Printers, Orthoepists, and Standardized English

©2003 Susana Llamas Olague





With the arrival of the printing press in England, mass-production of the English word arrived, allowing the dissemination of various texts and variant spellings into the literary marketplace.  Also arriving with the printing press was the question of standardization – more precisely, a current scholarly concern regarding the progression of orthographical reform during the early modern period.  The extent to which the printers of medieval, Renaissance, and early modern England influenced the standardization of the English language is open to discussion, troubled by the assertion that “there must be a close connection between the spread of letter-press . . . and . . . standardization of the European vernaculars, especially English” (Arnoff 65) and the status of this assertion as an unproven conjecture.  While some scholars point to steady consistency from one printed text to another, others focus on the seemingly random and conflicting systems that governed printing houses.


Certainly, the words of Alexander Hume in the mid-seventeenth century do not encourage the view of the printer as a conscious speller – Hume complains of the ignorance of printers and an aversion to the corrective efforts of an author (Brengelman 343).  Printers provided the technological means through which to express spelling reform, and it is fanciful to fix upon the notion that the printers and publishers themselves were advancing such a necessary reform.  William Caxton, as the starting point of the English printing press, in 1476 establishes an outlet of vernacular works designed to fall into the hands of the middle class and the nobility (Blake 31), and provides a precise beginning for the tracing of orthographic reform during the late-fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.  With the title of first, Caxton falls into the category of reformer, although the designations are not altogether compatible.  However, a symbiosis of orthographic reform and the history of printing exists, with neither chronicle able to claim completely the responsibility for spelling standardization.


Caxton, de Worde, and Pynson – Early Printers, Early Refomers?


William Caxton, as noted above, is consistently referred to as a starting point for the English printing press.  Wynken de Worde and Richard Pynson, as Caxton’s successors to his Westminster printing press, round out a triumvirate of printers who might possibly share spelling tendencies, if only because of apprenticeships served under one another.  Examinations of the works of all three printers exist, although extensive work on Pysnon is presently lacking.


Simon Horobin’s examination of printed editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales attempts to study the orthographic practices of all three printers in regards to a single text.  The close association between the printers hints at the possibility that, after Caxton, de Worde and then Pynson attempted to follow a standardized spelling format.  Beginning with Caxton and progressing to his successors, Horobin studies the consistency of Caxton himself when looking at two editions of Canterbury Tales, and then moves to observe whether any standardization occurred when de Worde and then Pynson inherited Caxton’s press.  Horobin, like other researchers before him, notes the Caxton tendency of “according authority to the spellings” (256) of certain authors, a group in which Chaucer is included.  Horobin’s examination of certain words, including many, her, though, these, and much demonstrate a consistency from Caxton to de Worde, but the consistency falters at Pynson.  Whereas Caxton appears to have consciously given weight to authorial spelling, Pynson leans towards Chancery Standard (Horobin 257), “the language of the mass of vernacular documents which issued from government offices such as the Chancery and the Privy Seal in the second quarter of the fifteenth century” (Horobin 254).  Horobin concludes that, while Caxton was alert to the use of Chancery Standard, the weight given to authorial spellings overruled his tendency towards standardization.  It is Pynson whose works towards standardization merit greater study, as Latin-English grammars and texts in foreign languages with parallel vernacular text were products of his printing house (Horobin 257), possibly causing a greater interest in grammatical accuracy if only for financial reasons.


One consideration when probing the possible contributions of early printers is their education and occupation, if not solely a printer.  Caxton and de Worde were not literary scholars – Caxton was “a textile dealer by training . . . . and . . . de Worde has a similar background” (Brengelman 340).  Another aspect is the fact that the Stationers’ Company of London admitted men trained in other trades as late as the late-sixteenth century (Brengelman 340).  Although Brengelman does not detail the backgrounds of these men, the implication of his argument is one of men handling words with little literary background, if any.  Unlike Continental presses, English presses rely solely on apprentices for any minimal proofing that might occur, or on the author who takes on the responsibility that the printer does not care to entertain.  Regarding Caxton, Blake draws attention to Caxton’s motivations in beginning his printing press, namely to establish a monopoly on books printed in the vernacular, a niche of the market that was not dominated by Continental presses (Blake 31).  The matter of what Caxton printed also finds attention from Blake – any material perceived as provincial and unsophisticated by Caxton falls from his “publishing policy” (Blake 34) of courtly poetry, historical prose, and general religious prose.  The overall picture of early printing houses is one of business concerned not with the development of steady spelling practices, but with the matter of producing works to sell quickly, with little scholarly supervision to correct what mistakes the non-scholarly impresarios committed.


