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Natalie Giesbrecht

Printing a Changing Language: The Printing Press and the Standardisation of English

"Some Method should be thought of for Ascertaining and Fixing our Language for ever . . .
it is better a Language should not be perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing."

Jonathan Swift, Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, 1712

(as cited in Crowley, 1991, p.37)

Setting Standards: An Introduction

Living languages are always in a constant state of change. This fluidity accommodates for the development of new names for items that are introduced into a specific geographic or cultural area, as well as for shifts in grammar, spelling and pronunciation (Baron, 2000). The changing nature of language certainly poses problems for standardisation. With the arrival of the printing press in England in the late fifteenth century, texts could be mass-produced and the English word could be disseminated to a wider audience than ever before possible. The number of texts with variant spellings entering the literary marketplace put into question the need for further orthographical reform(Olague, 2003). Scribes introduced standards to hand-copied texts but as printed texts could quickly be reproduced, it appeared that printers should play a more significant role in disseminating standard language conventions. However the extent in which early printers influenced standard language has been questioned by many (Olague, 2005; Dickens, 2005; Culpeper, 2005; Blake, 1969). More so, the common consensus is that “early printers provided a path” through which standards in spelling could be developed by scholars and authors (Olague, 2003, Conclusion, ¶ 2).

Early Cultural and Political Influences

Language standards helped to define England's political, religious and social fiber (Baron, 2000). With the Norman Conquest, French became the language of the ruling class in England until the mid fourteenth century. Copying texts into English was halted, as was language training. As the Church and State supported the copying of texts, English spelling was also destabilized. It was a time where many French loanwords entered the English language (Baron, 2000). It wasn’t until the reign of Henry V, in the fourteenth century, that English began a full recovery (Baron, 2000). With the King’s support a revival of the language occurred and marked a significant political shift. A new patriotism among the people encouraged the development of a more eloquent and standardised language. As the royal court and government centred in London, new pronunciation norms also developed and became what is referred to as the ‘South Midlands Dialect’. As a result older spelling norms were abandoned (Kemmer, 2009).

The Printing Press and Literacy

Fresco Detail of William Caxton's Printer's Mark,Jefferson Building, Washington, DC. Copyright © 2006 Shiny Things

With the advent of the printing press for the first time in history, the written word was easily accessible to a wide audience. In England, William Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476 and stimulated the spread of literacy throughout Western European culture (Eisenstein, 1979). Book production no longer relied on individual patronage and printing and literary centres shifted from the royal courts and monasteries to commercial centres. With the movement of authority shifting from religious to secular, intellectuals associated with the “scribal school”, became part of an “anonymous literate public” (Fischer, 2001 p. 272). Additionally as paper became more affordable, books consequently became cheaper so that all classes, of varying literacy levels could feasibly read the same texts. With a mix of classes in a growing literate society, printers were forced to introduce more standards in their printed works (Fischer, 2001). A diverse readership also meant that texts needed to be presented so that every reader of a passage would interpret it in the same way (Olson, 1994).

Changing Language

By the fifteenth century the English Chancery of King Henry V, implemented the Chancery Standard, a standard focused on spelling conventions, with an aim to make official documents understandable by the masses (Culpeper, 2005). Just as printers adopted the Standard, the Great English Vowel Shift, encouraged a change in English pronunciation, whereby long vowels shifted upwards and silent letters entered the written language. This resulted in a great amount of letter-to-sound mismatches (Kemmer, 2009). Unfortunately, with language in flux, presses were printing text using an already obsolete spelling system, slowing the process of standardisation.

Dissemination of Knowledge

The printing press radically transformed the concept of knowledge and intellectual life in western civilization (Eisenstein, 1979). Printing encouraged the literacy of lay people and provided a foundation for scholarship among the classes. Schools, particularly in London, Oxford and Cambridge flourished and worked to educate both religious and secular workers, making it possible for the norms of orthography and a linguistic standard to develop within the nation (Kemmer, 2009).

As documents traveled quicker than people, a written standard was easier to set than a spoken one. In print, knowledge could be disseminated and preserved in a standardised form, which was essential to advancing fields of science, technology and scholarship (Kreis, 2004). As well, printed books promoted self-learning (Logan, 2004). The monopoly of knowledge by the Church and universities was broken by the printed book and allowed “the reading public to participate in the exchange of ideas” (Logan, 2004, p. 189). Also with the press, people no longer had to recover, preserve or copy ancient texts but were able to work on developing their own ideas, stimulating the notion of authorship (Logan, 2004).

Early Printers

William Caxton, English Etching, 1816. The Granger Collection, New York. Public Domain.Wikimedia Commons

The printing press made it possible to produce a vast amount of reading material using one set of spelling conventions (Culpeper, 2005). Today uniform spelling in publications is common so “we naturally assume that the printing press was an agent for uniformity from its beginnings” (Blake, 1969, p. 174). The press, in fact, actually contributed to variety, as opposed to uniformity, with errors in publications often distributed en masse. Early printers often did not apply standards consistently or even agree upon a set standard. Olague (2003) asserts that although printers had some influence on the standardisation of spelling, they merely “provided the technical means through which to express spelling reform” (Olague, 2003, Introduction, ¶ 2). Kemmer (2009) claims that when printing became ‘professionalized’ beyond the controls of the Church and State; printers actually developed a strong interest in standardisation to make the printing process easier.

