Bring back OP!

In some ways, it’s a shame that language is organic and evolves, because it means you really can’t roll back pronunciation to an earlier state. It’s still interesting to hear, though, and here’s a story about an effort to reconstruct the pronunciation of Shakespearean English.

The accompanying article explains some of the difficulties and ambiguities in trying to work out the way language was spoken — some are saying it would have sounded more like American English, others talk about Scots/Irish accents. In my ignorance, I’m going to lobby for a more Northern Minnesota version of Shakespearean English. I want to hear MacBeth in those Fargo accents.


  1. A Masked Avenger says

    The Mayflower landed in 1620, four years after Shakespeare’s death. OP is probably as close as you’re going to get to hearing an authentic Colonial American accent. As best we can tell the modern American accent is closer to the 17th Century English accent than the English accent is, and it’s also closer to Shakespeare’s OP.

    The colonial accent is, AFAIK, not well studied, partly for lack of data, and partly because there wasn’t just one accent. Colonists came from various parts of England, and some people on the Mayflower came from Leyden, Holland. Pennsylvania had lots of German immigrants by the early 18th Century. And so on.

    Funnily, the dropped R in Boston area and in the Southern US seems to be a re-import: at the time most of the colonists came, English people pronounced their R’s. Later, around the time of the revolution, the aristocracy started dropping their R’s. Boston and the South were major trading partners of England, and they imported posh goods and posh accents.

    This idea that American accent preserves a snapshot of the English accent seems nicely analogous to the idea that a small migrant population can preserve a snapshot of the original population. It’s easy to see the seduction of memetics by analogy with genetics. Similarly, immigrant communities preserve an earlier phase of [some dialect of] their language. I knew a guy from Warsaw who commented with delight that he spent his summer in Brighton Beach, “Where we couldn’t understand a word each other was saying.”

  2. madtom1999 says

    I cant get the video to play so out on a limb…
    I was born within a stonesthrow of Stratford on Avon where the bard lived. I had the full blown local accent when I left and when I heard that his stuff worked well in the accent I tried it. It fits so much better. Many stanzas that would have you stumbling in ‘modern’ english pronunciation flow so much better. I’ve moved around the country since then, and worked in the US where my first accent (from Sam Juan Island) returns but nothing hits me quite as hard as bumping into someone from the black country where , even if they have a seemingly inaudible remains of the accent, my throat lifts spontaneously to help pronounce things in a brummie accent.
    I thought he was good before that but…
    The kids do ask why I take funnaaay when I’ve quoted some to them.

  3. madtom1999 says

    I’ve got the video working and I think the old bloke has the wrong accent.
    I’ve lived all around the UK and populations, until the last 100 years or so have not moved much and regional accents were quite pronounce and I think they were more stable than some believe. I’ve spoken to old people two hundred miles apart who live in the same village their ancestors lived in and they have shared an accent – this suggests accents are a lot more stable as it is unlikely that the accents (until the coming of radio) evolved in the same direction – having different regional accents nearby to influence them.
    If you want to hear Shakespeare as it was written get some one from the black country to read it to you.

  4. says

    I was in a discussion on a writer’s blog a year or so back (private, so I can’t link to it), where we were debating whether the inhabitants of an alternative timeline America that split off ours in the eighteenth century and underwent different political development and immigration patterns would have a substantially different accent. Never worked out a satisfactory answer, but it was interesting to think about.

  5. Thomathy, Mandatory Long-Form Homo says

    I’ve lived all around the UK and populations, until the last 100 years or so have not moved much and regional accents were quite pronounce and I think they were more stable than some believe.

    This is, however, not a matter of belief. It is a matter of fact that English is, even now, pretty unstable as far as pronunciation goes. It was especially so during the period of time wherein we refer to the language as ‘early modern’. In fact, it’s the instability of the pronunciation, because of the instability of spelling and general illiteracy, that there are such varied accents in the birthplace of English. It’s also due to the existence, historically, of Celtic languages that used to be more widely spoken.

    Those accents you refer to are far from ancient. The have only existed for, perhaps, the last three hundred years. Most of them much less. The sounds of languages that preceded Early Modern English can’t be related to current, regional accents in most cases. There’s too much time that’s passed, too little writing representing all those pockets and too much change. The relation of say, Old English to Early Modern English, is understood at a higher, more conceptual level.

    To use your example of the Black Country accent, though it retains some prominent features that are archaic to Modern English, it’s not representative of the totality of Early Modern English. The best that can be done when trying to recreate the sounds of language past are to use the clues that exist related closely in both time and space to the work you’re trying to recreate.

    And actually, when it comes to recreating the English of certain times, there having been little stability in writing until very recently, I think it’s probably a fools errand. It’s probably better to recreate a kind of general sound rather than one specific to Shakespeare’s work. Something representative is probably more accurate than something that’s trying to be specific.

    I suppose my point is that we really can’t recreate the sounds exactly and we’ll never really know, except on a more general level and conceptually. However, it’s definitely fun. And besides, we get to hear people sound …funny.

