I suspect that there were several accents at Shakespeare's time, even in one city like London – especially in London. David Crystal mentions that were some sound changes going on during that period and typically such changes catch on with some social groups earlier then with others. Considering how freely Shakespeare used rude language not deemed approbriate for a stage at the time I wouldn't be surprised if he utilized different acents as well. There is however no hint that this was respected in the reconstruction.
@Milan: I wouldn't be surprised if he utilized different acents as well
I was thinking the same. As with modern productions, I'm sure Elizabethan actors would use accent to distinguish characters of different social classes (e.g. mechanicals vs the court of Theseus). Proto-RP was already established in London by Shakespeare's time, and Cockney was already being alluded to by writers of that period.
Jerry Friedman (above) describes Ben Crystal's accent as "half American"; and to my American ear it is, while clearly British (listen to, well, "accent"), less distinct from American speech that of most of his compatriots. His speech in some way sounds closer to American than his father's – in the same way that Hugh Laurie's is closer than Stephen Fry's. Why is this, phonologically (the o's)? And how do those familiar with social variations of speech in England read it?
Ben Crystal said that he uses a lower register for the older version and a higher register (pitch) for the more modern version; this difference would be a personal choice. There is no physiological reason for the difference. But I do find it interesting that he equates the lower pitch with an earthier (maybe even bawdier?) version.
As for the pun about "from hour to hour we ripe and ripe," to me it sounds like "from (wh)ore to (wh)ore we rape and rape…"
In my freshman year at Harvard, I took a course taught by the remarkable William Aflred, then a mere teaching assistant but later the professor of Anglo-Saxon (and author of the play "Hogan's Goat:).
We read both parts of Henry IV in that course and Dr. Alfred pointed out many puns, especially from Falstaff and his cohort, that we would otherwise have missed entirely. Some of the puns relied on words whose meaning has changed through the centuries, but many were dependent on the original pronunciations.
@Mr Punch: And how do those familiar with social variations of speech in England read it?
I think it comes down to flavours of RP English. There's RP that most UK speakers would perceive as 'posh' or 'crisp' RP, associated with upper middle class speakers, older academics, military officer class, etc: David Crystal's accent is closer to that, but not typical: there's a distinct Northern edge to it (which fits with his Liverpool background). Ben Crystal's is typical of a wider spectrum of RP with a more 'rounded' sound to it, typical of middle-class southern English accents that are neither Estuary, nor full-on RP, nor Southern rural. Tony Hayward (ex-BP) is another example (see clip)
To me (a Londoner now living in the States), there is nothing American at all about Ben Crystal's accent. He is speaking in a manner fairly typical for youngish, reasonably well-spoken people in the London area. I wouldn't call his father's accent close to RP, but an educated Northern accent that had lost some of its regional specificity, perhaps because of long exposure to Southern accents.
As for the original Shakespearean pronunciation, am I the only one who can't help thinking of pirates, particularly when hearing Ben Crystal's gravelly delivery?
Yes. In cynical moments, OP comes across to me as a superior exposition of a basic premise that in the past they spoke some kind of Mummerset. Actually, OP specifically reminds me of recent historical dialects just south of the northern-southern isogloss: a kind of rustic and rhotic southern English, with a few Midland features. The British Library Survey of English Dialects has samples, recorded in the 1950s from speakers born in the late 1800s: for instance, Frank Canning (b. 1875, Worcestershire).
Brit here: Ben Crystal's normal accent doesn't sound American at all to me. It's a pretty typical accent somewhere on the Received Pronunciation–Estuary English continuum (somewhat more towards the RP end). Wouldn't sound out of place anywhere in the south-east, I think.
Their OP accents sound very West Country to me, which makes me wonder if there's any basis for that – have sounds shifted less in the south-west than elsewhere?
I was sceptical but I could get behind this. What they are doing is restoring the sound distinctions made in Early Modern English (e.g. wh/w, rhoticity) and pronouncing vowels with something like the reconstructed values.
In terms of intonation and other phonetic subtleties, their reconstructed "OP" still sounds very much like today's English, and specifically the English spoken in the British Isles. This is a good thing, because it means it sounds like a natural language, and it is a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be. Plus it's easier to convey the original wordplay, as the video emphasizes. It doesn't mean that actual Shakespearean English sounded like the OP in this video, though.
Even though we may be able to reconstruct the broad outlines, in the absence of any sound recordings from Shakespeare's time there's a limit to what we can recreate, just as there would be if we were trying to recreate the sounds of another language by relying only on phonetic transcriptions and not sound recordings.
This does make me curious, though. If I were transported to England in 1600, how much of the language would I understand, and would I even recognize it as English? Given the diversity of English accents and dialects even now, I'm fairly certain that the accents in use back then would have sounded quite far from today's accents.
@Alex R: Their OP accents sound very West Country to me, which makes me wonder if there's any basis for that – have sounds shifted less in the south-west than elsewhere?
