Why Did English Stop Changing? Let's Blame the Book of Common Prayer

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Book_of_common_prayer_1549.jpg

I mentioned recently the grooves that the Book of Common Prayer had laid down in my brain -- as, it appears, it has done across much of the Anglosphere. 


Americans may underestimate the extent of this one book's reach. In the United States, Thomas Cranmer's 16th-century prose would be known mainly to the handful of people who are Episcopal Church members -- and, of them, to the subset who use the "old style" prayer book. But in England it was part of mainstream culture as the language of the state-established Church of England. Something similar applies in other former British colonies. For instance, Australia has barely one-twelfth as many people as America does, but it has nearly twice as many Anglicans/ Episcopalians who would know Cranmer's prose.

A reader in Australia writes to speculate on some other effects of this 463-year-old book -- and that's the title page of the 1549 edition at right:
Literary scholarship has long debated the reasons for the dramatic slowdown in the evolution of English that began to occur around 1600, and which is easily observed by noticing that the English of Chaucer (1400) and of Shakespeare (1600) are far more different from each other than Shakespeare's is from today's, even though twice as much time has passed.

When I did a PhD in theatre, mostly Shakespeare, at Stanford, we often flattered ourselves with the idea that the veneration of Shakespeare from the late 1600s onward helped to slow the pace of evolution in spoken English.  But of course the KJ Bible and the Book of Common Prayer are probably at least as responsible, and like Shakespeare, their power lay entirely in that they were spoken texts, guiding a partly illiterate audience through repetition.  If Shakespeare can still claim a role, it's probably the effect of his lower-class characters and scenes, which are one of the few places where a colloquial English was set down in a form so authoritative that later centuries would want to understand it, and perhaps unconsciously hold on to some of its rhythms and textures.

The other common explanation, Gutenberg's printing press, is responsible for a longer-cycle of slowing, but can't really explain why the evolution of the spoken language slowed so dramatically after the late 1500s.  It took 200 years for books and literacy to become so common that the spoken langauge began ceding to written language as the authoritative form.  

By the Victorian era, the official English was the written one, and the change of the language slowed down even more.  Dickens is 150 years gone -- enough time for a medieval language to change beyond comprehension -- but he scarcely requires footnotes.

I wonder, though, if language change is about to accelerate again, as more and more of our attention is drawn online to immediate text.  It feels like the conditions that stabilized English in the last two centuries -- a canon, widespread education in "classics," a preponderance of deliberative written text over instantaneous converstation -- may be slipping away.  
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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