Thursday, August 15, 2013

Myths of language 2: Shakespeare's English

Thanks to his theater friends and the publication of a First Folio, William Shakespeare's wit was preserved for future generations and for the benefit of world literature. But how did Shakespeare speak? Close your eyes and imagine what a Shakespeare production sounds like. A sing-song quality? A cultivated accent? The thin refined speech of a London aristocrat in a Disney movie?

Nay. It may surprise you that the accent of Shakespeare was rougher, thicker, imbued with chopping block phonology of Early Modern English. Upon hearing Early Modern English accents, American ears may confuse them for a North English or Scottish accent whereas English ears may pick up American speech patterns. That's because it is a myth perpetrated by the theater and literature communities that Shakespeare spoke in what is today considered a modern, cultured British accent.

The myth is somewhat absurd if you think about the simple facts of language evolution. All accents in the English language descend from older English accents that had diverged over time. When settlers came to the colonies in the future United States, Canada, Australia, etc..., they took with them their own accents. Some of those accents did not survive back home in England; others did not survive in the colonies. After 400 years of divergence, it is more suitable to think of most accents as various children of Shakespeare's speech, each with their own peculiar innovations and conservative features.  

Here is the movie Shakespeare in Love, which uses Received Pronunciation (RP) and Modern London accents. The film never graces the true talk of the year 1600; Shakespeare would never have spoken like this. This is the common accent of Shakespearean theater today and likely the only theatrical Shakespearean accent you've come across (unless you're dealing with a play like Macbeth which would be performed in a Scottish accent anyway).

And here is a short video on producing theater in Original Pronunciation (OP) - the accent most closely approximate to Shakespeare's. 

So why is it so hard to find a performance in OP? One of the main reasons is that an OP production is difficult every way you look at it. It requires that the actors practice a long-forgotten phonology; it requires that theatergoers attune their ears, it can be difficult to understand OP speech at first. The accent is foreign and strange and there does not seem to be much demand for an Othello in OP, and yet in my opinion, it's those hidden qualities that make OP so much more interesting.

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