English transcription quiz

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Can you understand this variety of English?

How about this clip?

Or this?

For the answers, look beyond…

The first clip says

Deyntely dyeted with dyvers dylycate spyce,
Tyl Euphrates, that flode, dryveth me into Inde;

Or in modern spelling,

Daintily dieted with divers delicate spice,
Till Euphrates, that flood, driveth me into Ind;

The second clip says

Dyscressyon is moder of noble vertues all;

(Discretion is mother of noble virtues all)

And the third one is

My lady maystres, dame Philology,
Gave me a gyfte in my nest whan I laye,

(My lady mistress, dame Philology,
Gave me a gift in my nest when I lay)

All three come from a reading by Sebastian Sobecki of the poem "Speke Parott", written in the early 16th century (probably between 1510 and 1520) by  John Skelton (1463-1529):

This reading comes from The Skelton Project,

I presented a few short clips before showing the video, because with the video's subtitles, I think that many readers will echo the reaction of Bruce Webster, who sent me the link:

What struck me was how understandable most of the poem was, and the thought that were some wormhole to suddenly deposit me in 15th Century England, it would probably only take a matter of weeks to get used to the pronunciation, though it would undoubtedly take much longer to develop it myself.

It may be relevant that it's actually early 16th century England, with 1500 generally considered the boundary between Middle English and Early Modern English — so it should be considerably easier than Chaucer, and not much harder than Shakespeare.

But in any case, many readers will also share Victor Mair's reaction:

When I listen to "Speke Parott", if I look at the subtitle transcriptions, I can understand pretty well what is being said, but if I don't look at the subtitles, I can probably only understand about 50%.

Of course, the same could be said for some varieties of contemporary English, say this one:

The source is here — for the transcription, you're on your own…


  1. Eli Anne said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:17 am

    Heh, it sounded very Dutch to my ears, but as I kept listening it started to sound like a mix between Dutch and Icelandic.

  2. Warren Maguire said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:24 am

    I love this, though it strikes me that the pronunciation is rather more Middle English than Early Modern English (e.g. no sign of the GVS, lots of words ending in schwa). There's also some odd things such a [al] for 'all' (it should be a diphthong long before this time surely) and a suspiciously modern sounding (lowered and centralised) KIT vowel. But what do I know, I wasn't around in the early 16th century!

    Oh, and the modern one is pretty straight forward (bar the placenames) if you've spent much time in Scotland.

    [(myl) My personal experience that I understood only about half of what (basolectal) Glaswegians said, until I'd been there about three days, at which point some phonetic transduction mechanism clicked in and I could get most of it. Americans in general have a hard time with speech like "John Paul", I think.]

  3. Charles Antaki said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:27 am

    The mystery clip at the end of the post: I felt very pleased with myself by identifying it as mostly standard English and the accent as a variety of Scottish, and getting pretty well all of it (not two placenames) on second hearing. But being a native British English speaker, with much pop-culture exposure to Scottish accents, that wasn't too hard; it may be tougher for non Brits. NB obscenity-warning: naughty word at about 10 seconds.

  4. John F said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:33 am

    Sounded Dutch/Swedish to me, but then I heard 'aboot' and I realised: Canadian!

    Seriously, though, listening to the whole thing I get the gist, but it's hard work, and I know a bit of Ulster-Scots.

    The Dutch/Swedish vibe makes sense in my view, though, because of the influence of Frisian and Nordic languages on English.

  5. Stan Carey said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:38 am

    My reaction to the first three clips echoed Victor Mair's: I twigged about half the words, and had a fair idea of its provenance, but I needed the subtitles (or more time than I was prepared to commit) to decipher the rest.

    I did OK with the final clip, but then I've spent time in Scotland and have Scottish friends, so I'm used to its dialects' general patterns. Also I've seen Limmy's TV show, so I'm used to his voice and characters, though on the two occasions I've blogged about linguistic aspects of it I felt it necessary to include transcripts. He tweets partly in Glasgow eye dialect, which I enjoy.

  6. Harry Campbell said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Phoned a private taxi in Shawlands, right, heading into the toon [town], gets in, right, tiny wee motor and all that, right — wasnae [wasn't] like a black taxi, you know they've got the barricade up and all that, [you're] just sitting in the back seat just looking at the cunt — he says "where you off to, son?", I says "just take us intae the toon", he says "what way do you want to go, do you want to go through Pollokshaws Road, or do you want to go thr– onto the motorway?", I says "onto the motorway".

    Even as I clicked on the audio player I guessed this was going to be Glaswegian, everyone's go-to example of a supposedly impenetrable acccent of English. In fairness this clip demands a certain amount of local/cultural knowledge in order to make sense of it. In British cities such as Glasgow there are "private hire" taxis, which are just ordinary cars with a taxi plate attached, and the well-known purpose-built "London" taxi or black cab where you're separated from the driver by a glass screen. There's a moment of indistinctness at 0:06-7 but the speaker seems to be contrasting that with the "tiny wee motor" which turned up when he phoned for a "private taxi", wherehe was talking directly to the driver without the "barricade".

    I'd love to know how the story ends.

  7. richardelguru said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    I'm with Warren: it sounded a bit too ME for me.

    And I have relatives who sound rather like the Glaswegian (when they get excited, though probably without the "naughty [C] word").

  8. ThomasH said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 6:16 am

    I recently say a British historical film ("Suffragette" quite good) and fund myself wishing for subtitles..

