Historical pronunciation, Shakespearean division

June 14th, 2010 § 9 comments

Here is the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, as read by David Crystal in his reconstruction of Elizabethan pronunciation:


The Globe Theatre’s production of the play in 2004 used this “original pronunciation” in three performances only; the following year the Globe mounted an entire production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. These were the first such attempts since the early fifties. They seem to have been fairly well received, but I see no signs that OP is about to become common practice in the performance of Shakespeare.

It does have a nice sound, at least in Crystal’s rendition, and is quite comprehensible after a little adjustment. Easier for an American to understand than a good many modern-day British regional accents. As Crystal notes, it has hints of many modern accents in it, from Irish to West Country to American to New Zealand, without sounding like any one in particular. That’s appealing: it reaffirms our sense that Shakespeare’s language is the common heritage of English speakers everywhere. That would be one clear advantage it would have over RP as a standard for Shakespeare.

On the other hand, the difficulty in “placing” the accent creates other problems. What do you do with country or lower-class speech in the plays? RP versus West Country or Cockney may not be the best solution (especially for non-British productions), but OP seems to offer no solution at all: the accents are either going to sound all the same or the differences will have no meaning that we can identify.

One possibility would be to subtly shade some of the sounds towards RP or some other recognizably “prestigious” accent for the noble characters, leaving the lower class characters to speak a purer OP. There would of course be no historical warrant for this at all, but at least it would make some sense to modern ears, since many of the sounds in OP are distinctly non-posh.

Making puns like Falstaff’s “reason-raisin” clearer is also an advantage to using OP. Restoring perfect rhyme where it has become approximate in modern pronunciation is too, though perhaps not as much as Crystal believes (and much less relevant to the plays than to the sonnets). We can’t really know if Shakespeare always rhymed perfectly. Crystal assumes that he did, and rhyme is indeed a large part of the basis for the reconstruction. It is conventionally held that the first deliberate use of approximate rhyme in English verse was by Henry Vaughan, but who knows? Even if that’s so, half-rhyme has been accepted in English rhymed verse at least since Yeats. To say categorically that rhymes like love-remove “don’t work” in modern pronunciation is a bit extreme.

Crystal’s claim that Shakespeare in OP is much quicker than in modern pronunciation is interesting. It seems to rest on the frequent contractions and elisions in Elizabethan speech (many more than are reflected in the texts, apparently), as well as many vowel sounds being shorter than in modern English (such as the common “me” for “my”). Still it seems a bit subjective. Rapidity or slowness of speech is surely not a purely phonetic matter; it involves prosody and rhythm, which may be harder to reconstruct.

We also couldn’t object to a reconstruction that makes Shakespeare’s verse scan better, but this advantage carries the same caveats as the case for perfect rhyme. Indeed, even if you think Shakepeare’s rhymes were all perfect, you might well doubt that he always preferred his verse to be metrically regular.

In all, the case for OP in Shakespeare seems a good one, but hardly open-and-shut. Using it seems to have been merely one of a hodge-podge of ideas that went into the Globe’s Troilus and Cressida production (which was in modern dress). To make OP really convincing, some fresh overall philosophy of performance that fits with it would be needed. The Bourgeois Gentilhomme production had that in abundance..

§ 9 Responses to Historical pronunciation, Shakespearean division"

  • giuseppe varnier says:

    Dear Alan, not only we cannot assume that Shakesperean rhymes were always perfect or his lines always regular (metrically). even frequent contractions and elisions might be due to prosodic reasons, or to conventions of poetic language. I am Italian. This (elisions etc.) is what, together with arcaic words, characterizes Italian poetry, from a couple of centuries after Dante until the beginning of the last century. No one ever said that Italians once spoke more rapidly than today. In a sense, this is even possible – as a cultural habit. In another sense it is absurd: I do not think that languages (can) exist that are essentially “quicker” than other languages.
    A further comparison may be useful to fix the point. Sometimes English-speaking people tend to use “pronounciation” as meaning both pronounciation of words AND general intonation (suprasegmental) and so on. Sometimes, they stretch the word to include what might be better defined not as a different pronounciation, BUT as a dialectal variant, of words. This is a bit confusing. I mean, even if we establish how words were pronounced, we do not acquire knowledge of how the language sounded, in intonation etc. How did Shakespeare sound? Like someone from Yorkshire? or like someone from France? Is it possible to know this? Take Dante. Since Italian is, and always has been, more or less spelled as it is pronounced, we know how words changed in spelling and pronounciation. But we have only an approximate idea of how Dante “sounded”. We can assume that it was close to nowadays Tuscan intonation and “accent”, but there is no certainty. In my experience, I can say that, listening to normal Italian pronounciation of one century ago, I find it rather weird already. I have the same feeling with, say, TS Eliot’s accent.
    A final remark. I think that usually, in such langauges as Italian or German (written as they are pronounced) rhymes are almost always perfect. Imperfect or half rhymes were introduced only less than one century ago – and, I suspect, through the influence of English poetry.

