Tuesday 3 June 2008

On Caxton as linguist

A correspondent writes to ask, in relation to the emergence of standardization in English, whether the choices made by William Caxton in his publications were linguistically motivated.

I've actually dealt with this question at some length in my The Stories of English (Chapter 11), so I won't repeat myself here. My view, in brief, is that the spellings in Caxton's books were so varied that it isn't possible to ascribe to him any sort of conscious standardization policy. I agree with Norman Blake, in his excellent study (Caxton and his World), who concludes that Caxton was 'an opportunist in linguistic matters'. I see Caxton as a jobbing printer, who wanted to get books out as quickly and efficiently as possible. My impression is that he was a man of the moment, devising ways of solving the immediate printing task presented by a manuscript, and not especially concerned to check that the linguistic solution for book X was the same as the one he had already adopted for book Y. Even within one book, there are many variations. In the famous 'egg' story (from Eneydos we find 'asked' spelled within a few lines of each other as axed and axyd, 'wife' as wyf and wyfe, and many more such instances of variation. His books did introduce several features which would eventually help to shape Standard English. The 'egg' story shows that he was aware of the need to make choices. But there's precious little sign of a linguistic policy in his work.

No comments: