Nice accent you’ve got there, William S.


Isn’t it neat how language evolves? Received Pronunciation isn’t how British people speak and have spoken for all time.

But if Shakespeare’s accent had hints of Classical Pirate to it, doesn’t that mean the Romans in all those movie dramas should be sounding less hoity-toity, and more like Robert Newton snarling his ‘arrr’s in that exaggerated West Country accent? It certainly would add a very different flavor to the stories.

“I came, arrr, I sawr, I conquerrrrred, aye.”

Comments

  1. madtom1999 says

    I was born not 20 miles from Stratford Upon Avon. The accent round there is called the Black Country accent. I read Shakespeare from cover to cover when I was 15 and living and speaking Lancashire. As I read I fell back into my Black Country accent* which puzzled me at the time. People have come up with all sorts of shit about how accents change but I’m fairly convinced they tend to be a lot more stable over the centuries than people give credit for. I base this on living in east Anglia and the basic accent there holds from North East London all the way over to North Norfolk – a good two days horse ride. The pirate accent is derived from Devon and Dorset (the english fleet was build largely in North Devon and Bristol sailors were fishing New Foundland Cod in the 1480s and the accent still remains in the islands off New England – its quite similar after 400 years so why would Shakepeare sound as if he was from Devon?
    *my second accent – my first being from Friday Harbour Marine Station on San Juan islands which I can still use to convince people I’m USAian.

  2. says

    madtom1999 #2:

    so why would Shakepeare sound as if he was from Devon?

    It doesn’t sound like Devon. It sounds “a bit” like Devon. Also a bit like Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Brizzle, the Welsh marches…. Most anywhere south or west of the Midlands in fact. But it doesn’t, in detail, sound like any of the modern accents in those places. A common ancestor.

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

    A Shakespearean actor, as guest on Colbert, said that Shakespeare’s “accent” was actually closer to Today’s American “accent”. That the current British accent has deliberately moved away from Shakespeare’s as at the time he was considered a scummy playwright and held no value, so wanting to sound more elite, moved their pronunciations away from the “commoners talking style”.
    I report with no verification nor references, this is the internet so it’s out here somewarez

  4. Walter Solomon says

    I briefly thought this was about William S. Burroughs when I read the title. He also had a gnarly accent.

  5. madtom1999 says

    #3 But its not an ancestor – these accents haven’t changed much except in the last century. If they did ‘evolve’ then you wouldnt still have mostly the same accents in the same regions.The east anglian accent wouldnt ‘evolve’ the same way in two areas near 70 miles apart with little migration and the people in Nantucket wouldnt sound a lot like the blokes I was just talking to in the pub if accents changed at the rate some suggest.
    We’ve only been recording stuff for 100 years or so but accents in stable communities dont seem to change anywhere near fast enough for Shakespeare to sound much different from the indigenous communities in the areas around Stratford on Avon.

  6. says

    @madtom1999 When I was six, I moved from Burton-On-Trent, all the way to Nuneaton (about 25 miles), no one at my new school could understand a word I said.
    I lived there until my early thirties and if we drove more than twenty minutes from my house, in any direction, I couldn’t understand anything anyone else said.

    Then I moved to South Wales. I just don’t leave the house anymore.

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

    One of the major differences in pronunciation between late 16th C English and modern RP was the dropping of post-vocalic /r/, which had started a bit in Shakespeare’s time but didn’t really become fashionable until the late 18th C. That in turn had all kinds of funky effect on the vowel system in the non-rhotic accents.

  8. microraptor says

    slithey tove @ 4:

    Which American accent? Bostonian? Southern Drawl? Midwest? West Coast?

  9. says

    madtom1999 #6:

    But its not an ancestor – these accents haven’t changed much except in the last century.

    What ever gave you that idea? This video contains some discussion of the methods used to arrive at the pronunciations used. (And includes some words which are pronounced in a decidedly Welsh-sounding fashion. Hardly Devonian!) What should be stressed, however, is that the scholarship is not in any way new. What’s new is the use of OP in the staging of plays.

    Also noteworthy is that Shakespeare was writing at the time of a particularly “busy” phase of the great vowel shift. Other changes were occurring too. F’rinstance, during the course of his lifetime the possessive ending “es” lost its status as a separately-pronounced syllable and became the simple plural-like “s” which we use today. “Johnes,” for instance, became “John’s.” (Hence the possessive apostrophe; it originally denoted a missing letter.)

  10. cartomancer says

    It depends what you’re after with your Romans.

    If you’re doing a production of one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays and want to do it in historically accurate 16th/17th century London/Stratford English then go with what the younger Crystal is showcasing in the clip. They’ll sound like early modern Englishmen, rather than like actual Romans, of course.

