A Brief History of the English Language Part 3

The historical development of English is an excellent model of how a grammar naturally develops.  I am trying to capture some of that history in this short series.  Part of the problem of understanding how language works evaporates completely if one can see the beauty in a flow of words, the magic in a few blots of ink.

Part 1 briefly covered the period from the 5th century CE to the 14th century.
Part 2 describes Chaucer's influence on the development of English.
Part 3 now covers the period from Chaucer to the Elizabethan age.

Chaucer achieved his fame as a writer in English in age when 'men of letters' wrote books mainly in Latin and French. His success led many another writer who would otherwise have written in French or Latin to 'endite', that is create, in English 'a bok for Engelondis sake'.
And for that few men endite
In oure englisch, I thenke make
A bok for Engelondis sake.
John Gower (ca.1330-1408)

The above quote, from John Gower's Confessio Amantis shows the author's intention to write a book in English.   However, the title is in Latin, the prologue is named 'prologo' - a Latin word and the whole six-line prologue is in Latin.   John Gower, a close friend of Chaucer, wrote mainly in French and Latin for most of his life.    It was only about 1386 that he began to write in English.

Chaucer invented his own ways with what may truly be called an experimental form of English. After him, writers experimented with other styles, or else tried to impose the rigours of a Latin-based traditional rhetoric on the English language.   From the 14th century onwards, commentators have almost consistently preferred the style of Chaucer over the styles of his contemporaries and followers.

Ye flower of Poet in our English tung, and the first that
euer elumined our language with flowers of rethorick and
eloquence; I mean famous and worthy Chaucer.
The Serpent of Division, John Lydgate (c.1370-c.1451)

John Lydgate, whilst full of praise for Chaucer, failed to observe Chaucer's own avoidance of many of the traditions of rhetoric, and thus Lydgate made his own style too heavy and cumbersome.  John Skelton in comparing Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower seemed to favour Chaucer above the others. Whilst Skelton had a keen eye for the traditions, he tended to use a style of poetry that his detractors later found to be over-simple.  John Skelton was Henry VII's poet laureate, and his son Henry VIII's tutor, and later King's Orator.
My name ys Parott, a byrde of Paradyse,
By Nature devysed of a wonderowus kynde,
Deyntely dyeted with dyvers delycate spyce,
Tyll Eufrates, that flodde, dryvethe me into Ynde,
Where men of that contre by fortune me fynde,
And send me to greate ladyes of estate;
Then Parot moste have an almon or a date.

A cage curyowsly carven, with sylver pynne,
Properly paynted to be my coverture;
A myrrour of glasse, that I may tote therin;
These maydens full meryly with many a dyvers flowur
Fresshely the dresse and make swete my bowur,
With, 'Speke, Parott, I pray yow,' full curteslye they sey,
'Parott ys a goodlye byrde and a pratye popagay.'
Speke Parrot, John Skelton (ca.1460-1529)

Whilst John Skelton was a popular author in his own times, his style was not much imitated. In later times he came to be seen as a 'mere' satirist and comedic writer. However, his writings show a great diversity of styles, a rich vocabulary and an influence, perhaps too heavy an influence, of the traditions of rhetoric. It is certain that he helped to popularise the idea that English could be employed to good effect in writing, in an age dominated by Latin scholarship.
"Skelton a sharpe satirist, but with more rayling and scoffery then became a Poet Lawreat, such among the Greekes were called Pantomimi, with vs Buffons, altogether applying their wits to Scurrillities&other ridiculous matters."
The Arte of English Poesie, attr.  George Puttenham (1529 - 1590)

In this, the age of Medieval Latin, Latin was the language of scholarship.   It was the international language.  When the word 'grammar' meant 'a body of writings', and 'rhetoric' meant 'the art of ornamental language', the grammar schools taught  'a body of writings' as supreme examples of  'the art of ornamental language'.  All was taught in Latin, to boys who were required to converse privately in Latin by teachers who were experts in Latin.   Skelton's great achievement was his adaptation of these tools of Latin to the task of enriching the English vocabulary by Anglicising Latin and French words, by adapting their meanings to new purposes and by making them fit into the naturally evolving grammar of English.

In this age of a blossoming English language, paper-making was industrialised at exactly the right moment to feed the new printing presses. The printers had an economic incentive to simplify the orthography of English - simplicity lends itself to speed of production of new plates for printing. This was the first step towards a standardised spelling using standardised letters, a process continued with the invention and development of movable type.

William Caxton  learned of printing in his travels abroad. His first books were printed in Bruges. The first book printed in English was Caxton's own translation of Recueil des Histoires de Troye by Raoul le Fevre: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, circa 1475-6. The first book printed by Caxton in England, at Westminster, was Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The British Library states that about 70% of surviving 15th century editions of books were in Latin. Of Caxton's editions, about 68% were in English, 28% were in Latin, 4% were in French - by a crude estimation.

Caxton was an author, translator and  editor.  He chose to edit what he printed based on a sound observation: language is changed by its users. He was trying to achieve for English what had already been acheived throughout Europe for Latin - a standard to be followed by writers and printers. He was followed in this editorship by Wynkyn da Worde and Richard Pynson. Pynson, as a printer of legal writings had a greater incentive to regularise his productions. The law is an area with stated objectives of clarity and lack of ambiguity in language for a nation of users. A consistency of word choice, spelling and grammar assists in these objectives. The tradition of editorship is continued to this day by publishers.

The English language changed and the old and homely terms of past times were now incomprehensible. 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].
William Caxton (c. 1415/1422 c. March 1492) British Library

The booming trade in printing, the industrialisation of paper-making, the spread of education through the (Latin) grammar schools, the popularity of the new writings in English;  all these came together at just the right time to influence the right man.  The right time was the Elizabethan age.  The right man was England's most famous grammar-school boy of all time: William Shakespeare.

Continued in Part 4