Hear What Shakespeare Sounded Like in the Original Pronunciation

What did Shakespeare’s Eng­lish sound like to Shake­speare? To his audi­ence? And how can we know such a thing as the pho­net­ic char­ac­ter of the lan­guage spo­ken 400 years ago? These ques­tions and more are addressed in the video above, which pro­files a very pop­u­lar exper­i­ment at London’s Globe The­atre, the 1994 recon­struc­tion of Shakespeare’s the­atri­cal home. As lin­guist David Crys­tal explains, the theater’s pur­pose has always been to recap­ture as much as pos­si­ble the orig­i­nal look and feel of a Shake­speare­an production—costuming, music, move­ment, etc. But until recent­ly, the Globe felt that attempt­ing a play in the orig­i­nal pro­nun­ci­a­tion would alien­ate audi­ences. The oppo­site proved to be true, and peo­ple clam­ored for more. Above, Crys­tal and his son, actor Ben Crys­tal, demon­strate to us what cer­tain Shake­speare­an pas­sages would have sound­ed like to their first audi­ences, and in so doing draw out some sub­tle word­play that gets lost on mod­ern tongues.

Shakespeare’s Eng­lish is called by schol­ars Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish (not, as many stu­dents say, “Old Eng­lish,” an entire­ly dif­fer­ent, and much old­er lan­guage). Crys­tal dates his Shake­speare­an ear­ly mod­ern to around 1600. (In his excel­lent text­book on the sub­ject, lin­guist Charles Bar­ber book­ends the peri­od rough­ly between 1500 and 1700.) David Crys­tal cites three impor­tant kinds of evi­dence that guide us toward recov­er­ing ear­ly modern’s orig­i­nal pro­nun­ci­a­tion (or “OP”).

1. Obser­va­tions made by peo­ple writ­ing on the lan­guage at the time, com­ment­ing on how words sound­ed, which words rhyme, etc. Shake­speare con­tem­po­rary Ben Jon­son tells us, for exam­ple, that speak­ers of Eng­lish in his time and place pro­nounced the “R” (a fea­ture known as “rhotic­i­ty”). Since, as Crys­tal points out, the lan­guage was evolv­ing rapid­ly, and there was­n’t only one kind of OP, there is a great deal of con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary on this evo­lu­tion, which ear­ly mod­ern writ­ers like Jon­son had the chance to observe first­hand.

2. Spellings. Unlike today’s very frus­trat­ing ten­sion between spelling and pro­nun­ci­a­tion, Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish tend­ed to be much more pho­net­ic and words were pro­nounced much more like they were spelled, or vice ver­sa (though spelling was very irreg­u­lar, a clue to the wide vari­ety of region­al accents).

3. Rhymes and puns which only work in OP. The Crys­tals demon­strate the impor­tant pun between “loins” and “lines” (as in genealog­i­cal lines) in Romeo and Juli­et, which is com­plete­ly lost in so-called “Received Pro­nun­ci­a­tion” (or “prop­er” British Eng­lish). Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s son­nets, the father and son team claim, have rhymes that only work in OP.

Not every­one agrees on what Shake­speare’s OP might have sound­ed like. Emi­nent Shake­speare direc­tor Trevor Nunn claims that it might have sound­ed more like Amer­i­can Eng­lish does today, sug­gest­ing that the lan­guage that migrat­ed across the pond retained more Eliz­a­bethan char­ac­ter­is­tics than the one that stayed home.

You can hear an exam­ple of this kind of OP in the record­ing from Romeo and Juli­et above. Shake­speare schol­ar John Bar­ton sug­gests that OP would have sound­ed more like mod­ern Irish, York­shire, and West Coun­try pro­nun­ci­a­tions, an accent that the Crys­tals seem to favor in their inter­pre­ta­tions of OP and is much more evi­dent in the read­ing from Mac­beth below (both audio exam­ples are from a CD curat­ed by Ben Crys­tal).

What­ev­er the con­jec­ture, schol­ars tend to use the same set of cri­te­ria David Crys­tal out­lines. I recall my own expe­ri­ence with Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish pro­nun­ci­a­tion in an inten­sive grad­u­ate course on the his­to­ry of the Eng­lish lan­guage. Hear­ing a class of ama­teur lin­guists read famil­iar Shake­speare pas­sages in what we per­ceived as OP—using our phono­log­i­cal knowl­edge and David Crystal’s criteria—had exact­ly the effect Ben Crys­tal described in an NPR inter­view:

If there’s some­thing about this accent, rather than it being dif­fi­cult or more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to under­stand … it has flecks of near­ly every region­al U.K. Eng­lish accent, and indeed Amer­i­can and in fact Aus­tralian, too. It’s a sound that makes peo­ple — it reminds peo­ple of the accent of their home — and so they tend to lis­ten more with their heart than their head.