The Fiction of Printers as Orthoepists


The illusion that spelling standardization follows the efforts of early printers stems from the remarks of George Phillip Krapp in 1909 that assert “that the standardization of modern spelling was the result of an agreement among printers” (Brengelman 333).  Refuting this generalization, Brengelman is quick to point out that printers had little if any stake in the standardization of English.  Brengelman cites the variation of spelling within the same printing house as a sign that reform did not begin within the walls of Caxton’s Westminster location or any other London print house established within the next two hundred years.  Criticism leveled at printers by Hume and other contemporaries supports the notion that printers did not particularly care for the typographical errors made or adhere to the wishes of the author – the practice of proofing a text falls into the responsibility of the author or fails to capture the attention of uninterested printers.


Brengelman segments the arguments for the influence of printers on spelling standardization into four statements, observing that all argue for printers by presenting negative evidence.  Accident in standardization, rejected proposals for reform, the lack of an orthographical academy, and the seeming lack of scholarly interest in orthographical reform are the reasons that identify the argument for standardization through print houses.  Observing these tenuous arguments, historians of the printing press and orthography seek the positive evidence that points orthographical reform away from printing houses and into the hands of linguistic scholars working towards the standardization apparently achieved in the mid-eighteenth century.  Although the hunt for the initial traces of orthographical reform began with the early printers, it is now more common to trace why the early printers are not responsible for any major English spelling restructuring.


A recurrent theme when discussing the relationship between orthographical reform and the history of printing is the matter of typographical economy.  Brengelman argues that variations in spelling were to the printer’s advantage; by disregarding an author’s intent in favor of easing justification of a right-hand margin, the printer could conceivably squeeze in another word to fit the limited space available.  Abbreviations served the printer as means though which to “compensate for shortages of type” (Brengelman 333) and allow the printer to utilize the right-hand margin’s space.  Studies of orthographical tendencies of early printers demonstrate that the economy of space dominated the spelling of a word, and not the “preference for a particular spelling” (Arnoff 78).  Therefore dictated by concerns of space, the printer of a particular work was not invested in the either the author’s intent or the concern of standardization.  Though the printers were necessary to the spread of an author’s work, it did not rest with the printer to make the text orthographically consistent.


Given the evidence of space economy and scholarly oversight, the idea of printing impacting spelling begins to tarnish at the seams.  Exceptions to the rule of standardization prior to the eighteenth century do exist, although these are not exceptions that persisted into modern English.  Mark Aronoff cites Wynken de Worde as a principal example of steady orthography.  Delving into works of both prose and verse, Aronoff finds a significant uniformity in de Worde’s spelling practices, contrasting de Worde editions with first editions by other printing houses.  Although Blake makes note of de Worde’s spelling consistency, he fails to attribute the feat to de Worde, remarking that perhaps it is the work of a conscious compositor (Arnoff 66).  Aronoff, however, moves beyond Blake’s speculation to note that de Worde’s consistency spans a range of twenty years, from the time de Worde assumes control of William Caxton’s printing to press until his death in 1535.  Aronoff finds this length of time as evidence of the “house style” (Arnoff 85) of de Worde’s press, not simply the work of a compositor.  De Worde’s orthography, however, does not persist into modern English, but his attempts at standardization mark the first efforts in the printing press culture – ironically, attempted by a foreigner trained as a textile dealer.  Although not a true orthoepist, Arnoff implies that de Worde’s house standardization overruled the need for space economy and eliminated scholarly oversight in favor of consistency.


The Actual Orthoepists


Scholarly reform of spelling, however, occurred during the sixteenth century, with estimates for the completion of standardization ranging from the mid-1600s to exactly 1700 (Scragg 80).  However, after the advent of the printing press, the most notable proponents of orthographical reform were not the printers, but the orthoepists – a term describing writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century invested in correcting the pronunciation of English (OED, 2nd. ed., s.v. “orthoepist”).  Men such as William Mulcaster and Edmund Coote attempted to coax the English language into a stable standardization regardless of a printer’s lax attitude towards orthography.


