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The Influence of Printing on the English Language and its Development

LINGUISTS have always acknowledged that the invention of printing had exerted a great influence on languages. Among other things, printing helped to develop a 'standard' language and a more codified form of spelling.

Printing which was introduced into England by Caxton in 1476, helped to increase the spread of knowledge and literacy level among the British public as more and more people had better access to reading materials. Over the centuries, as more English texts were printed, such as novels, dictionaries, the Bible and other documents, the English language gradually gained popularity and established itself as the national language of England. Apart from the advent of printing, political, social and economic factors also contributed to the development of English as a national language. The speakers' attitude towards the language, the status of the language itself as well as colonialism later enhanced English position as an international language today.

Linguists Harris and Taylor have pointed out that through printing Caxton played a very significant and instrumental role in establishing English as the national language of England. They suggest that by adopting 'the dialect of London and the South-East as the English for his books, Caxton took a decisive step forward in establishing that particular variety as 'the English language'.' (Harris and Taylor, 1980). We get the idea that Caxton as the first printer in England was highly responsible for imposing some form of uniformity to the English language simply by default. His choice of the dialect of the southeast Midlands has given us the present form of Standard English.

Before doing any printing, Caxton had to choose a variety of language, which should be understood by a lot of people, and not an exclusive language like Latin, which was the language of the elite. In Caxton's time, Latin, the lingua franca of Europe, was already a dying language. Independent states throughout Europe no longer gave much importance to Latin and Greek as in the past. The French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Dutch had established their national identities and their own languages. Naturally, the British needed a language to call their own too.

According to Harris and Taylor, when Caxton started printing he realized that variations in English dialects posed some difficulties for users of the language. But he also knew that a single dialect had to be chosen to 'unite' the people of England. Despite the difficulties he faced in terms of orthography and the lack of authoritative guidance on the English grammars, Caxton managed to produce many English translations of French works.

Paradoxically Caxton's works would help to instill a consciousness of national identity among the English people, as they would come across and question some alien values in the translated works. Printing thus opened up the minds of the people to foreign ideas and knowledge.

Harris and Taylor point out that 'printing was the technological foundation of the European Renaissance'. In other words, printing revived the tradition of learning. Consequently, it led to unprecedented mass communications and the dissemination of information on a very wide scale. As printing became widespread, the Standard variety of English also spread to all corners of England. As the masses became familiar with the spelling system and grammar introduced by Caxton, the language would become more nationalised.

The standardisation of the English language or any language is an issue which linguists always have to grapple with. Printing had brought into focus problems regarding the variations in the English language, which Caxton had observed. Nevertheless, printing provides a way to reduce these variations in the language. As Caxton himself showed, publishers would set their own system of spelling and somewhat codify the language.

According to Harris and Taylor, many Renaissance men of letters held the view that language 'can be altered and improved by human design'. As such, the Renaissance scholars worked towards standardising the language by producing English dictionaries and grammar books. John Wallis, one of the last of the Renaissance scholars, published a grammar of English in 1653 entitled Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, which is often regarded as the first systematic grammar of English. In 1755, Dr Samuel Johnson published his famous and very influential Dictionary. Another famous dictionary is John Walker's A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791.

The early English dictionaries, especially Dr Johnson's can be seen as a model to the modern English dictionaries. The idea of modernity in thinking, which is easily reflected in the language used by a given society, had its roots as early as the Renaissance era. Since the publication of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the English language had changed dramatically in form and grammar. By the late 1850s, English scholars saw the urgent need to have an authoritative dictionary as English had already established itself as the national language of England. Hence they gathered to produce what Dick Leith and David Graddol describe as 'a work of the greatest authority', that is the Oxford English Dictionary.

One thing to note is that, printing had to a great extent marginalised other English dialects. This is because literary works in other dialects were hardly printed. Moreover, following the Renaissance period Standard English had become the language of science, as it was used by every English scholar. Other English dialects simply lost their importance at the national level.

Obviously, Caxton's introduction of printing to Britain played an instrumental role in the development of Standard English. But other social and political factors also contributed to the development of English as 'a national language'. Of these, I would like to point out the role of King Alfred (849-899). Scholars of the past generally agree that Alfred's major contribution lies in his victory over the Vikings in a battle at Ethandun, Wiltshire in 878. If he had he been defeated by the Vikings, perhaps England would have become part of Scandinavia. As the argument goes, if that happened, perhaps English as we know it today, would not have become the national language in England.

Alfred is often glorified by some scholars as the embodiment of 'Englishness'. In fact as Dick Leith pointed out, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'the word Englisc (English) was first used to denote both people and language' under Alfred's reign. (English: History, diversity and change, David Graddol, Dick Leith and Joan Swann, p.108). Alfred decreed that English should be used instead of Latin for state affairs. His promotion of writing and learning English had evoked a national consciousness among the people. In this regard, he is seen as the national hero.

