• Revista Speak Up Digital

320 - How to Talk Like Shakespeare

 

Speaker: Mark Worden (Standard British accent)

Accents in all languages have changed over the centuries. So what did English sound like in Shakespeare’s day? Was it like the “Queen’s English” and BBC accent of today? No, it wasn’t, according to linguistics expert.

David Crystal: David Crystal (Standard British accent)

Now, I’ve been most involved in recent years in developing the concept of Original Pronunciation in relation to Shakespeare because back in 2004 Shakespeare’s Globe in London decided to put on an Original Pronunciation production of Romeo and Juliet and they wanted to know how it sounded. So they asked me and I worked with the company and we did a production, which was very successful. They did another one the following year, Troilus and Cressida, in “OP,” as it’s called, “Original Pronunciation,” and it’s become a bit of a movement now around the world. There have been Shakespeare OP productions in America and elsewhere, Hamlet, Macbeth, As You Like It. Other authors have had their “OP” presented, like John Donne. The musicians, the early music people, have got interested, William Byrd, John Dowland, how did they sound in 1600 or thereabouts, you know? When the Authorised Version of the Bible, the King James Bible, had its anniversary in 2011, how did the Bible sound in OP? And so a huge amount of interest in all of this. Now, how do you know? You know because you look at the way in which rhymes that no longer work in English, would have worked once upon a time. You look at Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for instance, you find the word “love” rhyming with “prove” and “move.” Well, hang on a minute, Shakespeare knew how to rhyme and this is a sonnet. So either it was “loove” and “prove” or it was “love” and “pruv,” and you do some research and you find out that it’s “love” and “pruv.” Now, what sort of research? Well, you go to the writers of the time who actually wrote about pronunciation. Ben Jonson, for example, the dramatist, also wrote an English Grammar and in that at the beginning he lists all the letters of the alphabet and says how they are to be pronounced. And when he gets to the letter “o” he says “We pronounce this vowel short as in glove, love, move (muv), prove (pruv).” You see, well, that’s the kind of evidence you look for, you see. That’s the first kind of evidence: the evidence of the rhymes and the puns that no longer work in modern English. The second kind of evidence is the spellings. Spelling had not standardised in 1600. From about 1800 on spellings were very regular, but before that you spelt the way you spoke. And so you can use spellings in order to work out how something might have been pronounced. And then, thirdly, of course, you look to those writers who were writing at the time. So Shakespeare produces an accent that people say: “Well, is it going to be intelligible, then?” Well, you be the judge. Here are the opening lines of Henry V, where the chorus comes to the front of the stage and says in modern English:

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.”

In OP it would be:

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.”

Now, you’ll notice certain features: the “r” is pronounced after vowels, for example, the “h” is dropped, not always, but it was in the version I just gave you, and a word like “war” is pronounced “warr,” for instance. How do I know? Because in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “wars” rhymes with “stars.” You know, that’s the kind of evidence that leads you to a version of that sort.
And it’s a very effective accent. When it was done on stage people loved it. They felt that it was an accent that was reaching out to the audience, people recognised echoes of the accent in their own accent. Everybody said, “We speak like that where I come from!” You know, meaning certain echoes of their local accent are found in that accent of round about 1600. Notice it’s only one of the accents that was around in 1600; just like today, there were many different accents of the time, but it’s... it’s a plausible accent and one which captures the rhythm and the aesthetics of... of the speech that you find in Shakespeare’s plays and poems in a way that Received Pronunciation, I think, sometimes fails to do.

(David Crystal was talking to Mark Worden)