What did Caxton do for us?

As promised in last week’s post, I’ve been following in the footsteps of the Crystals and have had a go at some English language tourism. I’ve been looking for William Caxton and his printing press, which brings us to the question: what did Caxton ever do for us?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaxton was born in Kent in around 1422. At 16 years old, he moved to London to set himself up as a merchant and he later moved to Bruges and became a thriving businessman. He frequently travelled around continental Europe, including trips to Cologne where he was introduced to the printing press. Soon after, he set up his own printing presses, first in Bruges and later in London in 1476. He is thought to be the first person to establish a printing press in Britain and the first English printer and retailer of printed books. Caxton’s own translation of ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye’ was also the first book ever to be printed in English.

Aside from being a big name in translation at that time, Caxton’s work had a huge impact on the English language. Before Caxton, people just wrote down words however they sounded to the writer. Given the range of accents and dialects around at the time, it made for a very messy language with lots of comprehension problems. Well Caxton put an end to that. He modernised the spelling system; he removed the Old English letters (like eth and thorn, which we saw in ye), he added punctuation and his spelling preferences became the ones we often still use today.

To give a few specific examples, ever wondered why ghost has a h? It’s because Caxton’s staff were mostly from abroad and didn’t know English well; the Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest has a h so they figured the English word should too. Similarly, the extra u in guess is often attributed to Caxton.Location of Caxton's printing press

The word affair, meaning ‘something one has to do’, first entered English in around 1300 from the French infinitive phrase à faire ‘to do’. But it was originally only a Northern word that was usually spelt afere. It was Caxton who brought it into general use and gave it a French spelling.

So back to English language tourism. The only statue of Caxton in London that we know of is outside the Victoria and Albert museum and David Crystal suspects that the very location of Caxton’s original printing press is a triangular patch of tarmac in front of Westminster Abbey. And here are my photos!

 

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