Wednesday, March 14, 2007

William Caxton - Master or Mangler of the English Language?

In last month's article we saw how the English language was affected by such social and human phenomena as the Renaissance and the Reformation, and that these events helped in some ways to transform English from a ragbag of mutually unintelligible dialects into a standardised language. I also mentioned the name of a certain William Caxton, who has been attributed with almost single-handedly forging our modern tongue. So this week I’d like to spend a little more time with Mr Caxton (1422-91), and take a closer look at his achievements.

Few historians of English linguistics dispute that Caxton’s introduction of the printing press into Britain from mainland Europe represented a key moment in the development of standard English. This is because back then, in the late 15th century, English lacked a fixed form. There was a wealth of local dialects, and a lack of conventionalised spellings, all of which presented poor old Mr Caxton with a serious problem when it came to printing his first book in English: which ‘version’ to use, and which spellings to adopt?

Caxton himself outlined the problem in the introduction to one of his books in 1490:

“And certaynly our language now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken when I was borne. ... And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother.”

He then went on to illustrate the apparent difficulties in communication faced by speakers of that varied tongue, noting that a merchant wishing to buy food became wild with frustration when his request for ‘eggys’ was mistaken for French. Only when it was pointed out that he should be asking for ‘eyren’ did he get his meal! This led Caxton to comment:

What sholde a man in thyse dayes now write, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse everyman by cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.”

In fact, the wise amongst you will have already spotted that Caxton showed that he was mindful of not one but two shifting factors in the complexity of our language. The tongue did not vary merely according to district, but also across time. Caxton had spent many years living abroad, from whence his ‘invention’ came, and when he returned to British shores he found the changes in the language striking. This fact, that languages are living, breathing things, rather like people themselves , and hard to pin down across the decades, creates large problems and conflicts when we attempt to codify a language and make a ‘standard’ from it. Caxton was, obviously, only too aware of this.

Here we need to bring in another historical aspect also. English had no recognised (or recognisable) common form back then, mainly because up until shortly before Caxton’s birth French had still been the official language of court and government. In fact, the century in which Caxton set up the first printing press in Westminster was the first century in which the English language in England was no longer in competition with French. Moreover, there were of course no grammar books or dictionaries for him to refer to.

Anyway, let’s get back to the heart of the matter, which was how to fix our language into a form that would be acceptable and recognisable throughout the land. Caxton solved his problem in an admirably practical way, which was perhaps to be expected from a man who had spent the earlier part of his career as a merchant and a diplomat. He simply set in type his local variety of English, which was the south-east Midlands dialect (including London). Moreover, by doing so he established, for better or worse, that particular variety of English as ‘the English language’ forever, and thus reduced all other dialects to just that: mere ‘dialects’. Since then, of course, millions of regional residents of the British Isles have waxed furiously at the suggestion that their English is in some way ‘improper’ or ‘unacceptable’.

I’d like to finish this brief section on Mr Caxton and his magic printing machine by selecting the words of two of his ‘biographers’, R.Harris and T.J.Taylor, who manage to place the whole episode in its historical context with admirable clarity.

“Printing was the technological foundation of the European Renaissance, and the most radical innovation in human communication since the invention of writing. Caxton was a man caught at the crossroads of history in more senses than one, ... trying to introduce and popularise a new technology which was destined to revolutionise the availability of information in a civilised society. This profoundly important initiative was undertaken in the most linguistically adverse circumstances possible, for what had just broken down was the universal viability of Latin; and in England there was no comparably stable language to take its place.”

In short, the printing press demanded uniformity, but as none was present in the country at the time, one of the varieties simply had to be chosen.

So, the next time you find yourself having to explain the weird nature of the English spelling system, why we write ‘through’ and ‘threw’, but say ‘throo’, and why ‘cow’ and ‘show’ are not pronounced the same at all, you now know where to point the finger of guilt!