The Grammarphobia Blog

Did the Bard speak American?

Q: I tuned in late to the discussion on WNYC about Elizabethan English, but did Pat really say Shakespeare spoke like an American? How does she know what he sounded like? I didn’t realize Francis Bacon had invented the tape recorder.

A: The short answer is that Shakespeare didn’t sound just like an American, but his accent was probably more NBC than BBC.

If you’d like to listen to Pat’s July 18, 2012, appearance on the Leonard Lopate Show, you can find a link to it on our WNYC page. Meanwhile, here’s the story.

We know what Shakespeare might have sounded like because linguists have reconstructed the sounds of Elizabethan speech (we’ll soon explain how), and it’s very different from the standard modern British accent, known as Received Pronunciation.

This isn’t as startling as it sounds. We’ve written before on our blog about the fact that the familiar characteristics of the modern British accent developed relatively recently, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It was after the American Revolution that the British began using the broad a (as in PAHST for “past”), dropping their r’s (as in FAH for “far”), and losing syllables (saying SEC-ruh-tree for “secretary,” NESS-a-sree for “necessary”), and so on.

Meanwhile, colonists in North America retained many features of pre-Revolutionary British speech.

We know this because people wrote about these changes at the time they were happening—in books on speech and elocution, in articles in contemporary newspapers and journals, in pronouncing dictionaries, and so on.

Now, as Pat said on WNYC the other day, there’s been a revival of interest in reconstructing the sounds of British speech as it was even further back, at the dawn of the Early Modern English period.

This was around 1600, Shakespeare’s time, and it’s appropriate that this new interest in period speech was inspired by a project at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

The Globe, which was reconstructed in 1997, mounted a production of Romeo and Juliet in 2004 with the actors speaking as they would have in Shakespeare’s day.

Since then, other theaters, directors, and acting companies have joined with language experts and become interested in what’s known as Original Pronunciation.

Several productions have been mounted in Britain and the United States, and an Off Broadway production of Macbeth will be announced later this fall.

The examples of Elizabethan speech that were played during Pat’s appearance on WNYC came from a new CD, Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation, produced by the British Library and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

To our ears, the actors’ accent sounds like a mix of American and Irish English, with a little Aussie thrown in.

How do scholars know what English sounded like circa 1600? As it happens, there’s plenty of evidence to go on.

For one thing, groundbreaking work had already been done in this area back in the 1950s.

There have been at least two  previous studies of Original Pronunciation, one in the UK by John Barton of Cambridge, and one in the US by Helge Kökeritz at Yale. Kökeritz in fact made the first systematic attempt to identify the Elizabethan sound system, according to several sources.

In a booklet that comes with the British Library CD, the linguist David Crystal explains much of the scholarship that has gone into the reconstruction of these sounds.

First, contemporary authors wrote commentaries on the pronunciation of their day.

Ben Jonson, for instance, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a book on grammar in which he discussed the proper sounding of r after a vowel, as in “far” and “heart.” He described it as “growly.”

Second, we have the evidence of the spellings Shakespeare used. In those days, spelling was not yet standardized, and people spelled words as they sounded to them.

Shakespeare originally spelled the word “film” (meaning a membrane) as “philom”—so it would have had two syllables, “fillum.” As we know, that’s the pronunciation of “film” used by the Irish today.

Third, there are the rhythms, puns, and rhymes Shakespeare used, many of which don’t quite work in modern English—either British or American.

When we hear some of these passages recited in Original Pronunciation, we can appreciate many of the puns and rhymes that Shakespeare intended.

For instance, in King Henry IV, Part I, Prince Hal demands proof of some story Falstaff has just told, and asks him his reasons. Falstaff says, “If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion.”

Why “as plentiful as blackberries”? Well, there’s a pun there, but it’s missed in modern English. When you listen to that same passage in Original Pronunciation, the pun becomes apparent, because the word “reason” was pronounced “raisin”—“If raisins were as plentiful as blackberries.…”

Many Shakespearean puns that are missed in modern English are naughty ones, since the words “lines” and “loins” sound the same in Original Pronunciation, as do “hour” and “whore.”

The difference that pronunciation has on rhymes is astonishing, too.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, and two-thirds of them have rhymes that don’t work in today’s English, according to Crystal. But in Original Pronunciation, we’re able to hear them as the Elizabethans did.

To mention just one example, the last lines of Sonnet 116 read: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

In modern English, “proved” and “loved” don’t rhyme. But in Original Pronunciation, they do. They sound like “pruvved” and “luvved,” though even that spelling doesn’t quite get the sound across. There’s a hint of ”oo” in that vowel.

In listening to the recording, we noticed many other important differences between RP (modern Received Pronunciation) and OP (Original Pronunciation). A lot of the OP sounds would be familiar to American ears.

The words “bath” and “France,” for example, sound in OP much as they do today in the US; the a vowel is flat, instead of broad (“ah”).

And in OP we hear the r sounds in “far,” “star,” “return,” “wherefore,” and “world” (which sounds like a cross between “whirled” and “whorled”; in RP it sounds like WULD).

In OP, we can clearly hear both the r and the t in “fortune.” It comes out like FOR-tun. Today, in American English it’s pronounced FOR-chun, while in RP it sounds like FOH-tyoon.

In Elizabethan speech, linguists say, you can find traces of all the modern accents of English. On the CD, you’ll hear sounds of the English spoken today in America, Australia, Wales, Ireland, and the West Country of Britain.

No one’s suggesting that from now on, all Shakespeare should be done in Original Pronunciation. But since many productions boast of authentic period clothing, music, instruments, and so on, it’s valuable that we now can have period speech as well.

As for your comment about Bacon, no, he certainly didn’t invent the tape recorder. But he was the first person to use the adjective “electric” in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Bacon used the term around 1626 to describe a substance, like amber, capable of developing static electricity when rubbed.

However, Thomas Browne is credited with first using the adjective (spelled “electrick”) as well as the noun “electricity” in its modern sense, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 1646 book debunking myths about science.

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