As there were no native English pressmen in the early years of print, presses were forced to hire foreigners (Dickson, 2005). Thus texts then were often typeset by men who may not have been able to read them. This in turn perpetuated variant spellings and the incorporation of foreign words. As well, book production was often a social or communal activity. Texts became a combination of the author, the scribe or scribes who made the copy, various compositors and the proof corrector, who might also be the master printer (Dickson, 2005). This team approach to production further introduced spelling variations, even within the same document. Despite the fact that printers acted as editors, translators, lexicographers and cultural impresarios, most were not language scholars and were only interested in cheap, fast book production, resulting in sales and higher profits (Vos Savant, 2000).

The set up of the printed page posed challenges for standardisation. Justifying the right-hand margin of a page was difficult so variant spellings were often used as a solution (e.g. busy might be spelled busie) (Baron, 2000, p. 98). Printers often added a superfluous [e] (e.g. Olde), doubled up consonants (e.g. Shoppe) or used [y] instead of [i] to take up more line space (Culpeper, 2005, p. 27). Printers also commonly abbreviated words, adjusted letter spacing, added or deleted words, choose longer or shorter spelling of words or substituted words for phrases, or vice versa (Baron, 2000, p. 98).

Codifying Language

Title page from the second edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, 1755. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

As written language use grew, a need to document the aspects of the language for those new to English or wanting to improve their language skills arose. Previously flexible spelling for page layout and the cost savings associated with this, contributed to the resistance of standards by printers. However by the seventeenth century a burgeoning literate society expecting more accurate texts, forced printers to implement standards on a more significant scale (Salmon, 1999).

As Latin and French had been the long standing common languages, printed English dictionaries gave the language legitimacy (Baron, 2000). Baron (2000) emphasizes that the process of “fixing the language—denying further language change— becomes a tool for slowing social transformation” (p. 101). Dictionaries and grammar and spelling books worked to ‘fix’ written texts and set common norms for written language among the masses. As these books were used in schools, the education system became an authority on language standards and according to Culpeper (2005) “codified the standard by offering an authoritative consensus about what the standard consisted of” (p. 89). With an authoritative status, books on language standards encouraged patriotism and in fact, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) became a national milestone (Kemmer, 2009).


Orthographic standards have taken centuries to develop and continue to evolve today as spoken language changes. The early years of the printing press ‘fixed’ language with its regularity and reproducibility and influenced the spread of literacy throughout England. With a growing literate society, the English language experienced several revolutionary changes that encouraged the development of language standards. As early printers set type and distributed printed material, they played an important role in communicating these standards nationwide. However as early standardisation was influenced by social, political, religious and cultural forces, the extent in which early printers truly set language standards, as oppposed to adding variations, is debatable and perhaps requires further research.

See Also

Further Reading

Brengelman, F. H. (1980). Orthoepists, printers, and the rationalization of English spelling. Journal of English and German Philology, 79, 332-354.

Crowley, T. (2003). Standard English and the politics of language (2nd ed.).London: Palgrave Macmillian.

Gnandesikan, A.E. (2009). The writing revolution: Cuneiform to the internet. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Millward, C.M. (1996). A biography of the English language (2nd ed.). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Mugglestone, L. (2006). The Oxford history of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trahern, J.B., Jr. (1989). Standardizing English: Essay in the history of language change. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Wright, L. (2000). The development of standard English, 1300 - 1800: Theories, descriptions, conflicts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

External Links

History of English (Part One) Video

History of English (Part Two) Video

Casting Spells: Printing Press and Standards Video (Children of the Code)

The Altas of Early Printing (University of Iowa Library) Interactive

Gutenberg to Gates: The Birth of Printing (Springfield Library)

History of Printing (Wikipedia)

Global Spread of the Printing Press

Dawn of Western Printing: Incunabula (National Diet Library, Japan)

BBC Historic Figures: William Caxton

The History of Reynard the Fox: First Edition Printed By William Caxton, 1481

BBC British History: Ages of English Timeline (Interactive)

Language Timeline (British Library)

English Orthography (Wikipedia)

Standard English (Wikipedia)

A Brief History of English Lexicography

Dictionaries and Meaning (British Library)

Samuel Johnston's Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 1

Samuel Johnston's Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 2

Caxton’s Chaucer (British Library)


Baron, N.S. (2000). Alphabet to email: How written English evolved and where it’s heading. New York: Routledge Press.

Blake, N.F. (1969). Caxton and his world. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd.

Crowley, T. (1991). Proper English? Readings in language, history and cultural identity. London: Routledge Press.

Culpeper, J. (2005). History of English (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge Press.

Dickens, E. (2005). English language change and the advent of printing. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from

Eisenstein, E.L. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: communication and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe: Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, S.R. (2001). A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Kemmer, S. (2009). The history of English: Spelling and standardization. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from

Kreis, S. (2004). The printing press. Lectures on modern European intellectual history: Lecture 4. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from

Logan, R.K. (2004). The alphabet effect: A media ecology understanding of the making of western civilization. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

Olague, S. L. (2003). Printers, orthoepists, and standardized English. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from

Olson, D.R. (1994). The world on paper. The conceptual and cognitive implications of writing and reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Salmon, V. (1999). Orthography and punctuation. In R. Lass (Ed.), The Cambridge history of English language: Vol. III. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vos Savant, M. (2000). The art of spelling: The madness and the method. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.