, they must necessarily inform one another on the question of how and when the technology of printing effected significant change in the English language. Of course printing did have an enormous impact on the English language as we now know it, but when we bring some of the outer history of printing to bear on language change, we see that the change was the result of a slower evolution than is sometimes assumed.


Script and Print


One of the fallacies of early book history is the idea that after the 1450s (or 1470s in England), manuscript production suddenly became obsolete. Elizabeth Eisenstein's monumental work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change emphasizes the dichotomy between the two media, characterizing the manuscript as impermanent and the printed text as somehow more stable (113-114). More recent scholars, among them David McKitterick, Alexandra Walsham and Julia Crick, and Margaret Ezell, have questioned Eisenstein's binary opposition between script and print, citing copious evidence of the continued use of script after the advent of the printing press, as well as its interdependence with printing itself. The technology of the printing press was obviously very different from and arguably much improved over the technology of scribal copying, but there were no immediate changes in the language itself, especially since the two practices existed side by side during the late fifteenth century and well into the sixteenth. Compositors and scribes essentially occupied the same function of transferring the words of their exempla, sometimes faithfully, sometimes with errors, sometimes retaining the spelling and punctuation of the exempla, and sometimes improvising with their own. Consequently, to imply, as Eisenstein and the historians of the English language tend to do, that the printing press brought about widespread immediate changes, particularly with regard to the English language, is simply inaccurate; the changes would come, but they took several centuries.


Standardization (Or should that be Standardisation?)


Probably the most significant area of the English language upon which printing had an impact is the standardization of features like spelling and punctuation. Again, however, this effect was far from immediate, and was arguably underway before printing came to England. John H. Fisher suggests that "standard" English originated with the Chancery, the center of medieval English bureaucracy. By arguing that Caxton's language was influenced by the Chancery standard, Fisher indirectly implies that the language of the Chancery became the language of printers, but he fails to address printing on a large scale.


Not only is there evidence for a standard English developing pre-printing press at the Chancery, but it is also important to note that early English printers seem to have been largely uninterested in adopting or contributing to standards of orthography and punctuation (Brengelman 333; Salmon 25). Outside of the Chancery, there was little precedent in England for standard spellings and punctuations—such matters had heretofore been the purview of scribes, who sometimes conformed to a house style and sometimes did not. Accordingly, early printers and compositors used whatever spelling and punctuation seemed agreeable to them, and they appear to have been unconcerned about lack of uniformity. Even as early as the fifteenth century, standardization had become very important in the printing of Latin and Greek works because those languages were more stable and centralized than English. The market for Classical works was so monopolized by continental printers, however, that early English printers rarely produced any, thereby keeping themselves further removed from the abstract concept of standardization than, for instance, French or German printers.


If continental printers did have an influence on the standardization of early printed English, that effect was negative if anything. The earliest printers in England were either trained on the continent like Caxton or, like Wynkyn de Worde and Robert Pynson, were themselves foreign-born. Likewise, early English printers were forced to hire foreigners because there were no English compositors or pressmen. Compositors working in a language other than their own must rely heavily on the readings of their setting copy; consequently, far from being able to make early strides into language standardization, early printers merely perpetuated even more widely the variant spellings of manuscripts.


No doubt the most important aspect of early printing working against language standardization—and one about which historians of English are likely to forget—is the complicated and unstable process of printing itself. Scholars such as Jerome McGann and D. F. McKenzie have strongly emphasized that printing is a social and communal activity. The language of a fifteenth or sixteenth century English book is a combination of that of the author, the scribe who made the copy (if applicable, as well as any and all previous scribes from whose copies his derived), the various compositors, and the proof corrector (often the master printer). Some errors and variants could be, and usually were, incorporated into the text while others were corrected at every link of this chain. Because more than one compositor worked on different sections of the same work, variant spellings often are the result of the work of different compositors, a phenomenon that existed long past the age of incunabula. Studies on the Shakespeare first folio, for example, have identified several different compositors based on spelling patterns. Additionally, the same compositor might use variant spellings of a word depending on whether he needed more or fewer letters to justify a particular line.


Of course, printing and efforts to standardize English did work hand in hand eventually. As Salmon points out, there were grammarians as early as the sixteenth century complaining about the inconsistencies of printed English, but it took the printing community about another century to cooperate on any significant scale (20), perhaps because allowance for flexible spelling was far more advantageous to a printer than rigid standards (Brengelman 333). Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises of 1683-4 was the first so-called "printer's grammar," and it included advice on spelling and punctuation in its typographic section (McKitterick 197). Throughout the eighteenth century, the age of orthographers, grammarians, and lexicographers, printers became increasingly concerned about the standardization of English, though as the noteworthy differences between, for example, current English and American spelling continue to demonstrate, written English has not yet become completely standardized.


Other Important Aspects: London Printers and Printing in English


English printing, particularly in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, had two features that not only made it distinct from continental printing but that also contributed to printing's effect on language change. First of all, with few exceptions the early English printers were located in Westminster or London, thereby strongly contributing to the spread of "London English" throughout the country. It is important to remember, however, that printing did not make England centralized; rather, the fact that the English government was already comparatively centralized was no doubt an incentive for the printers to stay near the capital. Additionally, Fisher's point that Chancery English, also originating from London, was already working to spread a standard nationwide is worth repeating here. Printing, because of its ability to produce so much more material than scribal copying, perhaps only speeded a process that was already underway. It is also significant that the printed works being circulated were, for the most part, English books. Continental printing already had a near monopoly on the production of Classical texts; therefore, early English printers, following Caxton's example, worked mostly in the vernacular. This emphasis on and widespread distribution of texts in English also contributed to the eventual standardization of the language.




Clearly, the generalizations regarding the causal relationship between printing and language change are founded in fairly indisputable fact: printing did contribute to the development of Present Day English from Middle English. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these changes were not necessarily the result of printing alone, nor did they all come about instantaneously, or even quickly. Both historians of the English language and historians of the book would benefit from more widespread dialogue and greater consideration of the two fields' complex interactions.


For Further Reading


Blake, N. F. Caxton and his World. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969.


---. William Caxton and English Literary Culture. London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1991.


Brengelman, F. H. "Orthoepists, Printers, and the Rationalization of English Spelling." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 79 (1980): 332-54.


The Cambridge History of the English Language. Ed. Richard Hogg. Volume III. Ed. Roger Lass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.


Ezell, Margaret J. M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.


Fisher, John H. The Emergence of Standard English. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996.


McGann, Jerome J. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1992.


McKenzie, D. F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


McKitterick, David. Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order, 1450-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language. 2nd ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 1996.


Salmon, Vivian. "Orthography and Punctuation." The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. III. Ed. Roger Lass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Walsham, Alexandra and Julia Crick. "Introduction: Script, Print, and History." The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700. Ed. Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.