    G Varnier

  • Alan says:


    Thanks for your comments. I do tend to include more under “pronunciation” than just the sound of individual vowels and consonants. Maybe strictly speaking the “suprasegmental” aspects should be kept separate. But that may be harder to do in some languages. If someone, for instance, accents the wrong syllables when speaking English, right away that’s also going to affect individual phonemes, because those change in English depending on whether they’re accented or not. Of course the relative duration of the syllables is affected as well, as in Italian.

    I think you are probably right that speed of speaking is mostly cultural habit. There could be linguistic features that typically go with fast or slow speech; I don’t know. Maybe David Crystal knows. Or maybe he is unconsciously associating certain sounds with faster speech based on current dialects.

    I should clarify that I think he is probably right that rhymes in Shakespeare were intended to be perfect. I just think he is too extreme when he says rhymes (like love-prove) that come out imperfect in modern pronunciation “don’t work.” To modern ears, familiar with half rhymes from at least Yeats onward, they do work, though you could certainly argue that they aren’t as good as perfect ones.


  • giuseppe varnier says:

    Thanks again, Alan. There’s much more to be said, possibly for another occasion. There are, for instance, examples of “false” rhymes in early Italian poetry (the famous “rima siciliana”), that do have an explanation, and a highly interesting one for the general problem. – I always wondered, among “false” rhymes there are (not often in Shakespeare’s plays, I think) visual rhymes, say ply/lightly. Are they originally so, at least in some cases, in English? Take Blake’s Tyger. Was there a time when symmetry and eye have really rhymed? Possibly ey-hee/symmetree – or how? This also may have general implications.


  • Alan says:

    My understanding is that the Blake lines would have rhymed in Shakespeare’s time – both ending in a diphthong something like “oi” with a very short “o”. Later the accented vowel evolved to “ai” and the unaccented one to “i”. “Eye rhyme” in English mostly refers to this situation, where a later poet imitates this long-i short-i rhyme even though the sounds have changed.

    Do people every try reciting Dante in a reconstructed pronunciation? I would guess it is rare.


  • Xavier Llobet says:

    My vote is that Blake believed that “symmetry” is pronounced with the stress in the “try” so it rhymes with “try”.

    “Eye”, as the second verse shows, rhymes with “sky”. If “symmetry” rhymes with “eye”, it follows that “symmetry” rhymes with “sky”.

    For all I know, he was wrong.

  • Paul Johnston says:

    There was apparently class differentiation in pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time–the grammarians at the time comment on it. There are also differences between the grammarians’ models, with some being apparently more conservative, keeping more in common with Middle English, and others innovative. (By and large, Crystal’s OP is a fairly innovative one, and is closest to pronunciation systems designed for foreign learners of English–probably cultivated speech, but not too “courtly”). For a conservative speaker of the time, rain would sound like “rine”, and Kate like “cat” with a long vowel; an innovative one would say “reign” and “keht”. Why not use a really innovative model–say based on Hodges (1633)–for your lower class characters; Gil (1621) says they innovate and he hates the sound. The courtly speakers can use a more conservative OP. And to me, OP sounds quite Southwest England or Newfoundland with a tinge of Irish thrown in.

  • Alan says:


    Thanks, this is interesting. Clearly there was a range of pronunciations partly depending on social class. The problem is that these differences don’t always carry the same associations today, and may even carry opposite ones, eg the “rine” pronunciation of “rain” sounds Cockney or Australian rather than “courtly” or “cultivated” to us.

  • Richard Emmanuel Jones says:

    Note in Scotland ‘good’ typically rhymes with ‘food’. Hence the commercial that ends ‘good with food’. I wouldn’t put them in a rhyme, only last night I had to resort to a dictionary to convince some natives that there was even a possibility they didn’t rhyme. I think symmetry rhymed with eye.

  • Richard Emmanuel Jones says:

    And of course, there’s a clue in tyger! The y is an i.

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