Shapers of the Language 3: William Caxton (c. 1415-1492)

I have, perhaps a little presumptuously, taken the name of William Caxton to enhance this blog. I can only hope he would have been gratified to be remembered in this way in the 21st century, for, by printing the first book in English, he helped determine its future.

Caxton was born in or after 1415. He began his professional life as a merchant in London, later moving to Bruges and then Cologne. Caxton the merchant seems to have been drawn to printing as much by its commercial possibilities as by any literary ambitions. The first book he printed, probably in Bruges, was ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy’, a collection of stories about the Trojan war, which he translated himself from the French. In middle age he returned to London and set up a printing press in Westminster, where he printed Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. He died in 1492.

If Caxton had not introduced printing into England someone else would have done. His contribution was to see that there was a problem in deciding what kind of English to use. Manuscripts often reflected the dialects and whims of their scribes, but, because of their much smaller circulation, they didn’t have to be intelligible to a wide readership. Caxton saw that this wouldn’t do for printing. He told the story, now commonplace in the history of English, of some merchants who stopped in Kent to buy some food. One of them asked a woman for some eggs, but she didn’t understand him, saying that she didn’t speak French. One of his companions then asked if she had any eyren. This she understood. We can imagine her saying ‘If that’s what you wanted, why didn’t you say so?’ Anyway, the merchants got their eggs.

The story highlights the difficulty facing him. As he wrote, ‘what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren?’ His solution was to strike a compromise between the extremes of language then current and to use ‘englysshe not ouer rude ne curyous but in such termes as shall be vnderstanden by goddys grace’ (English neither vulgar nor esoteric, but of a kind that will, by God’s grace, be understood). He used the variety of the language used in and around London, which he thought would be understood by the greatest number of potential readers, who would then be more likely to buy his books. The importance of that choice was reinforced when he printed Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, written in the same dialect. Caxton put in train events that would lead to what we know today as Standard English.

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