“A man’s grammar, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
We have grammar Nazis all around us, books that talk about the “correct” grammar, and innumerable tricks to get the grammar right. But do you know how did grammar come to exist? Around the late 15th century, prominent developmental changes caused European languages like English to abide by certain set of rules. Till then, only Latin languages were taught and analysed through grammar methodologies in Europe. So, how did English grammatical rules come to exist can be understood through the following stages of development-
- Development of Printing Press made it possible to make several copies of words written on paper. Thus, information could be circulated to a wider population instantly. People distributing this information wanted to ensure that more readers understood what they read. William Caxton started the first printing press in 1485 in England. With around 30 regional vernaculars in England, he decided to translate and write English in a way that maximum number of readers could benefit from it. This served two purposes, firstly his information was comprehensible to more readers and secondly, more readers brought profits in business.
- As London was the capital of the nation, Caxton preferred to use language that was spoken in London and its surrounding areas. He chose better sounding words of language used by people on one side of the Thames and this choice influenced words that began to be used more commonly afterwards.
- In an effort to make printed words more understandable, Caxton realized that there was a need to bring consistency in spellings. Moreover, he thought that English must be taught in an organized way through a set of grammatical rules as was the case with Latin languages.
- Progressively, London’s English formed the criterion for writing. The language also became a benchmark for pronunciation in dominant schools of England. Due to their familiarity with commonly printed books like ‘Book of common prayer’ and ‘Bible’ people began to refer to them as paradigms for correct spellings.
- Subsequently, the standard of written English grew and began to be associated with the wealthy and educated strata of the society. This class of people mainly comprised of teachers and clergymen who eventually spread the standard form of English to a wider number of people. This was more of a requisite than bringing about evenness in education. People realised that they needed to converse in grammatically correct language and also use standard spellings for communication and business. The growth of English Grammar was influenced by the recognition of standard words used in extensively published books more than anything.
- Most of the codes of Standard English language were compiled by people like Caxton. Publishers simply replicated grammar and spellings printed by other people. Gradually North Americans and Englishmen from London started using standard form of language. However, other co-existing dialects used for pronunciation were not looked down upon by them. The standards of the English language were aimed at holding an effective conversation and not to make an impression on others.
- Moreover, in the absence of a standard academy for the language, English was liberal towards acknowledging words invented from other actively used words or those from other languages. This elevated the overall richness of the language in terms of vocabulary and comprehension.
The conclusion to its acceptance can be drawn from the way people began to use the language. As publishers began printing material written in the standard form of the language, more readers coming in contact with such material became aware of the general rules of the written form of the language. More readers meant wider number of people were using standard form of English to communicate. This in turn brought more business to printers who followed the standard format for printing books and dictionaries.