In oth­er words, despite the strange­ness of the accent, the lan­guage can some­times feel more imme­di­ate, more uni­ver­sal, and more of the moment, even, than the some­times stilt­ed, pre­ten­tious ways of read­ing Shake­speare in the accent of a mod­ern Lon­don stage actor or BBC news anchor.

For more on this sub­ject, don’t miss this relat­ed post: Hear What Ham­let, Richard III & King Lear Sound­ed Like in Shakespeare’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Son­net 18

A Sur­vey of Shakespeare’s Plays (Free Course) 

Shakespeare’s Satir­i­cal Son­net 130, As Read By Stephen Fry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (32)
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  • Sander46 says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing! Thank you. One ques­tion not relat­ed to the lan­guage: In the pho­tos of per­for­mances, women are play­ing female roles. If the Globe is com­mit­ted to his­tor­i­cal authen­ti­cy, why are the female roles not played by males? Or is it not true that men played all roles in Shake­speare’s day?

  • Josh Jones says:

    It is true, Sander, that men and boys played female roles in Shake­speare’s time. I think this is one area where the Globe declines to be authen­tic.

    • Alexov1954 says:

      How­ev­er, the rea­son women did not play the female roles in the Bard’s time was most like­ly because a wom­an’s place was not in the the­atre and the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of women were not allowed an edu­ca­tion, kind of like the way women are seen by mem­bers of some reli­gions even today.

  • SR says:

    I’ve seen an all-male pro­duc­tion of Edward II there — they do it some­times!

  • M.R. Stringer says:

    Mar­vel­lous stuff! I’m left won­der­ing why it is that whilst the the­atre can con­tin­ue with­out bore­dom to deal with the Bard, the oper­at­ic the­atre feels itself impelled to come up with new ‘music’ all the time …

  • Carole Di Tosti says:

    I also would love to hear this father and son com­bo dis­cuss Chaucer and run through some of the pro­logue.

  • Carole Di Tosti says:

    Have to get to the Globe. I tru­ly miss being in Lon­don, Oxford and want to see the Lake Coun­try.

  • Scott Webb says:

    So… 400 years ago they sound­ed like Hagrid ;)

  • The OP has a slight­ly “Scot­tish” sound to it. Very inter­est­ing. I’ve heard recon­struct­ed Anglo Sax­on too.

  • psmitty2 says:

    I was hop­ing they’d set­tle the question:nnIn French, for you we say “tu“nIn Ger­man, for you we say “du“nIn Span­ish, for you we say “tu“nBut in Shake­speare, we say “thow“nRather than “thou.“nOr would one pre­fer we say “yow“nRather than “you?”

    • K. Kelly Meine says:

      Orig­i­nal­ly, the sin­gu­lar sec­ond per­son was u00feu016b (pro­nounced kin­da like thoo, “you” was the plur­al sec­ond person).nnBTW, if you aren’t famil­iar with it, I sug­gest read­ing up on the T‑V dis­tinc­tion. It’s pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing on how we lost u00feu016b/thou, and why so many Euro­pean lan­guages have a formal/informal you.

  • Shmoyko says:

    So, the OP is basi­cal­ly the Dorset accent :)

  • sab says:

    mar­vel­lous stuff! the mod­ern read­er will face cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ties ; these dif­fi­cul­ties con­sist not so much in the strange­ness of the words or the struc­ture of the sentences,as in grasp­ing quick­ly the pur­pos­es for which the lan­guage is used as it is.The Eliz­a­bethan Eng­lish were as adven­tourous in their use of words as they were phisi­cal­ly­William Shake­speare too, delight­ed in play­ing about with words.He aimed to delight his audi­ence by clever manip­u­la­tion of the lan­guage.

  • Roland Scales says:

    I grew up along­side very sim­i­lar artic­u­la­tion and into­na­tion in Glouces­ter­shire in the 1960s (Amer­i­cans would prob­a­bly call it “pirate Eng­lish”). This approach to Shake­speare’s texts actu­al­ly reminds me of many of the old peo­ple whom I knew in child­hood — and the ren­di­tion even feels more nat­ur­al, less stilt­ed.

  • Mick says:

    Did any­one notice that the father’s accent mod­u­lat­ed between accents as he spoke? One sen­tence he sounds like a lec­tur­er , the next a west coun­try farmer.

  • Eamon says:

    Tip­per­ary West Indi­an with a dash of Som­er­set as like to be cor­rect as any oth­er imag­in­ing.

  • Stephen Jones says:

    Bril­liant! Thank you.

  • Stephen Jones says:

    I had a great pro­fes­sor that was from East Texas. His dic­tion and accent was com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent when lec­tur­ing on aspects of the Roman Repub­lic sen­ate and when he was dis­cussing foot­ball at the local tav­ern.

  • vicki stone says:

    how can these OP accents be ver­i­fied? The speak­ers have been dead for 400 years?

