Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation
July 20, 2005 7:52 PM   Subscribe

Interesting NPR segment on a Shakespeare production at The Globe done in the Original Pronunciation. Apparently, this makes it easier to understand. I don't know. To me, it sounds like a combination of Welsh and something else - and it's not even September 19...
posted by ObscureReferenceMan (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
When listening to the story I wondered, what would the author of The Stories of English think of this? Then I realized, hello, it's also the work of David Crystal.
posted by nev at 8:09 PM on July 20, 2005

It all sounds like Christopher Guest doing Corky St. Clair doing Henry Higgins. Well, to me, at least.
posted by ford and the prefects at 8:11 PM on July 20, 2005

I think it was the Story of English where I first heard that the accents in part of the Chesapeake Bay are unchanged from the time of their settlement (in the 1600's). Maybe that's why this accent sounds kind of American to me.
posted by cali at 8:14 PM on July 20, 2005

Wow this is very interesting. It really does sound Welsh doesn't it? Well it's not too far from England so it makes sense, I just had never heard the "OP" before, not even if in my acting classes. Much thanks for the links :)
posted by freudianslipper at 8:16 PM on July 20, 2005

American English is a dialect that broke off from British English not long after Shakespeare's time. Thus, it is a linguistic bit that is fun to know: Shakespearean pronunciation was closer to American English than British English, as our dialect has not changed nearly as much as the Brits.

So there, you UK folks.
posted by teece at 8:21 PM on July 20, 2005

Regarding the NPR interview, to my American ears that sounds almost exclusively like Irish.
posted by zardoz at 8:30 PM on July 20, 2005

Forgot to add, Irish and UK folks, agree or disagree?
posted by zardoz at 8:31 PM on July 20, 2005

Thank you for posting this. A friend told me about it and I meant to look it up and of course forgot. There were a few things in there I couldn't catch, but that Romeo and Juliet prologue sounded really, really, cool. I'd love to see a whole play done like this. I found back in the days when I was an English major, after some initial panic, picking things up like this got a lot easier with very little practice.

American English is a dialect that broke off from British English not long after Shakespeare's time.

This brings up a question I've not been able to find a suitable answer for, hope this isn't a derail:

Did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have southern accents?
posted by marxchivist at 8:36 PM on July 20, 2005

I'm sure they'll let you know when they wake up in 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 hours.
: )
posted by spock at 8:37 PM on July 20, 2005

I would like to go on record against the reanimation of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
posted by fleacircus at 8:44 PM on July 20, 2005

Years ago in what now seems like another life I was an actor at a Renaissance Fair. (*totally outs self as complete dork*) We were rehearsed in this manner of speech, and referred to it as BFA ('Basic Fair Accent'). There were actually some nuances in pronunciation, based on whether your character was in the nobility (CA or "Court Accent") or just a plebe or washerwoman or whatever (BFA).

Thanks for the post... it was a kick and brought back a lot of memories!
posted by trip and a half at 8:56 PM on July 20, 2005

Great post. Really interesting.
posted by ddf at 9:11 PM on July 20, 2005

It sounded to me like the Northern Ireland accent. That accent is a blend of Lalland Scots and Irish English dialects, both Gaelic influenced, like Welsh English. Of course, heavy Scots-Irish migration in the 1700s furnished much of the colonial population, especially in the southern colonies. It would follow that this accent might comprise a major component of US Southern dialect from the Carolinas southward. Today's BBC's webpage coverage of this production asserted that the "Shakespeare" accent would be fully comprehensible in modern North Carolina.

It is interesting to speculate on what accents Washington et al. would have spoken. Probably something closer to the current "Tidewater" accent. However, it is also reasonable to assume that the upper classes in colonial America would have striven to maintain an accent and manner of speaking as similar to that of the Home Country as possible. This was the pattern in colonial Australia.
posted by rdone at 9:30 PM on July 20, 2005

I haven't had a chance to lisen to the NPR story yet, but I thought I'd throw in a few thoughts:

--I've heard of OP from my English major and was under the impression that Shakespearian English was suppose to sound like our stereotype of a southern twang. After all, a lot of hickisms, like new-fangled, sound very Shakespearian. But I read Twelfth Night a few months ago and I remember the editor making comments about a recent vogue for OP plays (this must have been a few decades ago) and noted a Macbeth w/ OP and it being clever since OP sounded scottish anyways.

-- It's possible that in grown agricultural areas tend to reflect old linguistic patterns since they're more insulated. I once heard a poetry reading of a Classical Chinese poem based on a theoretical pronounciation system devised by Bernard (?) Kahlgren. Funnily enough, classical Chinese sounds a lot like Cantonese--very harsh, clipped. The transliteration looks like a cross between Vietnamese and klingon. David Bryant in Lyric Poets of the Southern Tang says that one thing we like about the Chinese poets of this era (generally thought to be liked b/c of their deeply personal, romantic depiction of the self) is the sounds: "seng, fang; fang, fang, san, san, rin kui, k'ie / dhok siok kyang; kyang; nguat zhiang:; zhiang:, siu / tsue; puan-liam kwa-; kwa-nguok keu... etc." You get the idea, and this is w/o diacriticals, tildas, etc. What's interesting is that an ordinary Chinese reader of these poems is presumably not reading them with these sounds in mind.

--Apparently Edmund Spenser didn't know very much about Middle English grammar and so read Chaucer differently than we do. While he sounds silky in our barely english pronounciation, Spenser thought he wasn't writing in middle english but modern english and invented a whole prosodic theory of clunkiness based on it.
posted by kensanway at 9:44 PM on July 20, 2005

he = chaucer
posted by kensanway at 9:44 PM on July 20, 2005

David Crystal is Welsh: his reading in the link above may reflect his own accent.
posted by rdone at 10:02 PM on July 20, 2005


Today's BBC's webpage coverage of this production asserted that the "Shakespeare" accent would be fully comprehensible in modern North Carolina.