    If you want them to sound exactly how actual Romans sounded, or as close as we can reconstruct it, then philologists have been piecing together a fair bit on the actual pronunciation of Latin for hundreds of years. Mind you, it was a language used across an entire continent for many centuries, so there’s no such thing as “Latin pronunciation” – just a multitude of dialects and conventions. The prestigious tones of Cicero, Caesar, Vergil, Quintilian and the other “golden age” writers are perhaps what most literary snobs among the Latin literati would have vaunted as “correct” in later ages. Latin spoken as it was in Rome itself, rather than one of the many provincial varieties.

    But, for my money, the social and cultural connotations of the accents and dialects used by Roman writers are not at all conveyed to modern audiences by sticking to classical pronunciation. I would say we need to use equivalent modern accents with appropriate connotations when presenting Romans (and Greeks) in English. When I teach Cicero, for instance, he simply has to be the most forced, authoritative-sounding RP you can manage, because he’s a new money parvenu who is desperately trying to be as establishment as he can possibly be. Juvenal, however, deals in comedy bigots with old-fashioned leanings, so he has to be read as in a broad “grumpy Yorkshireman” accent. Pliny the Younger is a genteel and refined sort – very civilized, very urbane, very privileged and studiously insincere – so he gets shades of mild upper-class twit. Tacitus, despite his wealthy background, is an iron-hard cynic whose words verily drip with scorn and nihilism. To an English audience he’s got to be Edmund Blackadder, for Americans Gregory House. Though his Calgacus speech before the Battle of Mons Graupius is pure Billy Conolly. Ovid is a whimsical, slightly folksy, slightly naughty teller of poetic stories that sometimes offend the uptight sensibilities of the Imperial set – he gets an Irish lilt. Augustine is about the most pompous, most grindingly self-important, most ponderously earnest bore you’re ever likely to meet. Whatever your most exaggerated “tedious professor” voice is, use that for Augustine.

    Alexander the Great is a good one. He was famously scorned as rustic and barbarous by the literate elite of Athens (Demosthenes in particular), so he’d probably get a Scottish, Newcastle or harsh Welsh Valleys accent (the Macedonians were hardy hill-folk – I’m not sure what the American equivalent is, Montana? Colorado? Alaska?). Also, while we’re on the subject, he’d be played by an alcoholic Rupert Grint.

  11. brett says

    I love the Original Pronunciation. I know I’d enjoy Shakespeare performances more if every actor sounded like Geoffrey Rush in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

  12. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Alexander the Great is a good one. He was famously scorned as rustic and barbarous by the literate elite of Athens (Demosthenes in particular), so he’d probably get a Scottish, Newcastle or harsh Welsh Valleys accent (the Macedonians were hardy hill-folk – I’m not sure what the American equivalent is, Montana? Colorado? Alaska?).

    I remember reading somewhere that Spartan characters are given Scottish accents in some English-language plays, because the two groups have similar stereotypes and hence the accents have similar cultural connotations. I think the source said the American equivalent would be Texan.

  13. opposablethumbs says

    Damn, cartomancer, I would so audit your classes. I bet they are brilliant. (incidentally, I can’t remember if I ever mentioned it before – I love the fact that a few people have taken the trouble/had the joy of writing fanfiction in Latin, how cool is that!? There’s some on AO3)

  14. jimthefrog says

    I’m still somewhat perplexed as to how we can be so precise about how words were pronounced. I can understand looking at rhymes and deducing which sounds were pronounced alike (in broad terms). But look at the wikipedia article on the Great Vowel Shift (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift) and it details some very fine and subtle distinctions in pronunciation. Certainly, there are a great many accents in English which could all happily accommodate the same rhymes.

  15. says

    the Macedonians were hardy hill-folk – I’m not sure what the American equivalent is, Montana? Colorado? Alaska?

    “Hardy hill-folk” brings to mind Appalachia. Coloradans & Montanans sound like midwesterners, mostly, so kind of generic. Alaska is full of recent transplants who bring a melange of accents. I don’t know if I could handle an Alexander who sounded like a male Sarah Palin.

  16. says

    Cartomancer:

    To an English audience he’s got to be Edmund Blackadder, for Americans Gregory House.

    Not all americans require an american accent. I’ll take Edmund Blackadder, in any incarnation, any day over House, thank you.

  17. davidc1 says

    I did hear there was a theory that Shakespeare had a Birmingham ascent ,West Midlands ,not Alabama .
    A scene from the film A Matter Of Life And Death .
    “That’s not how you spell Shakespeare “.
    “Who are you ,his agent “.

  18. David Marjanović says

    accents in stable communities dont seem to change anywhere near fast enough for Shakespeare to sound much different from the indigenous communities in the areas around Stratford on Avon.

    Of course they do; but keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote in the accent & dialect of London, not in his native one.

    Tacitus, despite his wealthy background, is an iron-hard cynic whose words verily drip with scorn and nihilism. To an English audience he’s got to be Edmund Blackadder, for Americans Gregory House.

    Day saved.

  19. Daz365365 . says

    I think accents change slightly with each generation. I’m live in Oxford and whilst there is a trace of my accent in there. it is much closer to how my grandparents used to sound.

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