Mulcaster’s reforms for the English language – when compared to other orthoepists of his day who advocated “iconic relationships to the sounds”(Millward 232) of letters, the elimination of capital letters, and the introduction of new symbols –  were considerably reasonable and practical, although D.G. Scragg sees Mulcaster as a theorist at best (77).  Elimination of non-essential letters, introduction of letters to words with too few letters, and the acceptance of irregular spellings if widespread were bullet points for Mulcaster’s reforms (Millward 233).  Mulcaster’s “clearing of the old” (Brengelman 334) is the most successful of reforms, seen as reasonable and easily put into effect.


Coote’s contribution to the standardization of English spelling includes a 1596 spelling book with the pragmatic function of teaching children to spell and read (Scragg 78).  Coote’s preface expresses a desire that not only students but also tradesmen and women make use of the spelling book (Scragg 77).  Notably, Coote’s book “put Mulcaster’s precepts into a systematic programmed learning manual” (Scragg 75), signifying that he was at least willing to help disseminate Mulcaster’s ideas through print.  If not, Coote invested himself in the pursuit of consistency and readability in the English language (Brengelman 346).


Scragg attributes the standardization of English spelling to at least the influence of the printed press, stating that “it was the printer’s spelling which was given authority by inclusion in [Coote’s] spelling book, and the popularity of the spelling book ensured the distribution of a uniform spelling” (78).  Scragg’s conclusion that Coote’s book followed print-established spelling rests on the sales of Coote’s spelling book.  Noting that Coote ignored any Mulcaster ideas that advocated against spelling currently in use, Scragg concludes that Coote was attuned to the power of print, and adjusted his book accordingly.  However, Mulcaster himself argues against the ability and attentiveness of the printing houses, writing, “printers, setters, and correcters . . .  letteth manie errors abide in their work” (Brengelman 343).  Brengelman argues that, as schoolbooks begin to resemble one another and reformers recognize the components of “a good spelling system” (345), the ideas of the reformers trickle down to authors, who then print their material, which is available to the larger public.  The cycle repeats itself, encouraged by authors adopting the reforms of orthoepists such as Mulcaster and Coote.  The printing press plays an “indirect role” (Brengleman 354), disseminating but not reforming material.




Although attempted by at least two early printers, the evidence for a culture of orthographically aware printers is severely lacking.  However, as the printed word mingles with the printer, “the feeling persists that the printers should have been consistent in their orthography” (Arnoff 66) leading to the avenues through which the printing press did contribute to the standardization of the English language.  Indirect as the contribution might appear, the influence of the printing press deserves the appropriate credit, though it would do well to dispel the myths of the spelling-obsessed printer.  Rather than view the printing press as the direct cause for an accidental standardization, scholars choose to view the printing press as the distributors of the standardization perfected by orthoepists and lexicographers.  With the status of standardization of little concern to most printers, reform falls to linguistic scholars outside of the sphere of the print house.  What a printing house makes available to the public and, by extension, to a scholarly audience intent on standardizing the language, moves the impact of printing houses from the realm of reform to the realm of supplier.


The print house indirectly affects the standardization of English, allowing the process of standardization to complete a circular motion that enforces and reinforces the reforms argued for and adopted by orthoepists and lexicographers.  By adopting the standards of reform disseminated through printed texts, authors proceed to publish standardized works through the printing house, allowing the orthographical reform to disperse once more into the public domain.  Although contributing “accidentally” to the reform of spelling, the printing house did not simply fall into a monolithic standardization prompted by the efforts of early printers.  Rather, the early printers provide a path through which to follow the standardization of spelling as reformed by contemporary scholars and assumed by authors.  The role of the printing press in the standardization of English spelling was one of distributor – providing scholars with the necessary materials with which to reach a final orthographical conclusion, and supplying the technology necessary to dispense that final reform.



For Further Reading:


Aronoff, Mark.  “The Orthographic System of an Early English Printer: Wynkyn de Worde.”  Folia Linguistica Historica 8.1-2 (1989): 65-79.


Blake, N.F.  Caxton and His World.  New York: Academic Press, 1973.


Blake, N.F.  “The Spread of Printing in English During the Fifteenth-Century.”  Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 62 (1987): 26-36.


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


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


Horobin, Simon C P.  “The Language of the Fifteenth-Century Printed Editions of The Canterbury Tales.”  Anglia 119.2 (2001): 249-258.


Scragg, D. G.  A History of English Spelling.  New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1974.