Other Accents: Some Problems with identifying Elizabethan Pronunciation

Andrew Gurr
University of Reading

Gurr, Andrew. "Other Accents: Some Problems in Identifying Elizabethan Pronunciation", EMLS 7.1/Special Issue 8 (May, 2001): 5.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-1/gurrothe.htm>.


1. I have been working through the chief and most currently valued examples of scholarly work on Elizabethan pronunciation. As I read the subject, there aren't many useful books on the subject, and good audio-cassettes, the most obvious form of record for such an aural matter, are non-existent. I attach, with a few comments about their varying contexts, authors' own voices, and values, a list of the most scholarly books.

2. In the light of such learned negativism, it seems presumptuous to try establishing any possibly Shakespearean pronunciation of any word, let alone any speech from the plays. Given that all of these books appeared before it was feasible to offer their contents or at least their conclusions about pronunication in a substantive aural form, on cassette or video, the warnings given in the later ones against using any sort of phonetic transcript should have put everyone off the attempt. Even a spoken version of a written phonetic transcript is liable to be affected by the natural usages of the speaker, and how the phonetics are read. The choices are too complex. When Shakespeare rhymes room with Rome, which of the two distinct modern pronunciations should we use for both in reproducing how Shakespeare heard them? Some variants still survive, like clerk and Derby pronounced as clark and Darby, but beyond that the pronunciation of most vowels is speculative, and indeed always variable, even from the same speaker. Moreover, since even the relatively brief historical period of speech recordings, since about 1890, speech and particularly RP can heard to have changed with recognisable thoroughness almost every decade, a retrieval process yearning all the way back to Shakespeare invites only despair.

3. The Gutenberg galaxy has also introduced two further limitations to this work. The first, the introduction of printed forms of the language nationally, created for the first time the view that there should be a single form of national pronunciation, the received pronunciation (RP). This had hardly begun in Shakespeares day. Regional accents were much more individual then than they are now that we have had five hundred years of orthographic and hence phonetic standardisation. Secondly this has led historians of phonology, even Dobson, into assuming that there used to be a normal (or RP) form of pronunciation for every word. The Burbages probably spoke in a London voice, presumably rather like what the Southwark schoolmaster Richard Hodges used, in order to help his pupils to spell words correctly, in his book The English Primrose of 1644. We might even wonder whether Robert Robinson's claim on the titlepage of his 1617 book about pronunciation, where he simply identified himself as a Londoner, was a tacit claim that he spoke the best, because metropolitan, English. We should note George Puttenham's point about English within a sixty-mile radius of London, too. [2] There is no clear evidence for when print began to influence ideas about speech to the extent that it generated the concept of one form of speech as more proper than another. Whether Shakespeare's twenty or more years working in London and around the country made his Warwickshire speech rub off into something more like the Hodges Southwark or Robert Robinson's London RP is very doubtful. Sir Walter Raleigh kept his broad Devonshire accent all his life, to the point where people used to complain that the Swisser-Swatter was almost incomprehensible in the east of England. We have no idea whether Shakespeare modified the accent of his Warwickshire home, even though most of his fellow-players were Londoners born and bred, and would probably have spoken in versions of the Hodges accents.

4. And there are other influences which will make us now introduce variations to any form of the spoken word, even on tape. We not only identify and judge people by their speech, in their geographical origin and their likely level of education, but in the cultural prejudices. Consequently we, or at least most phoneticians, are sensitised to the nuances of any speech as something weighted with cultural anchors, laden with the freight that attaches not only to their speaker but to the thing spoken. Into how we say anything we import our own expectations of what we think our audiences want to hear. Nobody recites Shakespeare unselfconsciously. Kokeritz heard his Shakespeare clothed in a thespian and RADA-ish cultural baggage. I doubt if even now we can truly free ourselves of that. So I supply here, only in parody, a kind of parody of what the Gutenberg technology has led us into. I offer (as text) what I hope is a speakable version of Antonys Frends, Room-ens, coontrymun speech. A version on audio modesty, if not technology, forbids. In my view, its sole virtue is that it sounds different from what we are used to, and some of the variants noted here MIGHT have been similar to those of Elizabethan speakers. It starts by using Kokeritz's phonetics, and where possible modifies them from Dobson, Barber and Cercignani. I avoid setting it out in the usual phonetic forms, and instead offer it spelled out in what I hope will be recognisable ways of speaking the lines. Redoubled consonants, such as r, should be rolled or at least spoken emphatically. Even in this newly post-Gutenberg age, it seems worth giving it to you in a speakable form open to many different soundings, so that you can try it with your own soundings. I expect each reader to read this kind of transcription out loud, clothing it in their own cultural baggage. Try it.

