The Printing Press' Impact on the English Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The printing press had a huge impact on many things, and language was not an exception. In this lesson, we'll see how printing affected the English language and the way it looks today.

The Printing Press and Language

Revolution is not a term that historians take lightly. For something to be recognized as a revolution, it has to be truly…revolutionary. Many of the greatest revolutions weren't armed conflicts, but technological advancements, but few of these were as significant as the Printing Revolution of the 15th-century CE.

With the development of the movable type printing press, books could be produced much more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. More people could afford to buy books, so more books were made. This was a big change from the hand-copied tomes of the medieval era, and it had substantial impacts on language. In fact, most historians agree that printing presses played a fundamental role in standardizing languages across Europe. Of course, the weirder the language, the weirder the history. That's where English comes in.

The Printing Press Comes to England

Europeans had been experimenting with printing presses ever since the basic technology arrived from Asia in the earliest days of the Renaissance. The biggest breakthrough, however, came when German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a new model of moveable type printing press and used it to print the Christian Bible on an unprecedented scale in the 1450s. Gutenberg's press allowed for the first truly mass-scale publishing. Within decades, the printing press was spreading across Europe.

So, how did it get to England? For that, we can thank an English merchant and translator named William Caxton. Pursuing an interest in literature, Caxton was in France when he was introduced to the printing press. This was a much easier way for him to copy the books that he had been translating and re-writing by hand. Caxton bought his own printing press in Brugge (Belgium) and published the first printed book in the English language there in 1475, Recuyell.

William Caxton

A year later, in 1476, William Caxton returned to England and set up Britain's first printing press at Westminster. It wasn't long before he was flooding local markets with his books, and the English people found a love for the printed word.

Printing in England

So, what impact did this have on the English language? Many people may expect printing to immediately begin standardizing the spelling and vocabulary of accepted English (after all, everyone was reading the same, mass-produced material), but actually, that wasn't the case, not at first.

Many historians have noted that English printing presses of the 15th-century really embraced no standard or uniform system of spelling, punctuation, or even vocabulary in their treatment of the English language. There are a few reasons for this. For one, most printers were not authors. They were businessmen. Even William Caxton was primarily a wool trader and textile merchant before his press became successful.

The printing press was quickly embraced in England, even if it did little to standardize the language at first

Additionally, since knowledge of how to operate a printing press was something few people knew how to do, many of England's early printers were brought in from places like France or Germany. This meant that they weren't native English speakers themselves. There were some minor attempts to create in-house rules governing printing regulations, but for the most part, proper spelling and punctuation were the responsibility of the author. The printer's job was just to print what he had been given, errors and all.

Standardizing the Language

Eventually, however, this began to change. When printing books in Latin or Greek, notably classical works of literature and philosophy, printers had to be more careful. These were standardized languages used only by the scholarly elites of Europe. For an English copy of Ovid to be as reputable as a French copy, the spelling and punctuation had to be correct.

By the early 17th-century, this desire to create a more standardized system of printing was starting to impact English-language books as well. English printers had a hard time breaking into classical publishing because those texts were already being produced en masse in continental Europe, so they turned more towards English-language works. However, in a desire to maintain their reputations, a more standardized English began to appear.

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