What was the effect of the introduction of the printing press on the English Language?
This discussion is based on the Chapter ‘The Printing Press’ in McCrum, R and Cran, W. (1989) The Story of English. Faber & Faber: London
This presentation was written for the class of Introduction to the Description of English I, taught by Carol Lethaby.
When this essay was written (1997), technologies had not yet begun to transform the way publications were created. The idea of blogging was foreign to everyone and the idea of writing and reading was limited to the hand written and word processed formats. As this blog post is being transcribed, it could be interesting to contrast the impact on the printing press and the emergence of digital publications on language learning, development and teaching.
William Caxton had an eventful life as a merchant and diplomat, learned the art of printing in the European continent, and then, introduced the press in England around the year 1476. For the history of written English, Caxton’s initiative to reproduce the English language in massive quantities generated different paradigms in the existence of the English language; elevated its standards and gave way to a more rapid evolution of the language.
Effects on the language
The introduction of the printing press had different effects on the language because of the communication revolution it brought into society. English received influences from other languages. Such effect brought in new words, hence expanding the language lexicon. With every new publication, although later in the future, different words were penned or different senses and meanings were attributed to them, which, in other words, caused the nature of the language to become enhanced and revitalized. This is possible how people developed more complex concepts for actual happenings.
The introduction of the printing press caused the English to develop in ways never before conceived. However, while the language was fully utilized in a spoken form, not everyone was able to understand the written form of English in its massive availability. In other words, the presence of the printing press caused illiteracy to become evident, hence opening the door to a new social dilemma.
As a standardized meaning needed to be conveyed for everyone to understand the language, the English language underwent a homogenization process that had a fulminant effect on spelling, vocabulary, grammar and regional varieties of the language. This same process would eventually unify understandings of the language that resulted in the acceptance and recognition of different dialects.
English could not escape from the influence of Literature. This revival of learning produced a new breed of scholar-writers who wanted to create a new writing style, providing English with new words. As a result of this movement, the language had to accommodate these changes because new concepts needed new descriptions, hence justifying the creation of new words or combination of words. In fact, borrowings from languages such as Latin, Greek, French and Spanish added both complexity and richness to the English language, providing it with different dimensions to address ideas and designate new meanings.
As English spread, the need to learn to read and write became a must. This new necessity provoked acceleration in the education of the rising middle class. People were then acquiring knowledge that enabled them to find out about new conceptions of the world as well as different ideas and notions on what is possible for one to learn. Similarly, this realization caused people to start questioning change; to consider different ways of expressing their thoughts; to contemplate what to do with the knowledge they were acquiring; and to document the new understandings they were formulating.
The printing press, which helped in spreading information much more easily, was a communication revolution that introduced a torrent of new words and ways of recording work in the English language. As a parallel process in which language and knowledge experienced growth, this development also served as a turning point in education, and is, possibly, the moment at the value of data and knowledge became a currency in the world of information.