A common joke has Americans overawed by people with British accents. It’s funny because it’s partly true; Yanks can grant undue authority to people who sound like Sir David Attenborough or Benedict Cumberbatch. But in these cases, what we generically call a British accent should more accurately be referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (or RP), the speech of BBC presenters and educated Brits from certain middle- and upper-class areas in Southern England. (If you like Received Pronunciation, you’re going to love “posh” Upper RP.) Received Pronunciation is only one of many British accents, as comedian Siobhan Thompson shows, most of which we’re unlikely to hear narrating nature documentaries.
RP is also sometimes called “the Shakespeare accent,” for its association with famous thespians like John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, or Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But as we’ve previously noted in a post on the work of linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, the English of Shakespeare’s day sounded nothing like what we typically hear on stage and screen.
What linguists call “Original Pronunciation” (OP), the actual Shakespeare accent, had a flavor all its own, likely combining, to our modern ears, “flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent,” as Ben Crystal tells NPR, “and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.”
You can see the Crystals explain and demonstrate the accent in the video above, and make sense of many Shakespearean puns that only work in OP. And in the animated video at the top of the post, get a whirlwind tour from Chaucer’s Middle English to Shakespeare’s Early Modern variety. Along the way, you’ll learn why the spelling of English words—both American and British—is so confusing and irregular. (“Knight,” for example, which makes no sense when pronounced as nite, was once pronounced much more phonetically.) The range of regional accents produced a bedlam of variant spellings, which took a few hundred years to standardize during some intense spelling debates.
You’ll get an introduction to the first English printer, William Caxton, and the “Great Vowel Shift” which changed the language’s sound dramatically over the course of a couple hundred years. Once we get to Shakespeare and his “Original Pronunciation,” we can see how rhymes that don’t scan for us sounded just right to Elizabethan ears. These lost rhymes provide a significant clue for linguists who reconstruct OP, as does meter and the survival of older pronunciations in certain dialects.
When the Crystals brought their reconstruction of Shakespeare’s English to the stage in hugely popular productions at the Globe Theatre, members of the audience all heard something slightly different—their many different dialects reflected back at them. Listen for all the various kinds of English above in Ben Crystal's recitation of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech in Original Pronunciation.