  • Ross Smith says:

    When I was a young boy liv­ing in East Ten­nessee in the 1960s, before TV became wide­ly avail­able up there, the eth­no-lin­guists at my dad’s uni­ver­si­ty would go up into the moun­tains to record old peo­ple recit­ing chap­ters of the King James Bible. Many of these fam­i­lies that had moved into the moun­tains in the 1600s and 1700s, and some had spent close to 300 years in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion from the rest of the world. The fam­i­ly Bible was fre­quent­ly the only book in the house, and (like my fam­i­ly’s) was often sev­er­al cen­turies old. These old folks were most­ly illit­er­ate, but could recite whole chap­ters at a stretch, hav­ing learned it by rote from their grand­par­ents, who in turn learned it by rote from their grand­par­ents. What the schol­ars dis­cov­ered was that the recita­tions were being done in an ver­sion of Eng­lish dat­ing back sev­er­al hun­dred years, the pro­nun­ci­a­tion hav­ing changed very lit­tle over time.

  • Sheila Moylan says:

    “Since I from Love escaped am so fat,
    I ne’er think to be in his prison ta’en;
    Since I am free, I count him not a bean.”

    This is Chaucer and as a woman from rur­al Ire­land I note’ bean’ should rhyme with ‘ta’en’ (short for tak­en) pro­nounced ‘tane’. My par­ents always said ‘ean’ as ‘ane’ which would make the rhyme work. Per­haps some study should be done in Ire­land on this! We learned eng­lish under Eliz­a­beth Tudor. Sheila

  • Jean Goodhind says:

    I lis­tened to this and heard the Bris­to­lian of my child­hood. The accent is identical,provincial as opposed to Oxford and upper class.

  • Melinda Gordon says:

    How would I cite this web­site? Thanks!

  • Melinda Gordon says:

    Nev­er­mind :)

  • Kimberly Parker says:

    The OP pro­nun­ci­a­tion is more “earthy”! Great way to describe that. And Bra­vo. I just love it!

  • Graham says:

    In oth­er words.. talk like a pirate!

  • Ginklestinker says:

    I would pre­fer to hear Shake­speare in cur­rent Eng­lish lan­guage and pro­nun­ci­a­tion. So much is missed by try­ing to fol­low the gar­bled speech and vague­ness of Eliz­a­bethan Eng­lish. If the Bible can be trans­lat­ed into mod­ern Eng­lish ver­sions then why not Shake­speare’s plays?

    Shake­speare has been very suc­cess­ful­ly per­formed in Chi­nese, Japan­ese, and Zulu. He will be equal­ly well received in his own coun­try if his plays could be per­formed in mod­ern Eng­lish.

    Mod­ern­ized Chaucer is a good exam­ple of a sim­i­lar advance being made to intro­duce new­com­ers to out­dat­ed scripts.

  • Melissa Sites says:

    Orig­i­nal pro­nun­ci­a­tion is being used to great suc­cess on stages now. For exam­ple, Bal­ti­more Shake­speare Fac­to­ry has done sev­er­al shows in OP, and the audi­ences both under­stood it and loved it!

    OP runs faster, is imme­di­ate, earthy, and brings Shake­speare out of the Aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting into life. Grant­ed it does sound a lit­tle like pirates. But it does make Shake­speare’s work come to life, and after the audi­ence lis­tens for five min­utes or so, it becomes ful­ly intel­li­gi­ble and even more under­stand­able than it is on the page.

    Many of Shake­speare’s orig­i­nal stag­ing con­di­tions — includ­ing direct address between actors and audi­ence, no spe­cial light­ing, few props, and quick pac­ing — increase audi­ence under­stand­ing and enjoy­ment of Shake­speare. OP is one more orig­i­nal prac­tice that actu­al­ly does work.

  • Paul Humpage says:

    I won­der how accu­rate this actu­al­ly is? In con­tem­po­rary Britain we have mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion, we all have access to the same TV and radio broad­casts and many of us delib­er­ate­ly adopt RP in pro­fes­sion­al set­tings, but you can still only have to trav­el 50 miles to hear dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer region­al dialects, and I can hear sub­tle dif­fer­ences in towns 5 or 10 miles from me. In Shakespeare’s time you could go months and nev­er hear a voice from out­side your own vil­lage, so you’d think that accents would be more scat­tered and dis­parate, which would would make the dialect in this clip more of an inter­pre­ta­tion, like a mid­dle ground between sources who might have all been speak­ing with many dif­fer­ent dialects.

  • Allison Hildestad says:

    I love hear­ing posits of Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish spring to life here! Does any­one know what kind of sleuthing, if any, went on to dis­cov­er the dif­fer­ences in the accents of the upper and low­er class­es? Could we hear a difference,say, between how Nurse spoke and Lady Capulet? Or would we just be look­ing to com­port­ment and the odd phrase or word delib­er­ate­ly placed?

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