Every single day of our lives we are living with the effects of an invention so significant that it’s importance and influence can’t really be overstated. We probably never even think about it, and we are probably incapable of ever truly fathoming what the world would be like had it never come to be. This is a piece of technology so revolutionary and so unbelievably vital that it’s impact on history can be felt in countless ways. Nope, I’m not talking about your iPhone. It’s even more important than that (hard to believe, I know).
That’s right, I’m talking about the printing press. (Technology isn’t all about computers and the Internet, after all, and you just know those fifteenth century early adopters were all over this before it hit the mainstream.)
Now, please allow me to indulge in a bit of a history lesson to set the stage.
Before the printing press, the English language was a bit of a mess. Every village had its own dialect, which meant it also had its own spelling (that is, if there was any spelling at all, considering the illiteracy of the general population). People from one town to the next couldn’t communicate with each other very easily. Because things had to be written by hand, if they were written at all, the accuracy of representing the anglo-saxon language was primarily left up to whomever was doing the writing. There were no dictionaries for reference and no standard rules about spelling or usage.
For example, in these few lines from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, (written in Middle English, which preceded Modern English, which is what we generally consider to be the version we speak now) there are plenty of words that we easily recognize the sound of, but might have a harder time recognizing by sight alone, because, well, the spelling is completely different than the standardized version we now use:
A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
(via) (See a comparison of Middle and Modern versions of The Canterbury Tales.)
This lack of standarization was an issue throughout all of Europe, but Gutenberg’s printing press began to change things in the mid-fifteenth century. Because things could be printed and distributed en masse, it became necessary to make language more standard so that someone in the north of England could understand something written in the south of England. (You can imagine the confusion that could be caused region-to-region when deciphering a written document comes down to a guessing game about a different dialect or accent and whether or not they used the character “þ” in their alphabet.)
Though initial printed material was in Latin, it was William Caxton who printed the first English texts, and since there was no way to say whose version of English was the most correct, Caxton made an executive decision and used the dialect of the language that he knew.
In Changing English, David Graddol et. al write that “the problems facing all European printers, including Caxton were that regional dialects proliferated, linguistic change was rapid, and there was a relative lack of conventionalised spelling and authoritative sources. Caxton solved this dilemma for England by default — by printing the dialect of the south-east Midlands.”
So, the south-east Midlands dialect forms the basis of the English that we use today. Once Caxton started printing with that dialect, it became more and more widespread as his texts were distributed, more people began printing, and the process of standardization got underway.
Of course, this is all a really brief explanation of one of the ways that the printing press has changed language and culture. It really only opens the door to more changes, like greater standardization through the creation of dictionaries and usage guides, making the written word more accessible (which helped improve literacy), spreading news and information further and more quickly, and being the building block for all media proliferation that followed.
That doesn’t even take into consideration all the common phrases and linguistic quirks we still live with that come from the actual physical process of using a printing press (here’s a teaser: ever wonder why we call ’em “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters?).
For a brief run-down of the history of printing and books, see this presentation from the University of Manchester.