In the development of languages particular events often have recognizable and at times far-reaching effects. The Norman Conquest and the Black Death are typical instances that we have already seen. But there are also more general conditions that come into being and are no less influential. In the Modern English period, the beginning of which is conveniently placed at 1500, a number of factors greatly influenced English language. The new factors were the printing press, the rapid spread of popular education, the increased communication and means of communication, the growth of specialized knowledge, and the emergence of various forms of self-consciousness about language.
The printing press
The introducing of the printing press into England about 1476 by William Caxton made a rapid progress in the spread of printed books. In England over 20,000 titles in English had appeared by 1640, ranging all the way from mere pamphlets to massive folios. The result was to bring books, which had formerly been the expensive luxury of the few, within the reach of many. More important, however, was the fact, so obvious today, that it was possible to reproduce a book in a thousand copies or a hundred thousand, every one exactly like the other. A powerful force thus existed for promoting a standard, uniform language, and the means were now available for spreading that language throughout the territory in which it was understood.
The rapid spread of popular education
Another factor that helped spread of English language was the increase of the readers. Education was making rapid progress among the people and literacy was becoming much more common. In the later Middle Ages a surprising number of people of the middle class could read and write, as the Paston Letters abundantly show. In Shakespeare’s London, though we have no accurate means of measurement, it is probable that not less than a third and probably as many as half of the people could at least read. As a result of popular education the printing press was able to exert its influence upon language as upon thought.
The increased communication and means of communication
A third factor of great importance to language in modern times is the way in which the different parts of the world have been brought together through commerce, transportation, and the rapid means of communication we have developed. The exchange of commodities and the exchange of ideas are both stimulating to language. The expansion of the British Empire and the extension of trade enlarged the English vocabulary by words drawn from every part of the world, besides spreading the language over vast areas whose existence was undreamed of in the Middle Ages. But while diversification has been one of the results of transportation, unification has also resulted from ease of travel and communication. The steamship and the railroad, the automobile, and the airplane have brought people into contact with one another and joined communities hitherto isolated, while the post office sand the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the movies, television, and electronic data transmission have been influential in the intermingling of language and the lessening of the more easily altered local idiosyncrasies.
The growth of specialized knowledge
The fourth factor, the growth of specialized knowledge, has been important not only because new knowledge often requires new vocabulary but also because, in the early centuries of the modern period, Latin became less and less the vehicle for learned discourse. Both trends accelerated strongly during the seventeenth century. The rapid accumulation of new knowledge was matched by a rapid trend away from publishing specialized and learned works in Latin.
Finally, there is the factor which we have referred to as self-consciousness about language. This has two aspects, one individual, one public. At the individual level we may observe a phenomenon that has become intensely important in modern times: as people lift themselves into a different economic or intellectual or social level, they are likely to make an effort to adopt the standards of grammar and pronunciation of the people with whom they have identified. At the public level a similar self-consciousness has driven issues of language policy over the past four centuries, long before “language policy” acquired its modern meaning. The beginnings of this public discussion are evident in the sixteenth-century defense of English and debates about orthography and the enrichment of the vocabulary.
Thus, the avobe mentioned five factors greatly influenced the rise and spread of English language during the Renaissace period.
A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.