Alfred ordered the translation of many Latin texts into West Saxon. His choice of a single dialect at the expense of others is seen as the first step towards standardisation. In fact, Alfred was so successful in his campaign for the use of English that historians have used his perspectives to interpret the history of the English language. To his credit, most surviving Old English texts are written in West Saxon.

Despite all that is said of Alfred, it is important to note that Alfred's victory against the Vikings was not final. As David Crystal pointed out in his essay 'The Story of Old English', in 991 the Vikings managed to force the English King Aethelred into exile. Hence they ruled England for twenty-five years. Nevertheless, Alfred remains a national hero for he was the first English king who consciously promoted English rather than Latin to the people.

The power and influence of great individuals always play a crucial role in shaping the history of a language. Caxton, Johnson and Alfred are examples of those whose contributions to the development of the English language should not be forgotten. Their works became significant as linguists search for ancient manuscripts to interpret and present a story of the development of English in England.

The growth of capitalism gave rise to a distinct class system in England. A growing number of merchants moved socially upward as they became wealthier. These people, who formerly lacked any formal education which taught the 'correct language', now had the means to improve their language by virtue of their wealth. They needed to speak the correct English in order to appear more respectable and to maintain their social status. They formed the bulk of buyers of reading materials on English grammar. We should note that prices of books were relatively high for the ordinary masses when printing was first introduced. The upper and middle classes helped the printing industry to thrive by their buying power. Consequently, the language gained more prestige among the nobles in England.

In the 15th century many people had an inferiority complex with regard to the English language. Greek and Latin were still regarded as superior to English. But by the 16th century, through the activities of Renaissance scholars who produced many grammar books on English, we have seen that the language had now gained a higher status. The British had changed their attitude towards the language. It was now pursued and studied with fervour. During this period, English writers developed a greater loyalty and pride in the English language. This sense of pride was a direct result of the Reformation period.

In the early 1530s, when Henry VIII declared himself head of the English church, there was a great excitement among the masses about the waning influence of the Roman Catholic faith. Henry had decided to break away from the institutional authority of the Roman Catholic Church. For the first time, under his rule the Bible was translated into English in 1526. The translation of the bible into English, which was highly controversial then, was an important development in shaping English as a national language. Latin dramatically ceased to be important among the clergy.

More importantly, the public could now read and interpret the contents of the Bible, which used to be exclusive to the clergy. A later version of the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 became the focus of service in the new Church of England. The English Bible itself became a main agent in standardising the language. The Authorized (King James) version in 1611 was acclaimed by some as representative of the golden height achieved by early modern English. Printing made the spread of a thick book like the Bible possible to a wide audience within a short time. This helped to keep the language in constant usage. In retrospect, the Reformation contributed to the development of the English language as a national language by focusing on the use of English rather than Latin or other European languages.

The birth of Puritanism and its subsequent rise in the 17th century also contributed to the development of English as a national language in England. Many puritans championed English over Latin and many were involved in the study of Old English manuscripts. They perceived English as a 'national' language 'capable of uniting all English people in the eyes of God.' (Ibid p.153). One of the notable Puritan grammarians is John Wallis, whose book on English grammars challenged the idea that grammar should start with categories and standards set for Latin.

Noah Webster, the American linguist, in his essay on the advantages of reforming spelling in 1789, observed that the English language was inconsistent in that the pronunciation of words differed from its orthography. In the essay, Webster invited the Americans to develop their own kind of English, which should be distinct from that of English English. This clearly demonstrates that political interests and motives may shape one's attitude towards a language. The Americans developed their own orthography as the country became independent and retained English as its national language.

Colonialism is an important factor that helped to spread the English language far and wide. English established itself on many parts of the globe stretching from Australia, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, India, Africa and North America. The British government established schools in these countries, which helped the language to expand. The governments of some of the former British colonies later adopted English as their national language. This eventually led to more varieties of English in the world. In England, the so-called Standard English or 'national language' is used mostly in formal contexts as represented by BBC newscasters and journalists.

If one were to ask whether English today can still be considered a national language, the answer is yes and no. Yes it can still be considered a 'national language' by the British since many Britons still speak that language and the British government still recognizes it as its national language. But for the rest of the world, it can no longer be considered a national language for the British alone. Many people of various bloods have adopted English as their mother tongue or second language. English has become an international language or a lingua franca for many people worldwide. It is now a national language not only of England but of countries like Singapore, India and so on.

We have seen that today English has reached a status which not many languages have achieved. Starting from its humble origin as a language spoken by the Anglo Saxons who were not highly 'civilized' compared with the Romans, the language has developed into what it is now, an important language of science and the Internet. Caxton's introduction of printing into England remains a crucial turning point in the development of the English language. Besides setting a standard, it eventually turned English into an international language.

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18 March 1998.

[He is a creative writer from Singapore, who prefers to communicate his ideas and visions through fiction rather than essays. He writes poems and short stories in English and Malay languages.]

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