What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like in the Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

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

Hear What Ham­let, Richard III & King Lear Sound­ed Like in Shakespeare’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

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

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  • Keith M Crossley says:

    Two thoughts.

    Once, in class, read­ing Twelfth Night, I read the “my lady’s Cs, Ns, Ts” lines and got absolute­ly no reac­tion. None. Because Shake­speare I sup­pose.

    But, more direct­ly to the main point here, spec­u­lat­ing, I read Cal­iban (in the Tem­pest) with a broad West Coun­try accent. It just seemed right as the words came out. Except to the rest of the class, includ­ing the prof. Baf­fled. But, lis­ten­ing to the Crys­tals, I might have been on to some­thing.

  • Vince Sartain says:

    I’ve always won­dered about the ori­gins of the Amer­i­can South­ern accent. Is the accent a blend­ing of 17th Cen­tu­ry spo­ken Eng­lish, Native Amer­i­can accents, and African Amer­i­can dialect?

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