Basically, yes, if we're talking about rhoticity. There's been a long-standing decline in rhotic accents in southern England, and the south-west is the remaining heartland of such accents. Wikipedia has a couple of nice maps comparing distribution in the 1950s and late 20th century: here.
I think Ben Crystal is somewhat and inconsistently rhotic in his normal voice, e.g., in "four hundred". Also, as far as I can tell, he pronounces "marriage" and "very" with the "air" vowel, as the majority of Americans do—though he pronounces the emphasized "hair-raising" with what I'd expect in "marriage". I think he pronounces "to" with a schwa before a vowel. Some other words, such as "round" and "voice", sounded American to me too, but I can't put my finger on why.
I was exaggerating when I said "half American", and people have certainly identified features of his speech that aren't American at all.
Jerry Friedman, the reason you're hearing an R at the end of 'four' in Ben Crystal's pronunciation of 'four hundred' is that he drops the H of 'hundred', so that the R becomes intervocalic. As far as I can tell, this only happens the second time he says the words — the first time, he clearly sounds the H of 'hundred' and does not sound the R of 'four' (the third time is too quick for me to say one way or the other). I don't hear his pronunciation of 'very' the way you do. As for 'marriage', he says this word while imitating in exaggerated fashion the RP of fifty years ago (old BBC English), and that's what results in the 'air'-like vowel sound. Again, there's nothing American about the way he speaks. If anything, he seems to have a slight Northern twang, but I only noticed it because I was listening very carefully while trying to hear the sounds you pointed out.
Ray Girvan, thanks for the link. It's interesting to see how much rhoticity has diminished in English, just as non-rhoticity is diminishing in the States.
David Crystal on his own accent, in The English Language (1988):
These days, it is much less usual for people to live their whole lives in one place, and 'mixed' accents have become more widespread. I am a typical example. After twelve years in North Wales, ten years in Liverpool, twenty years in Berkshire, and a subsequent period back in Wales, my own accent is perhaps most charitably described as a hybrid – or a mess, if you prefer. It shows features associated with these different areas; and it is not entirely consistent. . . . People have tried to 'place' me in Britain, and often say 'north', but, when pressed, guesses range from Scotland to Cornwall.
Like others, I also assumed rut/rot and rape/ripe were both intended as possible puns. If nothing else, I have to imagine it would have at least been possible to see it that way in 1600, when it seems (from the video) that the vowels I perceive as long a and long i were not as distinct as they are in American English today.
I have relatives from the north-east of England who I have heard say "fillum" rather than "film".
And to add to the chorus of agreement – to me Ben Crystal's accent sounds like a normal south-eastern English accent, nearer to RP than to London; David Crystal sounds posh generalised Northern; and the "OP" of the plays sounds like stage Somerset with a dash of Birmingham – which is probably pretty much what most modern Brits would expect Shakespere to have sounded like.
I worked for many years at the Northern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. This was one of the first in the US, but unlike the Ren Faires inspired by it, and its slightly older sister show in Southern California, it had begun as an educational project. We therefore paid a bit more attention to authenticity of speech and costuming than most. As street actors, we were taught to use Shakespearean OP — or at least as close an approximation of it as we could pick up in a 1-hour workshop.
Tourists from the UK told us we sounded like we were from Dorset. And then there was the fallback position: "When in doubt, talk like a pirate." The West Country dialect Americans associate with pirates thanks to Robert Newton's Long John Silver was thought to be close enough for theatrical purposes.
An MMORPG I play had a set of storylines a few years ago based on Shakespeare plays. Unusually for this game, some of the cutscenes had voice acting rather than text captions, and for some reason they had their actors use faux-RP. I complained long and loud about this in the game forums, there being no reason whatsoever to prefer modern RP over a modern Southern California dialect for Shakespeare. But no one quite believed me.
I have to say that OP completely failed for me as a way to make evident the "really, really rude sex joke". The ripe/rape sound correspondence was clear, but that wasn't the joke they described. Not being used to h-dropping, I was completely oblivious to any alternate interpretation of "hour".
I'm intrigued by the rhyme loved/proved in the video, which is pronounced by Ben Crystal with an unrounded vowel (clarified to be the IPA [ɤ̞] by David Crystal on his "Pronouncing Shakespeare" site). I'd thought, perhaps mistakenly, and based chiefly on reading Otto Jespersen many years ago, that "prove" and "move" had their modern [u:] sound in Early Modern English, and that words with the short /u/, like love, come, cup, etc., only moved to an unrounded [ʌ]-like sound in mid-17th century or thereabouts.
So I always assumed that love/prove rhymed as something like [lu:v], [pru:v], and casting around now for evidence I find that Charles Barber says in "Early Modern English" (1997) that "love", in addition to its normal 17C [luv] -> [lʌv] progression had a northern variant pronunciation [lu:v] especially cultivated by poets because of its ability to rhyme with "prove" and "move".
