The British Library Board has released some online samples illustrating recent theories about the kind of pronunciation that would have been current in Shakespeare’s time. And it’s a far cry from the Very Serious Accent that sounds so at home among the aristos at Downton Abbey.
David Crystal, a British linguist who has also written about the social impact of texting, is a prominent expert in the field known as “original pronunciation.” OP is about putting the theory of how Shakespeare and his colleagues would have pronounced the Bard’s words into practice. You might think of it as a sort of linguistic equivalent to the historically informed performance practice movement familiar from early music. OP has been going strong for about a decade, starting with landmark productions of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre in London.
On his website devoted to information about the latest findings in OP, Crystal offers a handy summary of why it matters:
OP performance brings us as close as possible to how old texts would have sounded. It enables us to hear effects lost when old texts are read in a modern way. It avoids the modern social connotations that arise when we hear old texts read in a present-day accent.
For Shakespeare’s actual words:
–Rhymes that don’t work in modern English suddenly work.
–Puns missed in modern English become clear.
–New assonances and rhythms give lines a fresh impact.
–OP illustrates what is meant by speaking ‘trippingly upon the tongue’ (Hamlet).
–OP suggests new contrasts in speech style, such as between young and old, court and commoners, literate and illiterate.
–OP motivates fresh possibilities of character interpretation.
Crystal and his son, the actor Ben Crystal, give an introduction to the premises of OP: