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There’s not a student who hasn’t studied him and we all owe him major props for his contribution to both theatre and the English language itself, but what we don’t often think about is how the words of William Shakespeare were pronounced. Contrary to assumed belief that Shakespeare was to be pronounced in the haughtiest of accents an actor could muster, the original pronunciation is something a lot more akin to regional English varieties – especially ‘West Country’ accents. 

The globe started doing original productions of Shakespeare in 1994 with original instruments ,costumes and sets but remained hesitant to also work with the original pronunciation (known as OP). Finally in 2004, a performance of Romeo & Juliet in OP was done to grand acclaim and a large turnout.

In this incredibly engaging video interview with David Crystal  – a leading Linguist – and his son Ben Crystal, the pair discuss the secrets that reveal themselves when Shakespearean verse is performed in its original accent. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the English language (now referred to as Early Modern English) was going through a rapid period of change.

For example, in earlier Shakespearean plays, the word ‘musician’ was pronounced /muːzɪsjæn/ (moo-zih-see-an) and then transformed to /muːzɪʃjæn/ ‘moo-zih-shee-an) and then finally arriving at the recognisable /muːzɪʃjæn ‘moo-zih-shan).

Hidden puns and rhymes that remain undetected in a Modern English accent emerge once you perform them in OP. For example, in Sonnet 116 ‘Let Me Not To The Marriage of True Minds’, there’s a couplet lov’d/prov’d that in Modern English are pronounced ‘loved’ and ‘proved’, with the vowel sounds having diverged from each other, which in OP are both pronounced with the vowel /ʌ/ meaning that ‘proved’ sounded like ‘loved’.

If this be error and upon me prov’d,

I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

But if there was no way of recording all those centuries ago, how can we be certain in our estimates of original pronunciation? David Crystal lays out 3 sources of evidence;

  • Accounts of the state of the language by contemporary linguists documenting how things are pronounced.
  • As spelling was less standardised, people often took liberty to write words how they said them. This means that they can often be reliable guides for pronunciation. For example, in Shakespeare’s works you may see the word film spelt as ‘philome’ meaning the word consisted of two syllables – much like the modern Irish variety today!
  • Rhymes and puns as discussed with prov’d and lov’d.

Check out the full video by the Open University here

This topic is a great stepping stone into the enthralling world of language change and it’s something that would look great on a Linguistics or English Literature personal statement!

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