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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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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