How did William Caxton influence and change modern English Language?


"We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in three discoveries that the ancients didn't know; namely printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass. These three have changed the whole aspect and state of things throughout the world."

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, Novum organum, Aphorism 129

William Caxton was born 1422 in the Weald of Kent, England. He is the first English printer and, as a translator and publisher, he exerted an important influence on English literature and language.

Caxton went to London at the age of 16 to become an apprentice to a merchant, later moving to Bruges, Belgium the centre of the wool trade as well as an important centre in the trade of paintings and manuscripts, where he became a successful and important member of the merchant community. From 1462 to 1470 he served as governor of the 'English Nation of Merchant Adventurers' in the Low Countries, which allowed him to represent his fellow merchants, as well as act as a diplomat for the King of the day. This also allowed him to accrue significant wealth and influence. Sometime in 1470 he ceased to be governor and entered the service of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV, the King of England, possibly as her financial adviser.

In this period Caxton's interests were also turning to literature. Although printing with movable type had been invented in 11th-century China, in Europe the technology was not developed until the mid-15th century. The first full-scale book produced with moveable type was printed in the 1450s by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz, but Caxton had realised the English literature demand needed more. In March 1469, and heavily encouraged by Margaret, he had begun to translate Raoul Le Fèvre's 'Recueil des histoires de Troye’ from French to English, which he subsequently laid aside and did not finish until September, 1471. In the early 1470’s Caxton spent some time in Cologne, Germany learning the art of printing. As a university city as well as an important commercial centre, Cologne was an ideal location for the fledgling book trade. By the 1470s it had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany.

He returned to Bruges in 1472 where he and Colard Mansion, a Flemish calligrapher, set up a press. Caxton's own eventual translation of 'Recueil des histoires de Troye' (Eng. – A collection of the histories of Troy) was the first book in history printed in the English language. In the epilogue of Book III of the completed translation he tells how his "pen became worn, his hand weary, his eye dimmed" with copying the book; so he “practised and learnt” at great personal cost how to print it. He set up a press in Bruges about 1474, and the Recueil, the first book printed in English, was published there in 1475. Caxton's translation from the French of 'The Game and Playe of the Chesse’ (in which chess is treated as an allegory of life) was published in 1476. Caxton printed two or three other works in Bruges in French, but toward the end of 1476 he returned to England and established his press at Westminster. From then on he devoted himself to writing and printing.


Most continental printers produced books in Latin, the international language of the day, in order to be able to sell them in a number of countries. Caxton, on the other hand, mainly produced books in English for a local market. Although printed books could reach a much wider audience than manuscripts, they were still a luxury in Caxton's day and were thus aimed at fairly wealthy people. However, printing soon led to books becoming available at a cheaper price, and Caxton was part of the beginning of a major change in the way in which people acquired books for information and for entertainment.

Despite the wider readership of the printed book, printers still had to keep in favour with the aristocracy. 1483, the year that saw the second edition of the Canterbury Tales, also saw the death of Edward IV, a major supporter of Caxton's work. When the throne was seized by his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Caxton lost little time in acknowledging the new regime. The next year his 'Ordre of Chyvalry or Knyghthode' was wisely dedicated to Richard III. The defeat of Richard by Henry VII in 1485 established the Tudor dynasty and restored Caxton’s connections at court. A few years later he was commissioned to print the parliamentary statutes passed under Henry VII. For the first time, they were printed in English rather than French – a measure of technological and social change in the age of Caxton.

Just as Martin Luther made the dialect of his home region the standard form of German through his Bible translation, Caxton was responsible for the form of English which was to become the standard. He adopted a special variety of Middle English; the so-called 'King's English’ commonly used in London and its surroundings, for his translations and spread this language variety throughout England by his trade. If this was a conscious choice cannot absolutely be asserted, but he had an acute sense of language through his time spent abroad and was aware of the problem of dialect variation in England. Therewith other dialects of the vernacular were marginalised, lost their importance and sometimes died out. So Caxton’s introduction of printing marks a turning point in the development of English as a national and later on international language.

The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's time and the works that he was given to print were in a variety of styles and dialects. Caxton was a technician rather than a writer, and he often faced dilemmas concerning language standardisation in the books that he printed - similarly his successor Wynkyn de Worde faced similar problems. Caxton is credited with standardising the English language through printing—that is, homogenising regional dialects and largely adopting the London dialect. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. It is asserted that the spelling of "ghost" with the silent letter 'h' was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Flemish spelling habits.

As a successful merchant and businessman he made little attempt to educate or lead public taste, but printed what it was easy for him to know was popular, or what the prevailing predilection for religious writings made a certain success. Romances and poetry were another reasonable venture, while a few works of instruction completed his list. He also worked under patronage in many instances, so that of seventy-seven original works published by him we know that for twenty-three of them he was assured of financial support, and the favour of influential personages.