Saturday, August 13, 2011

Happy Birthday, William

Caxton monogram
Today in Kent, in 1422, William Caxton was born. He did not invent printing, of course, but he brought it to England and made it popular and profitable - to the point that, for a while, a printed book was called "a caxton".

He helped standardize English spelling, though he did predate the Great Vowel Shift, and so didn't standardize what we might think of as a "rational" orthography; still, considering what he had to deal with, he ruled.

In the late fifteenth century, the printer William Caxton, who greatly influenced what is now Standard Written English complained about the changes in the language since earlier times and its diverse dialects:

[I] took an old book and read therein, and certainly the English was so rude and broad that I could not well understand it. And also my lord Abbot of Westminster had shown to me recently certain evidences written in old English for to translate it into our English now used. And certainly it was written in such a manner that it was more like Dutch than English. I could not translate it nor bring it to be understood.

And certainly our language now used varies far from that which was used and spoken when I was born. For we Englishmen are born under the dominination of the Moon, which is never steadfast but ever wavering, waxing one season, and wanes and decreases another season.

And that common English that is spoken in one shire varies from another. Insomuch that in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in the Thames, for to have sailed over the sea into Zeeland, and for lack of wind they tarried at foreland and went to land for to refresh themselves. And one of them named Sheffelde, a mercer, came into a house and asked for food; and especially he asked for eggs. And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.

And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but wanted to have had eggs, and she understood him not. And then at last another said that he would have "eyren." Then the good wife understood him well.

Lo, what should a man in these days now write, "eggs" or "eyren"?

[Tr. from the preface to Enydos Caxton's Eneydos, 1490. Englisht from the French Liure des Eneydes, 1483. Ed. by the late W. [read M.] T. Culley ... and F.J. Furnivall, London, a EETS, 1890 [Widener: 11473.57].

Source: The Geoffrey Chaucer Website



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