  9. Pete said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 6:29 am

    The "mystery" clip is Glasgow. You can tell from the very weak, uvular quality of the postvocalic Rs, which I think is particular to Glasgow. There's also the placenames (Pollokshaws, Shortlands), the pronunciation of "want" with a TRAP vowel, and the intermittent TH-stopping in some instances of the word "the" (as in the Glasgow cliché "byraway" = "by the way")

  10. Jen said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 6:44 am

    Shawlands, isn't it?

    The first clip sounded *very* Dutch to me, but I could basically get it apart from placenames. The other two were a bit easier. Last one is fine!

    [(myl) The reader is in fact Dutch, or at least has a university position in the Netherlands.]

  11. Keith said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 7:21 am

    I suspected that the first clip was Dutch, until I read the transcription. That spoiled it for me, because it was clearly reconstructed Middle English pronunciation.

    The Scottish clip sounded like a faster version of the voice of Stuart David on A Space Boy Dream by Belle and Sebastian.

  12. Keith said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 7:27 am


    The way he pronounces "dylycate spyce" and especially the /r/ and /a/ in "Euphrates" sound exactly like Dutch, to my ear.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 7:57 am

    When I was at Dartmouth and writing my senior thesis on Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) during the year 1964-65, I could read his Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde like that, but more slowly, and it sounded more removed from modern English than "Speke Parott".

  14. Jen said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 8:42 am

    myl: Interesting – I hadn't thought about Dutchness as possibly coming from the speaker's accent rather than the pronunciation of the words themselves. It would be interesting to hear the same thing read by someone with a different accent.

  15. languagehat said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    Harry Campbell:

    I'd love to know how the story ends.

    Click on the link in "The source is here" and you'll find out. (Warning: it gets violent.)

  16. leoboiko said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    As a non-native, I find this a lot easier to understand than modern English (either RP or GA).

  17. Sebastian Sobecki said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 9:23 am

    Great use of 'Speke, Parott'. I'm not Dutch, but perhaps I can explain what I was aiming for in the clip. I deliberately chose a formal, bookish late-14th-/early-15th-c. London variety of Middle English for a poem written in the first quarter of the 16th century for a number of reasons. Skelton was already in his 50s when he wrote the poem; he grew up in the 1470s and 80s, so 1520s English wouldn't be the right target to begin with. He was a conservative poet, who probably enjoyed a conservative education himself by teachers who were probably active in the early to mid-15th century. Thus, his pronunciation would already have been old-fashioned for someone growing up in the 1470s. On top of that, 'Speke, Parott' is a satirical poem spoken by an overeducated bird who attacks the New Learning of imported Humanists.

  18. Mark Meckes said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    What entertained me was that on a first superficial listening, and without being told it was a variety of English, I probably wouldn't have guessed that all three were the same language. For the first I would have guessed, like several earlier commenters, either Dutch or something Scandinavian. The second I would have guessed archaic English; not coincidentally I actually understood that one, after a double-take at "moder". For the third I would have gone back to non-English Germanic, but been less willing to guess any more specific language group.

    The modern clip I could identify as Glaswegian or a similar Scottish accent, though I understood almost none of it.

  19. Patrick B said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    I thought it was another advance chapter from George R.R. Martin (or Gyrge Y.Y. Martyn, as I call him (not to his face)).

  20. Phil Ramsden said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

    If I'd had to guess which of the LL regulars was going to post something by Limmy, I'd have laid odds on its being Geoff Pullum. Great to see his fame has spread a little. (Limmy is pure fuckin' dead brilliant byraway.)

  21. Eric P Smith said,

    September 16, 2015 @ 11:10 pm

    The Glasgow clip is a hoot. Like Harry Campbell, I guessed it would be a Glasgow voice before I clicked on it. I'm from Edinburgh, 45 miles away, and I get every word of the clip with no difficulty. Incidentally I think it's "Where are we off to, son?" and not "Where you off to, son?"

    Scottish speech is on a continuum, with Scottish Standard English at one end and broad Scots at the other. Subjectively I would describe the clip as mostly SSE with a strong Glasgow accent. Only 'headin', 'toon', 'an aa that', 'wasnae', 'intae', 'I says' and the pronunciation of 'way' and 'want' depart from SSE into Scots. Many Glasgow voices (in my experience) are much broader than that, and I can have difficulty with them.

  22. GH said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 3:43 am

    Thanks to Harry Campbell for the transcription! I got a fair bit of it, but only enough to grasp the topic, not the flow of the story.

  23. Vilinthril said,

    September 17, 2015 @ 4:10 am

    I also immediately though “Dutch”. Probably the /r/ and some of the vowels …?

  24. Michael Watts said,

    September 18, 2015 @ 12:34 am

    Here are my "transcriptions" for the three clips, made before checking the answers:

    1. daintily de-ated with diverse delicate species telofrates that flooded the rivers meh into england

    2. discretion is model of noble virtues all

    3. milady master's dame philology gave me a gift in mineth twenty lai.

    I don't think it would be all that difficult to pick up a listening understanding of the accent, if I was put somewhere where people actually talked like this.

  25. Faith said,

    September 20, 2015 @ 2:02 pm

    I'm Canadian, took one semester of Chaucer ooooh like 35ish years ago, and seriously did much better with the Skelton than with the Glaswegian.

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