In 1476, Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Caxton printed all kinds of texts: mythic tales, popular stories, poems, phrasebooks, devotional pieces and grammars. Thanks to the invention of printing, books became quicker to produce and cheaper to purchase - although they were still a luxury. An ever-increasing number of writers were able to publish their works, literacy rates rose, language gradually became more uniform, and an early form of modern English began to emerge.

Caxton's English

Many of Caxton's books were those he himself had translated into English. Caxton's decision to print English books was mainly economic: there was already an international market for books in Latin, so if he had printed Latin books, he would have been competing with some of the biggest publishers of his time. Several different dialects existed in England, and Caxton's translations were based on a London dialect. Caxton felt his own Kentish dialect was 'broad and rude'; the London dialect was thought to be more refined, and included many words derived from French or Latin.

Because of the diversity of English regional dialects, and the changing nature of the language, it was difficult for Caxton to choose which words to use in his translations. He needed to write in a dialect that would be understood by as many readers as possible. In one book, Caxton writes of a group of 'gentlemen' who complain that his translations contain words which 'coude not be vnderstande of comyn peple, and desired me to vse olde and homely termes in my translacyons' [could not be understood by the common people, and they wished me to use old and homely terms]. But Caxton saw that the English language was changing rapidly, and that the old and homely terms of the past were fading out of the language. Many of these words were now difficult for most people to understand. Caxton had seen old texts written in an English which he could not himself understand. He had even noticed a change in the English language from his youth to his old age: 'And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne' [and certainly the language now used is very different from that which was used and spoken when I was born].

Caxton called this old form of English 'plain and rude', whilst calling the more 'refined' form of English 'polished', 'ornate', or 'curious'. The language that Caxton eventually chose to use was based on the dialects of the South East - the most socially and economically influencial region. He aimed his language not at 'rude' men but at 'a clerke and a noble gentylman': 'Therfor in a meane bytwene bothe I haue reduced and translated this sayd booke in to our englysshe not ouer rude ne curyous but in such termes as shall be vnderstanden by goddys grace' [therefore, as a compromise, I have translated this book into an English which is neither too coarse nor too refined, but using phrases which are understandable, God willing]. Although there was a growing perception that the language used in the London region was becoming a nationwide standard, and Caxton's books help to strengthen this claim, these rules were not set in stone; people throughout England continued to speak in diverse dialects, and the idea of creating a standard language would not appear until the 1600s.

Discover more about Caxton's English on the BL site