  6. Sastra says

    Years ago I had a record of Canterbury Tales spoken in the original Chaucerian English, which sounded to me like an odd blend of English and Dutch and almost impossible to understand without reading the written word and consulting footnotes. But my, how it rolled off the tongue. I even memorized several stanzas — partly for fun, partly for preparation in case I was ever in a situation where one could win a prize only if they immediately said something in Middle English. Alas, that never happened. But maybe it could have.

  7. Bernard Bumner says

    I come from the Midlands/Welsh border (to the West of the Black Country) – people still sound much like this around parts of Shrophire and Staffordshire.

    Much of the issue might lie with the way actors are trained to deliver Shakespeare, and possibly how they are trained to project. The denuding of regional accents for the sake of clarity and reverence. Perhaps also the audience expectations that Shakespearean dialogue should sound rather regal.

  8. antigone10 says

    I want to hear MacBeth in those Fargo accents

    Go to any community production of MacBeth, then :)

  9. says


    The Mayflower landed in 1620, four years after Shakespeare’s death. OP is probably as close as you’re going to get to hearing an authentic Colonial American accent.


    I come from the Midlands/Welsh border (to the West of the Black Country) – people still sound much like this around parts of Shrophire and Staffordshire.

    I worked on the John Adams HBO miniseries, and Tom Hooper is sortof a nut for historical accuracy and he made a project of trying to figure out what the revolutionary generation’s accents sounded like — or rather, he made it be known the actors should figure out. The best documentary evidence they could come up with was Paul Revere’s diary, because for whatever reason (his education?) he never learned conventional spelling and wrote everything out phonetically. The John Adams actors, including the British ones, also concluded that 18th century colonial Boston probably sounded like a rural west-midland accent, though they only kinda-sorta pulled it off (Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin did a pretty good job).

    People weren’t as certain about the accents of the Virginians Jefferson and Washington, though there are some isolated southern communities, like on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the accents sound quite English and there’s some speculation this might be representative.

    What most of the contemporary sources agree on is really broad differentiation of accents even over small areas, people from Philadelphia could tell people from New York or Boston. It’d be an interesting investigation to see what mass media has done to this trend generally — I think it’s true that accents are now much more broadly distributed but there are still very distinct accents and speech patterns among groups, except maybe they’re defined more by race and class than geography.

  10. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    speaking of accents (so to speak), not meaning to derail, but in terms of British accents, I’ve often been puzzled by Curry’s accent in RHPS (Rocky Horror Picture Show). where words consisting od “-ound” are pronounced “-ined” [or “-iynd” (attempting a phonetic transcription)]. simplifying that transcription, “-ou_” —> “-eye-“. The movie made it seem like an authentic accent and not some exaggeration, etc. I know I can google it elsewhere, but since accents are under discussion: why not ask anyway?

  11. jacksprocket says

    Probably Northern Irish, slithey @12.

    Shakespeare’s plays would have been performed for Londoners, and in that dialect. The sonnets were Shakespeare’s own poetry, and should be read in his accent, which as others have pointed out might have been an earlier version of Brummagem. That’s bad enough now.

    I wonder what 17th century Londoners sounded like on Talk Like A Pirate Day?

  12. jefferylanam says

    “Pirate talk” is based on West Country English, because many of the famous pirates came from southwest England. Actor Robert Newton, born in Dorset, was cast to play Long John Silver in the Disney movie Treasure Island and Blackbeard in Blackbeard the Pirate. Both Silver and Blackbeard were born in Bristol. Source

  13. Sastra says

    Here’s a regional accents test for Americans.

    I just tried it. It said that I probably get asked “Are you from Wisconsin?’ or maybe “Are you from Chicago?” I was born and grew up in Chicago, but have lived in Wisconsin for over 30 years. Nailed it.

    But when I talk like a pirate, I sound unclassifiable.

  14. laurentweppe says

    Okay: I’m not speaking English with a thick french accent: I’m speaking Shakespearian English: show some respect you little pissants!

  15. unclefrogy says

    pardon me if I have got it all wrong. I was some how under the impression that London had been growing in size rather a lot in the time immediately proceeding the time that The Bard was working there, one of the reasons he went there in the first place but that it continued for some time afterward. I am sure that all the people who had recently moved there or were born to people who grew up somewhere else would speak with accents of their parents. That would make what was heard in the street as to accents somewhat varied and as was pointed out there would be many that would also speak Celtic languages and possibly other continental languages as well as some who understand Latin still an important language at the time at least in church and academia.
    The Bard wrote with all of that in mind that is clear. London was then as it is now a very cosmopolitan city and I would bet that the accent heard from the stage was also as varied as the actors were and as the parts dictated.
    It was surely not in the “posh” accent we so often hear today.
    nor in the Hollywood announcer English we here on TV.
    we forget just how funky Shakespeare is
    uncle frogy

  16. roachiesmom says

    Sastra @15, I took the quiz. I got:

    Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

    Born in Georgia, Alabama will be ‘home’ til I die, and in Sux Carolina for four decades now (moved when I was 9)…never lived anywhere but the damn south. All my life, I’ve been grilled on where I am really from the moment I speak to someone, because I must be from ‘up nawth or California’. Except for the ones who get absurdly demanding, pushy and hateful about it, I think it’s hilarious. More proof I have never been a southerner in my life, I just happen to be from the south.