Frinds, Roomuns, coontrimun, lend me yurr eerrs.
Oy coom too berry Sayzurr, nut too preyze im.
Thee eevul that men doo livz aafturr theym,
The gewd iz awft inturrid with thyr boonz.
Soo et ut bee with Sayzurr. The nerbl Brootus
Eth toowld yu Sayzurr wuz ambishius.
If it ware soo, it wuz a greevus fawlt,
Und greevusly hath Sayzurr arnsserrd it.
Heerr, undr leeve uv Brootus un the rest
-- Fur Brootus iz un onawrubl mun --
Soo aar thay ol, ol onawrubl men --
Cum Oy too speek in Sayzurrs fyoonurrul.
Hee wuz mahy frind, faythful un djust too mee,
But Brootuz sez hee wuz ambishius,
Un Brootus iz un onawrubl mun.

And here is an alternative speech, from Hamlet, 2.2.527-546, first in the same troglodyte transcription as the Julius Caesar speech, and then in the standard phonetics.

Ooh hwut a rroog and pezunt slayv um Eye!
Iz it not monstruss thut thiss pleyr heer.
But in a fikshun, in u dreem uv pashun,
kud forrs his sole so to his own konseet
That from his wurking orl his vizadj wand,
Teerz in iz eyez, distrakshun inz aspct,
A brokun voyss, and is hole funksun shooting
With forrms to his konseet? And orl 4 nuthing!
For Ekyouba!
Hwotz Ekyouba to him or hee to herr
That he shud weep 4 herr? Hwot wud hee doo
Had hee the motiv und the kew 4 pashun
That Eye hev?



[1] Knowledge of the speech patterns of Kokeritz, Barker, Dobson, and Cercingani is derived from personal information, first-hand or from people who knew them.

[2] Note the standard class-based prejudice about correct speech in Tudor England set down by George Puttenham, in The Arte of Englishe Poesie, 1589. He described the proper language for poetry in terms of accent and spelling, but chiefly the local idioms: "When I say language, I meane the speech wherein the Poet or maker writeth be it Greek or Latine, or as our case is the vulgar English, & when it is peculiar unto a countrey it is called the mother speech of that people This part in our maker or Poet must be heedyly looked unto, that it be naturall, pure, and the most usuall of all his countrey: and for the same purpose rather that which is spoken in the kings Court, or in the good townes and Cities within the land, then in the marches and frontiers, or in port townes, where strangers haunt for traffike sake, or yet in Universities where Schollers use much peevish affectation of words out of the primative languages, or finally, in any uplandish village or corner of a Realme, where is no resort but of poore rusticall or uncivill people: neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man or carter, or other of an inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and Citie in this Realme, for such persons do abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill shapen soundes, and false ortographie. Neither shall he take the terms of Northernmen, such as they use in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentlemen, or of their best clarkes all is a matter: nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent, though no man can deny but that theirs is the purer English Saxon at this day, yet it is not so Courtly nor so currant as our Southerne English is, no more is the far Westerne mans speech: ye shall therfore take the usuall speech of the Court, and that of London and the shires lying about London within 60 miles, and not much above. I say not this but that in every shyre of England there be gentlemen and others that speake but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire." (144-5). That is one of London's more durable cultural prejudices.


Works cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2001-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)