Thus spoke Shakespeare! Or did he?

Mar 25, 2011 by

It seems to be a tradition with Shakespearean theater everywhere — even in the U.S. — to think that the bard himself spoke “BBC English” (also known as Queen’s English, King’s English, Oxford English), the accent of Standard English in England that until recently enjoyed the status of prestige in the U.K. and elsewhere. The technical term for this accent is Received Pronunciation (or RP for short). Note the word received here has its original meaning of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ -– just as in the expression received wisdom.

But although it may be a received wisdom that Shakespearean actors should try to sound as close to RP as possible, it is far from the truth that Shakespeare himself spoke that way. It is often thought that a language of emigres will change and become different from “what it used to be in the home country”, but more often than not the opposite is true: the emigres hold on to their language more conservatively than the speakers who stay in their homeland. This is true, for example, of the Russian emigres who speak more of a 19th century Russian than their counterparts in Russia. Also, Quebecois French is more similar today to 16th century French than the French spoken in France.

Similarly, Standard American English is in many respects closer to Elizabethan English than RP is. To focus solely on pronunciation, here are some ways in which an American sounds closer to Shakespeare than an Englishman does. First of all, both Elizabethan English and Standard American English are r-full varieties, whereas RP is not; in other words, better corn would have an [r] pronounced (in both words) in both Elizabethan and American English, but not in RP. Note, however, that there is — and has been — much variation in this respect among dialects of English on both sides of the Atlantic, so there are American dialects that are r-less and British dialects that are r-full. For example, in Boston and other areas marked in red on the map below, one “pahks the cah”:

The map below shows r-full dialects of British English (as of the late 20th century) marked in red.

However, in the past, r-fullness was more common in Britain, as can be seen by comparing the map above with the one below, which represents r-full dialects as of the 1950s:

According to the, Elizabethan English was r-full as well.

Several other differences between Elizabethan and American English, on the one hand, and RP, on the other hand, concern the pronunciation of vowels. For instance, in words like bath and calf, the vowel is pronounced further back in RP than in either Elizabethan or American English. In words like daughter and wash, the vowel is pronounced as a rounded [ɔ] in RP but as an unrounded [ɑ] in both Elizabethan and American English. Finally, in words like cold, the vowel is pronounced as a diphthong in RP — [kʰəˑʊˑɫd], but as a long monophthong in both Elizabethan and American English, [kʰɫd] and [kʰɔ ̝ːɫd], respectively.

However, despite these similarities between Elizabethan English and Standard American English of today, one shouldn’t think that Shakespeare sounded like a Holywood actor either. Because in some ways, Elizabethan English was in fact closer to modern RP than to Standard American English. For instance, while American English lost the post-n [j] in words like new (pronounced as [nʊuˑ] by most Americans), RP retained the [j], as in [njʊuˑ]. Furthermore, American English innovated the flap sound as the middle consonant of better and daughter. Intervocalic (i.e., between-vowels) t’s and d’s are pronounced in American English with the same r-like sound, making the words writter and rider, or latter and ladder non-distinct in pronunciation. This sound probably got into American English from Irish English. Shakespeare would hardly care for it.

Finally, there are also ways in which both Standard American English and RP depart from Elizabethan English: for example, “Standard English” on both sides of the Atlantic has lost the distinction in pronunciation between w and wh, although some dialects on both sides of the Atlantic retain the Elizabethan (and older) distinct pronunciation of wh in words like what, white and which. For instance, on the Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in Northern England, in Edinburgh and on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, in Antrim in Northern Ireland and in Alabama in the U.S. South the words which witch are still pronounced differently (by some speakers).

You can hear dialectal and historical pronunciations of these and other words on the

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