  17. Tim W says

    The accent is very similar to a West Country/Gloucestershire accent. Not sure if thats accidental or intentional.

  18. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    “You have a Midland accent” is just another way of saying “you don’t have an accent.” You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

    No, but yes. No, because I was born near NYC and grew up in Massachusetts; yes, because my parents were both from central/western NY, and we lived in a suburb of Boston with a lot of migrants from other parts of the country, and so I didn’t develop much of a New England accent.

    And no, my voice would not be good for TV or radio.

  19. Meg Thornton says

    slithey tove @12: The pronunciation of “ou” sounds as more of an “eye” sound is actually a class marker in British dialectical terms – something which was a bit more pronounced toward the early end of the 20th century (1920s – 1930s) but persisted in British society until about the 1950s. More particularly, it’s a mark of a social climber attempting to emulate the language of the landed aristocracy (particularly the “horsey” set). So I suspect it’s something Tim Curry adopted quite deliberately, to go along with the rest of Frank N Furter’s rather “phoney”, “trying too hard” persona.

  20. David Eriksen says

    Re: Sastra @15 and rochiesmom@18

    I took the quiz and got a 3-way tie between the Northeast, Midland, and Inland North with Philadelphia right behind. I was born and raised in rural North Carolina. I also got a lot of “Where you from” type questions before I left. I think my accent is more Midland than anything else because, when I was younger, I modeled my pronunciation on what I heard on TV.

  21. says

    Re: Sastra @15

    I’m from the Irish midlands, born and bred, and I just took that test for a laugh. If there’s anything to the test then my Irish accent is most similar to that of “north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island.” I guess I can kind of see the similarities but, to be clear, the minute I open my mouth no one would take me for being anything but Irish. Don’t know if that’s of any value to anything or anyone but I sure got a kick out of it.

  22. K E Decilon says

    Re: Sastra @ 15

    The test tells me Inland North. They say if I move away from the Great Lakes, people will ask questions if I am from Chicago or Wisconsin also. They accuse me of calling carbonated drinks “pop”.

    Then I scrolled down, and they want me to take another quiz. “How Michigan are you?”

    Well, (holds up right hand) I live about here (points to a spot about a third of the way from the base of the thumb on a line across the palm).

    They’ve been reading my mail.

  23. K E Decilon says

    Why is it some people always have an accent, and others pick up the local dialect easily?

    Two of my co-workers were examples of this.

    Jerry had lived in Michigan over 30 years when I knew him. He still sounded like he had got off the bus from central Tennessee yesterday.
    I asked him once if his children ever bugged him about it. He grinned and said “They mock me constantly. Goddam lil’ Yankees!”

    I would have bet that Dave had lived all his life here, until the subject of Oklahoma came up one day, and he said he had been born there and lived there until he entered the service. I wanted to know what happened to his accent. He immediately launched into the Oklahoma accent.

    It gave me deja vu of when I was 18 years old and stopped in Oklahoma to buy gas on my way to Arizona. It took my cousin and I several tries to understand that the attendant wanted to know if we wanted him to “cheeake the erl” for us. (it makes more sense spelled out than it did to our midwestern ears) The poor guy was beginning to get upset, but we could not understand a word he said.

    Dave then let me know that “IlivedinNewYorkCityforaboutthreeyears,andneverhadanytroubleunderstandingpeoplethere,either.

  24. Menyambal says

    When I was a kid back in the 1960’s we got visitors from various places, and really noticed accents. Us kids would pick them up so fast that some visitors thought we were mocking them.

    It seems to me now that American accents have really faded since then. Maybe I just don’t notice, as none are new to me. Or maybe it’s TV and movies, as they say. That quiz put me in Missouri, which is correct, but I was noticing that the test words were all ones which I deliberately pronounce differently just to keep them distinct.

    Here in southern Missouri, we get different accents. There’s one that I think of as Professional-Woman’s Ozark that bank tellers seem to use, which may be an amalgam of them all.

    I do recall being asked, in Seattle, why I had no Missouri accent. I said that I had been there a month. The guy said that his neighbor had been there thirty years and still sounded Missouri. I really couldn’t recall noticing anything when I arrived, other than a phrase or two that nobody had heard before.

    As for Shakespeare, I can’t stand Olivier and earlier actors, as they seem to be just
    reciting the lines as if reading slowly. I like Branagh as he seems to just speak it, and really liked Baz Luhrman’s _Romeo + Juliet_ as making the dialog seem lively (except DiCaprio really brought out how whiney Romeo was).

    I find that if I try a line with various intonations, there’s often something that works best. Sometimes that seems to call for a missing word or punctuation, or maybe an accent. Or a dirty mind – the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth, as a poop joke.

  25. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @22:
    THANK YOU. [all-caps intentional]
    Very interesting, educational, response to such an “off-the-wall” question.