From Chaucer to ‘text speak’: the evolution of language


The history of the evolution of the English language—and attempts to shape its style—is long and rich, spanning centuries.


The English language is replete with linguistic quirks, borrowed words and discordant pronunciations, and can prove unwieldy for the average publisher or editor, let alone a non-native speaker. The history of the evolution of this language—and attempts to shape its style—is long and rich, spanning centuries.

From the year 1066 onward, the influence of Norman rule drastically altered the linguistic landscape of England for over 300 years. The French language lost its dominance in the fourteenth century and English was reclaimed as the official language of England, which presented the issue of how best to present it as a powerful, scholarly language with consistent rules. Without any strict grammatical guidelines to adhere to in writing, people were free to follow their own preferred styles. Early writers such as Chaucer aimed for consistency in spelling, but this approach was gradually confused by clerks and printers who chose French influences.

The merchant and writer William Caxton, believed to have brought the printing press to England in 1476, did not possess the strongest comprehension of English orthography; he had lived on mainland Europe for a significant period, and used Belgian assistants. As the use of printing became widespread, printers established their own preferences–thereby inventing the concept of a ‘house style’. The printing of bibles in the 1500s, as legalised by Henry VIII, was for the most part conducted outside of England and by printers who used Dutch spellings. These choices subsequently held sway in the English language and contributed some of the quirks found within it today, for example the silent h found in words such as ghost and gherkin.

The full version of this article appears in Issue No. 2 of ALHAUS magazine.

read more from the magazine →