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Henry VIII and His Influence on English

The development of the national English language covers the Early New English period. During three centuries, from the 16th to the 19th, the English language evolved as a single literary language instead of the development of different dialects. Several factors contributed to this process, and Reformation was one of them. The English Reformation started during the reign of Henry VIII. The King had an impressive personality: “with his gifts, personality and training, he was leading England out of the Middle Ages and into more-modern, less-tumultuous times.” (Smeeton n.pag.) Under his reign, the English language flourished, spread around the country and acquired its fixed form.

To start with, King Henry VIII never had the intention to influence the language one way or another. At first, he got to know about the spread of Protestant literature through German merchants. The king could not tolerate these ideas in the Catholic England, so he prohibited the import of the “heretical” Lutheran literature to the English ports. However, due to the conflict with Rome concerning the Catherine of Aragon, the king himself changed his attitude to Lutheranism. In protest against the official Church, Henry VIII chose to support the Reformation.

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The English Reformation had far-reaching consequences for the English language. Oxford and Cambridge universities became the centers of new humanistic learning. The best scholars and artists became the members of the court. In addition, education no longer was a privilege of the clergy. The Reformation brought that shift in the approach to education, to whom the teachers were and whom the students were. Under the reign of Henry VIII, it spread to people of lower social ranks and those who belonged to laymen. As for the teachers, both clergymen and laymen could teach others.

In line with education availability, one of the first tasks of the Reformation was the translation of the Bible into the English language. The first translation was made by Tindale and published by Miles Coverdale. King Henry VIII favored the publication of the Bible and the first editions of the book had the following inscription on the title page, “Set forth with the king’s most gracious license” (Smeeton n.pag). Since that time, the Bible became available to common English people. According to Millward and Hayes, the publication of the first Bibles was justified and had a profound impact on the language in general. The authors state, “The protestant belief that people should read the Bible for themselves led to numerous translations of the Bible, culminating in the authorized version (the King James Bible) of 1611, whose language has had a powerful effect on English stylistics ever since its appearance.” (221)

At the same time, the English language acquired new status in education. Earlier, Latin was one of the most important subjects at schools. Basically, it was a language of science, and all scientific and philosophical treatises were written in Latin. However, the situation changed, and the languages “switched their places.” English was no longer “a rude and barren tongue, when it is compared with so flourishing and plentiful a tongue [as Latin],” as William Barkar said (qtd. in Blanshard and Sowerby 52). It was no longer a tool for teaching Latin. On the contrary, the language suppressed the Latin, which ceased to be the main subject in schools around the country.

Apart from that, the invention of printing had the most profound impact on the development of the language, in particular, its written form. William Caxton became the first printer of English books. All in all, about one hundred books were issued by his press, and about a score of them were either translated or edited by Caxton himself. Among the earliest publications were the poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, the compositions of John Lydgate and others (Shesen E11). William Caxton used a special pattern when preparing the manuscripts for publication. He edited the texts so as to bring them into conformity with the London dialect that was used by his contemporaries. Doing so, he often had to sacrifice the unity of texts, and so he distorted the manuscripts considerably. Nevertheless, all his efforts were rewarded. The corrections of Caxton and his successors revealed the linguistic changes that had taken place since the time when the texts were first written.

The first printers had a crucial meaning for fixation and spreading the written form of English. They chose the London literary English as their main preference, the language established in the age of Chaucer and slightly modified according to the linguistic changes that occurred in the following centuries. As cheap printed books become available to a great number of readers, the London form of speech was carried to other regions and imitated in the written works produced all over England. Apart from that, the spelling of Caxton, despite its all irregularities, was normalized to a certain degree. In comparison to chaotic manuscripts, it had some consistency. The written forms of many words maintained by Caxton were established as a standard and some remained unchanged until the present day.  

To conclude, King Henry VIII initiated the process all outcomes of which he could never predict. The Reformation brought the shift to the approach to education and the status of the English language. Because of the separation between the Church and state, English replaced Latin and was spread among the people of the lower ranks in the written form. As Reformation was accompanied by the invention of printing, the written language spread fast across the country. Thus, recognition the London form as a standard around the country led to the unification of the English language that remained more or less unchanged until the present day.  

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