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Language Change in Two Early English Printing Houses: Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde, 1490-1530

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posted on 2021-11-14, 10:03 authored by Cruikshank, Alana

The introduction of printing to England in the late fifteenth century dramatically altered the form and function of the written English language, as the production of texts increased exponentially within a very short time period. This shift from manuscript to print is characterised as the beginning of Early Modern English, when standardisation and modernisation of text began in earnest and neared completion by 1700. William Caxton, England’s first printer and an enthusiast of literature, is credited with making genuine efforts towards ‘Standard English’ in his short career; his immediate successors, however, are traditionally regarded as reverting to irregular spelling forms and hindering the process of modernisation and standardisation which was slowly developing in the fifteenth century. The aim of this thesis is to examine the language of two of Caxton’s successors – his former apprentice Wynkyn de Worde, and de Worde’s chief competitor Richard Pynson – for signs of modernisation and standardisation within their works. This is achieved through the close study of ten language forms, both morphological and orthographic, between 1490 and 1530.  Thirty-six texts printed by de Worde and Pynson were selected from a variety of genres, including devotional works, sermons, legal texts, travel diaries, histories, and philosophical works, sourced by Pynson and de Worde from medieval manuscripts, contemporary translations, and original compositions, to represent the work of the two printing houses. For each printer, two ten-page samples of two texts were taken from five-year intervals and examined in facsimile, and from this data a number of trends and processes can be identified. Innovative, or modern, variants of the five morphological forms tended to be already common in the first decade of printing, and by 1530 were firmly established, whereas the orthographic forms began to modernise mostly after 1500, and were less regular than the morphological forms studied. Both morphology and orthography within the texts of Pynson and de Worde show clear development away from the forms favoured by Caxton and the Chancery scribes and towards more modern forms. Textual evidence strongly suggests that this trend was due more to the increasingly modern copy-texts of the works produced, and by extension the spelling practices of contemporary writers and translators, rather than concerted efforts of the printing house towards implementing an orthographic standard.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Whiteford, Peter