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William Caxton
Introduction.
 William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422 – ca. March 1492)
was an English merchant, diplomat, writer and
printer.
 He is thought to be the first English person to work
as a printer and the first to introduce a printing press
into England.
 He was also the first English retailer of printed books
(his London contemporaries in the same trade were
all Flemish, German or French).
 His date of birth is unknown, but records place it in the region of
1415–1424, based on the fact his apprenticeship fees were paid in
1438.
 Caxton would have been 14 at the date of apprenticeship, but
masters often paid the fees late.
 Caxton was in London by 1438, when the registers of the Mercers'
Company record his apprenticeship to Robert Large, a wealthy
London mercer, or dealer in luxury goods, who served as Master
of the Mercer's Company, and Lord Mayor of London in 1439.
 After Large died in 1441, Caxton was left a small sum of money
(£20). As other apprentices were left larger sums, it would seem
he was not a senior apprentice at this time.
Printing.
 There he was successful in business and became governor of
the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London.
 This led to more continental travel, including travel to
Cologne, in the course of which he observed the new printing
industry, and was significantly influenced by German
printing.
 He wasted no time in setting up a printing press in Bruges, in
collaboration with a Fleming, Colard Mansion, and the first
book to be printed in English was produced in 1473: Recuyell
of the Historyes of Troye, a translation by Caxton himself.
 Bringing the knowledge back to England, he set up a
press at Westminster in 1476 and the first book
known to have been produced there was an edition of
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Caxton and the English Language
 Caxton printed four-fifths of his works in English. He
translated a large number of works into English, performing
much of the translation and editing work himself.
 Caxton is credited with printing as many as 108 books, 87 of
which were different titles. Caxton also translated 26 of the
titles himself.
 His major guiding principle in translating was an honest desire
to provide the most linguistically exact replication of foreign
language texts into English, but the hurried publishing schedule
and his inadequate skill as a translator often led to wholesale
transference of French words into English and numerous
misunderstandings.
 The English language was changing rapidly in Caxton's
time and the works 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 standardization in
the books he printed. His successor Wynkyn de Worde
faced similar problems.
 Caxton is credited with standardising the English
language (that is, homogenising regional dialects)
through printing.
 This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the
regularization of inflection and syntax, and the everwidening gap between the spoken and the written word.
 However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in
London in 1491 or 1492, and who favored Chancery
Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and
consequently pushed the English language further toward
standardization.
 It is asserted that the spelling ghost with the silent
letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of
Flemish spelling habits.
Caxton's English
 An unusually high proportion of Caxton’s production was
in the vernacular — in English. Over all, about 70% of the
surviving editions from the 15th century were in Latin. In
the case of Caxton about 68% of his editions were in
English, 28% were in Latin, while 4% were in French.
 This is a very crude measure, as it does not take into
account that some of the books were very large and some
very small.
 In Caxton’s case about a third of the surviving Latin
editions were of a single sheet only.
 Nor do we know if some of these sheets were produced
in such large numbers that, in terms of financial
importance, numbers compensate for the small size of
each item.
 In any case, it is clear that the English language
production was very significant for Caxton.
 This was probably not because Caxton was more than
usually devoted to his native language.
 There were good economic reasons for his choice. There
was an international market for books in Latin, so if Caxton
had printed Latin books, he would have been competing
with some of the biggest publishers of his time.
 This would have been difficult to do successfully from
England, on the margins of Europe. European printers also
produced books in Latin specifically for English use.
 This demonstrates the strength of European book exports
to England.
 Caxton left to others the production of texts to be used
in universities or monasteries throughout Europe.
Instead he concentrated on books in English, where
there was little competition.
 In his prefaces Caxton often wrote about his use of
English, especially in his own translations.
 In his first translation, theRecuyell of the Histories of
Troy, he mentioned the simplicity of his English, based
on his ‘broad and rude’ Kentish dialect.
 This expression of a conventional modesty was based
on a perception that it was more refined to use words
derived from French or Latin than native English
words.
 The same theme recurred in his translation of
the Eneydos one of his last works, where he summed
up more than 30 years’ experience with translating
into English.
 Caxton referred to some ‘gentlemen’ who had
complained that his translations contained 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 in my
translations].
 But this could go too far; the English language changed
and the old and homely terms of past times were now
incomprehensible.
 When he printed Ranulph Higden’s Polycronicon, in
John Trevisa’s translation of 1387, he updated the ‘rude
and old englyssh, that is to wete certayn wordes, which
in these dayes be neither vsyd ne understanden’ [rude
and old English, that is, to wit, certain words
which nowadays are neither used nor
understood].
 Caxton associated old usage with a lower social
standing, calling it ‘plain and rude’ and implying that it
was suitable for ‘rude’ men. The opposite is called
‘polished’, ‘ornate’, or ‘curious’.
 He was also acutely aware of regional variations. We saw
him referring to his own Kentish background in the preface
to his first translation, another theme which recurred at the
end of his life.
 As a translator of books which were to be printed Caxton
had to ensure that the language which he used was
acceptable to quite a wide group of potential readers and
buyers.
 As far as the social position of his language was concerned
Caxton’s solution was to strike what he perceived as a
balance but he aimed his language not at rude men but at ‘a
clerke and a noble gentylman’.
 While his English was clearly based on the emerging
standard language of London, Caxton’s approach to
spelling does not constitute a concerted attempt to
create a standard.
 His spelling varies widely within each book, and even
more from book to book.
 To some extent this may be because each compositor
followed his own system of spelling when he put the
type together, but it also depended on the copy which
they followed.
 A standard language would have been much more important to
Caxton, a publisher of printed books, than to a scribe who
produced one copy at a time.
 There was a Europe-wide norm for books in Latin, which made it
possible for the printed book to become a successful international
merchandise.
 Achieving a linguistic norm for the vernacular was of economic
importance for the distribution of Caxton’s books, and he was
evidently aware of this, but he did not have the background to
create a new norm.
 At most, his English printed books helped consolidate a growing
perception that the language used in the London region was a
nationwide standard.
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