William Caxton and the Prinitng press and their effect upon the English language, by English with Stephen

Reasons for English: William Caxton

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about the effect William Caxton and his printing press had on English.

Subscribe to your favourite podcast app to make sure you never miss another episode.

Subscribe to the podcast here!

Alternatively, sign up to get regular emails with all the latest information.

Hello and welcome! My name’s Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today we are talking about printers.

And let’s start with a true story. I once killed a printer. I was living in a small flat in London and had a printer under my table. It was always breaking down. One time, I got so annoyed with it I just gave it a kick. The printer still didn’t work, so I gave it another kick, and then another. After a few minutes of doing this, it was smashed to bits, but I still hadn’t printed what I need to print. The feeling of satisfaction I got upon kicking my printer to death lasted about 3 minutes.

I have never had a printer that worked when I wanted it to work, but I have learned that kicking your printer doesn’t help anyone.

But this isn’t the real story I want to tell you. Today I am going to tell you the story of a man who had a huge impact on the English we use today. His name is William Caxton, and he was born around the year 1420. He was an entrepreneur who worked in London, Belgium, and Holland. He was a printer. But not the machine type of printer that I kicked in my London flat. No, he was a person who worked in printing before they became cheap enough to live, and die, in a small flat in London.

William Caxton was in fact responsible for introducing England, the English, and the English language to a new invention: the printing press. With this remarkable new machine, hundreds, indeed thousands of copies of pamphlets, leaflets and books could be printed and distributed all over the kingdom.

William Caxton was not a linguist, nor was he trained in translation. Little did he know it, but his work would interest linguists, translators and, indeed, language learners right up until this day.

After this.

I am a proud immigrant. I have been living in Brazil for over 15 years and I hope I have been able to bring something to my new country. There are immigrants all over the world who add so much to their new local communities. An immigrant is somebody who has come into a country. A related word is emigrant, who is somebody who has left a country. There is a podcast called Emigrant’s Life that looks at the stories of emigrants, as well as giving information about how people can travel to live and work in a different country. So, if you are interested in the lives of immigrants, or you are thinking about moving to a different country yourself one day, make sure you go to emigrantslife.com. I will also post a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

Before we look at what William Caxton did, it is perhaps worth looking at the context into which he was born.

Due to the 100 Years War, English was now the language of England. However, there were many varieties of English. Because travel was so difficult, most people were born, lived and died in the same place.

This meant that they developed different accents and vocabulary that was peculiar to their own location. One example of this is the word “egg”, you know, the food we can eat fried, scrambled, boiled, poached or as part of an omelette.

In the north of England, the word for this miracle of food was “egge”. The word was introduced by the Vikings and had become the normal word to be used.

However, in the south of England, the word was “eyren”. This word had come from Old English. Because the Vikings had had less success in the south, their vocabulary was also used much less.

This is just one example of the different varieties in English. It was repeated over and over again, not just between the north and the south, but also the east, the west, the midlands, cities and countryside.

At the same time, England was becoming richer and wealthier. As an island nation, the people were interested in trade with Europe, and a lot of that trade was with the modern-day Netherlands and Belgium.

While other things were fast-changing, literature was not. The only way you could write a book was by literally writing it. One person, usually a priest, would write by hand the text you wanted. This was a slow and very expensive process which meant there were not many books to read.

Into this situation, comes William Caxton.

Originally born in England, as a young man, William Caxton lived in Bruges in modern-day Belgium. He was a successful and respected merchant in the city. One day, he was introduced to a new machine that had been invented by Johannes Gutenberg that could produce hundreds of copies of any text. Caxton was amazed and set out to use it for himself.

He translated from French a 700-page version of “The Histories of Troy” and set to work printing them on his new machine. This was the first book ever printed in English.

Incidentally, his machine is called a printing press because the early versions were adapted from a machine that would press grapes to get their juice to make wine. You would put grapes into the machine, press down on them and the juice would be forced out. Even today, we still talk about “the press” as a synonym for TV and newspaper journalists.

A Printing Press
Too big to hide under your table

Anyway, back to William Caxton.

He quickly moved back to London and set up a business printing more books and pamphlets.

But he had some problems to overcome, some questions that had to be answered.

You see, as a businessperson, he wanted to sell as many books as possible to as many people. But, as we have already seen, there was not one standard English. There were different words, pronunciations and spellings. In the past, one person who was writing a text by hand could make a decision based on how the language was spoken in the local area. But now there was just one big area; the whole of England.

Some questions that Caxton had to face were:

Should he import foreign words, create new English words or use existing English words that were similar to the original meaning?

Which variety of English should he use?

Which literary style should he use as a model? The most important writer at that time was a man called Chaucer (I will produce an episode on Chaucer in a few weeks), but was he appropriate as a model?

How should words be spelt, seeing as there was so much variation?

How should he use punctuation? This was particularly important as there were almost no standard rules at the time.

Should he change the language of English writers so they would be more widely understood?

Caxton shows off his favourite new toy

Caxton struggled with these questions and many more. An analysis of his work shows a lot of inconsistencies and prove he was unable to find specific answers. It would take around a hundred years for standards to be widely accepted. Many of the standard spellings that we still use today we organised by Caxton and the printers who came after him.

You see, having a machine and a small number of people who could use that machine, forced them to agree on standards. There was no one organisation imposing standards, they just sort of happened over the following 100 years or so.

There were two problems with this. The first was that the people who had the expertise to use printers were usually not English. They were often Dutch, from the Netherlands. So when they were trying to decide how to spell words in English, they sometimes used Dutch rules. The spelling of the words “any” and “busy” were changed during this period. They also added a letter “h” after the letter “g” for example in “ghost”.

Another problem though was more of a general human problem instead of one specific to Dutch people. Printers got their money by charging for the number of lines they printed. This meant that printers liked longer words because longer words meant more lines. Many words suddenly acquired extra letters, like the “i” in “friend”, the “a” in “head” and the final “l” in “shall”.

It seems that once a word has been written down a number of times, it is very difficult to change it to something more logical, and these words have been creating problems in English spelling since the printing press was introduced.

Just before we finish, there is a nice little story about what happened after William Caxton died. His business was inherited by a man called Wynkyn de Worde. What a name for somebody involved in printing, well, words!

There are other reasons for the irregularities of English spelling. I looked at some of them in episode 32 called “Silent Letters”. You can find that episode on your podcast app or at my site EnglishwithStephen.com. And don’t forget to check out the podcast Emigrant’s Life for great stories about how to live in different countries.

Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again soon.


Leave a Reply