Wow. I'd say that the accent used in the prologue from Romeo and Juliet sounds absolutely nothing like the Greensboro (NC) twang I grew up around.

It's interesting that the BBC makes that claim. Perhaps there are certain aspects of it that are carried over into some North Carolina accents. I know I sure can't pick any out, but if you have any more info on it, I'd really like to read about the similarities between the two. Do you have a link to the BBC coverage?
posted by sellout at 10:27 PM on July 20, 2005

From the bit of it on yesterday's Today program it sounded more West-Country then Welsh/Scottish/Irish to this Welshman's ears.

I think that one of the presenters ever described it as a Cockey-Gloucester mix.
posted by couch at 1:16 AM on July 21, 2005

Writing about dialects is like dancing about architecture!
posted by Lord Kinbote at 7:37 AM on July 21, 2005

Great post. As a teacher, I never understood why some of my colleagues are so upset by Cliffnotes and equivalents. What I do have a real problem with is these Shakespeare "in modern english" versions, where you have a page of the original (of course, this is a whole other can of worms) set against a page of a supposdedly modern translation. To take away the sound of the words and update them just drives me crazy. Shax is supposed to be hard, until you get a few pages in and it becomes beautiful.

Anyways, I'm jealous of those who get to see one of these productions. Although Troilus is pretty boring--maybe I'm missing something.
posted by bardic at 7:55 AM on July 21, 2005

kensanway, you're right about Cantonese and other southern Chinese languages sounding much closer to the original than Mandarin. There are a lot of old poems that, if you read them in Mandarin, no longer rhyme; but if you read them in Cantonese, or Minnan, or whatever, still do.

Tang Dynasty Chinese isn't Classical, though. That's Literary. Classical is (according to the accepted scholarly definition, anyway) basically the Zhou Dynasty (2211-210 BC, I think) and Qin Dynasty. Literary is the written language from the Han Dynasty to pre-modernity.

Also be careful about Karlgren's reconstructions. As my Chinese Historical Phonology professor noted, Karlgren cared more about pronunciations in Korean and Japanese than about reconstructing pronunciations from actual Chinese sources. (Actually, a lot of modern reconstruction of Classical and Literary pronunciations is based on dangerously-thin grounds: "Assuming that X, and then assuming that Y, and then assuming that Z, we can say that ABC must've been the case", where X, Y and Z are all ar from certain.)
posted by jiawen at 9:00 AM on July 21, 2005

There was an error in the NPR story I heard. They said the original pronunciations were derived from assuming all of Shakespeare's end rhymes actually rhymed. Of course Shakespeare was plenty poet enough to force a rhyme here and there. The original pronunciations are compiled from much more linguistic data than simply Shakespeare's plays and the couplets therein.

Still, thanks to my history of the English language professor in college for giving me the scoop on this story. I remember reading Hamlet in the OP and it sounded pretty ugly. Oh, and not at all southern.
posted by ontic at 12:10 PM on July 21, 2005

Interesting, but I too don't hear the southern US in it. Sounds vaguely Irish, if anything.
posted by Bugbread at 3:17 PM on July 21, 2005

A lot of the 'odder' things about OP are retained in the stronger regional English accents. The dominant note is straight out of Eddie Grundy and deeper into the West Country, hence the 'talk like a pirate' thing. But there are bits that survive in northern accents, such as the short 'a' in 'make' and 'haste' ('Mackem' being a semi-derogatory term for Sunderlanders). That's because vowel shifts are the biggest differentiators between historical usage and regional accents, with burrs and aspirates (e.g. 'h-wite' for 'white') close seconds.

It's much easier to intuit the older pronunciation a little later, in eighteenth-century rhyming couplets: 'say' and 'sea' were more or less homophones in Alexander Pope's day, as they are in certain British and American accents.
posted by holgate at 3:40 PM on July 21, 2005

What I do have a real problem with is these Shakespeare "in modern english" versions, where you have a page of the original (of course, this is a whole other can of worms) set against a page of a supposdedly modern translation. Shax is supposed to be hard, until you get a few pages in and it becomes beautiful.

bardic, you complain about modernising the language and then you call him "Shax???!!?? WTF?
posted by wilful at 4:23 PM on July 21, 2005

And my issue was with the "Shax is supposed to be hard" part. Shakespeare was the Speilberg of his times: not the absolute most plebian (no Bruckheimer), but far from the thinking man's deep playwright either.
posted by Bugbread at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2005

fuck speilberg. if you can read at all you can understand shakespeake. youre probably just a lazy bum. "read slowly and see"
posted by Satapher at 10:58 AM on July 22, 2005

Who is that directed at, Satapher?
posted by Bugbread at 1:54 PM on July 22, 2005

Er, looking over your post history, let me take that question back. It was probably either directed at no-one, or based on a misreading of something by someone. No-one here is a lazy bum, everyone is probably fine with Shakespeare, and you probably need to work on your reading comprehension.
posted by Bugbread at 2:03 PM on July 22, 2005

More wav files from Cambridge Univ Press. I love the vowel in "world" (cf. OE weorold) and the little touches of Chaucerian. I'll have to look at Crystal's book, but I gather it's not trying to be comprehensive. I've often marvelled that there doesn't seem to be a standard reference (in print — but even better would be the complete works hyperlinked word-for-word to mp3 files) on reconstructed pronunciation for Shakespeare.
posted by Zurishaddai at 2:42 PM on July 23, 2005

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