This seems to contradict the [lɤ̞v]/[prɤv] in the video. Not being an expert of any kind on the history of English, just curious about it, I'd love to hear more about the evidence behind the Crystals' choice and whether this is considered settled by experts.
The more I hear of various reconstructed Early Modern English accents, the more I wish something closer to them were the standard portrayed of 'correct' English. I find RP elides far too much for my taste (the lack of rhoticity being the biggest issue), and some Estuary English accents are nearly incomprehensible. Sarah Blackwood's (the singer from Client) West Yorkshire accent is, to me, the most "correct-sounding" English I've ever heard.
Somebody (maybe it was Anthony Burgess?) once memorably said that "Queen Victoria would sound to us like a countrywoman, and Elizabeth I like a fishwife".
Ben sounds very normal to me, and all the OPs do sound like my late father-in-law: broad Somerset. It's wonderful, in pubs there are still people who just naturally sound like that. If only the food were better, I'd sit around listening…
"Prove" and "move" are both old French borrowings, from the stems of prouver and mouvoir respectively, French ou still having the [u(:)] sound it had in Old French. The other -ove words are all English, and the spelling with the letter o is said to result from the replacement of an original u since u was also used where v is now (so a sequence uu was confusing, especially in handwriting). It is quite likely that the two sets of words had slightly different vowels in EME, close enough that rhymes or puns were still possible, but different enough that they evolved differently. The difference was probably one of length rather than quality, as with the other vowels originally involved in the Great Vowel Shift.
Some people in the UK pronounce 'proven' so as to rhyme with 'woven' (is it mainly a Scottish thing?), though they still rhyme 'prove' with 'move'.
Having watched the clip again, I've decided OP doesn't do much for me. It may be more authentic, and it may reveal certain puns that are otherwise lost, but I find myself concentrating on how the actor is speaking rather than what he is saying. Moreover, the modern-day connotations of the accent (pirates, Somerset farmers, etc.) have an inevitable impact on how I experience the dialogue. I don't think we're really losing much by performing Shakespeare in accents more familiar to us; on the contrary, I would argue that the result is clearer and more accessible (at least to me). I'm also not convinced by Ben Crystal's switch in mannerisms when he changes accents. Surely one's ability to perform in a low voice without using melodramatic hand gestures does not hinge on the choice of accent.
Are "gonna" (about 2:30) and monophthongal "I'll" (2:48) normal for "youngish, reasonably well-spoken people in the London area"? How about for their parents' generation? Maybe some of the things I heard as American are a feature many Brits' speech—but if they're a recent feature, maybe they're the result of American influence. Or maybe I just don't know what British accents sound like, having spent not quite six days of my life in Britain.
And what do people hear for the first vowel of "error" at 6:45?
If anyone's still interested in these questions (and I can see why the people who have kindly answered my questions might be tired of listening), here's the YouTube link to make finding the timings easier.
Jerry Friedman, I would say that Ben's use of 'gonna' and pronunciation of 'I'll' are completely unexceptional. You hear Brits of all ages saying 'gonna', though very careful speakers would avoid it. If there is any American influence at play, it's long since been naturalised, and Ben is entirely representative of a way of speaking that I've heard for as long as I can remember (I'm 31). As for his pronunciation of 'air', he says it very quickly in his natural voice, and it's the swiftness of his delivery that's leading you to hear 'air' — his Rs merge, with the schwa of the second syllable being swallowed up, and since the immediately following word is 'and', the resultant 'R cluster' is very much rhoticised.
I would say that Ben's use of 'gonna' and pronunciation of 'I'll' are completely unexceptional. You hear Brits of all ages saying 'gonna', though very careful speakers would avoid it. If there is any American influence at play, it's long since been naturalised, and Ben is entirely representative of a way of speaking that I've heard for as long as I can remember (I'm 31). As for his pronunciation of 'air', he says it very quickly in his natural voice, and it's the swiftness of his delivery that's leading you to hear 'air' — his Rs merge, with the schwa of the second syllable being swallowed up, and since the immediately following word is 'and', the resultant 'R cluster' is very much rhoticised.
LL has covered this issue a number of times previously – for instance – with the general thrust that "gonna" is very commonplace even with the most respectable of mainstream speakers – though many of them would deny using it, and media transcripts airbrush it out in favour of "going to". One commenter even suggested it was an English example of diglossia: something said one way, but written in another.
(Oddly he calls the accent 'Standard British', even though it's an English accent and mostly a southern English one at that. But it's the direct descendant of RP and is heard even among younger members of the royal family.)
Optional monophthongal variants of /ai/, /aw/ etc. are very common in all registers. And along with 'gonna', flapping rather than a glottal stop is often heard in 'gotta', 'whatever' and many other words.