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Here’s what Shakespeare’s plays sounded like with their original English accent

Sep 5, 2013 By Abraham

In this short documentary, linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, look at the differences between English pronunciation now and how it was spoken 400 years ago. They answer the most basic question you probably have right now — How do you know what it sounded like back then? — and they discuss the value of performing Shakespeare’s plays in the original accent…


      1. Dan says:

        Well technically linguist readily agree that the closest accent to the original early modern British accent is that spoken by the people of Tangier Island Virginia, in the USA, because of it’s isolation… But like I said this is a technicality because that accent can’t even be understood by other Americans readily or British people very easily either, and sounds nothing like standard Modern American or standard Modern British, but more like a combination of the two.

        But technically he is right an American accent is closer to the original.

        British people didn’t start speaking their non-rhotic style until the mid 1800’s where not pronouncing R’s became fashionable in the elite circles. Because the elite circles in England at the time were pretty much in control of everything, the textbooks and grammar books at the time used this way of speaking as their model for the proper way to speak. The fad spread all over England, to Australia, and the American harbor towns (notice people from New England usually speak with a non-rhotic accent also). Thus creating the Modern British accent.

        1. Peg Young says:

          It is now far too common to hear people say, “She has a British accent.” I’d like to hear that one! Please note that there are HUNDRED of British accents, many of which are not English. If you mean English, please say so. :-)

          1. Dan says:

            Well I hate to tell you but every accent spoken in English is an English accent, so NO I will not use a wrong term just to appease you. There are many forms of every English speaking countries accents, just like in England, or the rest of the Uk, or it’s commonwealths. The accent group for which you are referring is called British English and that is it’s proper name.

          2. eric says:

            well, yes, there are hundreds. so if you have one of those accents — you have a British accent. one of the hundreds ;-).

        1. mark says:

          Isn’t it almost definitional that to call someone arrogant is a sure sign of arrogance? And, I believe, that calling someone a “prick” is often a sign of an alpha male with penus envy.

    1. Troy says:

      There was some dude who proposed it and you read it online. That doesn’t make it true. Truth be told, the accent they used back then was probably way different than anything we know today. And speaking of “American” English…. what does that mean? There are so many different accents spread throughout the U.S… Was it southern american? New England American? Northern American? Western American? And knowing this, how can you possibly believe that over the course of 4 centuries we would be able to maintain the same dialect overseas. I just…. I’m done now.

      1. Amanda says:

        Actually, he’s referring to the English spoken in the Appalachian areas around, say, Kentucky, which is pretty much the OP accent being demonstrated in the video above. It is not a dialect that has cleaned up with time or that most Americans would recognize as American. Interesting stuff. Dude’s comment still makes him sound like an idiot, though.

        1. Kaioti says:

          Appalachia? You mean a historically irish/scottish region? Lol. Oh the complicate, but considering Ireland/scotland and invasion/warring trends, the demonstration in the vid makes sense.

          Yeah dear Charles up there is a silly boy.

          1. Nick Rowley says:

            “Appalachia? You mean a historically irish/scottish region?”

            Yes but the English spoken in both of those regions also retain some of the pronunciations from OP, there’s actually a perfect example in this video; that of the pronunciation of the word “film”. Many Irish speakers of English still pronounce it “Fillum”.

            Appalachia also has a degree of Welsh and West Country influence.

        2. Ana says:

          Actually, the accents of Appalachia vary by region (Appalachia is BIG) but most of the ones I’ve heard really don’t resemble OP (as used in the video) very much.

          1. Jane says:

            Yes, maybe Appalachian accents do retain some of the old pronunciation since their ancestors were mostly from Ireland and Scotland, but as someone from the northern U.S., I associate their accent more with a southern accent than I do with an Irish/Scottish one or the OP one. The Appalachian accent has more of a twang than the Irish/Scottish or OP accent. The accent in the video above sounds to me more like something you’d hear in modern day northern England. It doesn’t sound southern to me. Appalachians sound southern to me. I don’t think there’s any accent in the U.S. that sounds like OP to me. I think there are parts of Canada that sound OP, like some parts of the Maritimes.

        3. Helen says:

          Oh exactly. I immediately said that I could understand the OP so much more clearly than the “modern”. It sounds familiar to me. I was born in Kentucky and have spent my life in Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

          1. CJ says:

            I agree I can’t think of an American accent that sounds like OP. Now Geordie on the other hand …..

          2. Brian says:

            I’ve lived all my life in Georgia, USA, and can understand this OP better as it’s flying by. I think I prefer it.

          3. CrystalK says:

            I could understand it better as well. I live in Southwestern West Virginia. The OP sort of sounds like my grandfather.

        4. George says:

          Absolute rubbish – the OP accent sounds nothing like the accent / pronunciation from Kentucky.

          It’s funny, people commenting here from Georgia or the Southern USA and stating they ‘understand the OP much easier’ than modern English are just lying plain and simple. The OP accent is nothing like Deep South accents and infact, nothing like USA accents / pronunciations barring one.

          The OP accent and pronunciation is not similar in anyway to Irish or Scots pronunciation (and here the Americans are showing their lack of knowledge of Britain) – it has its closest affinity to West Country dialects in the south and south west of England. Insofar as America is concerned, the closest accent / pronunciation that exists today to OP, and the West Country in general, is ‘Old Virginia Accent’ which is not surprising given the greatest number of West Country migrants settled in Virginia.

          I don’t know where this fallacy of early modern English speakers sounding like yankie stems from – they didn’t. The closest living accent / dialect to early modern English is West Country.

          1. db says:

            Having spent a bit of time living in the UK (and being an amateur student of the English languages– yes, I did say LANGUAGES), I detected quite a bit of a West Country accent in the OP pronunciation, probably because it is much more rhotic than the modern RP. That and Shakespeare was originally from Stratford-upon-Avon, which probably played a part in some of the pronunciations as well.

          2. tarla says:

            Though you may be correct and the souther Americans may be lying…you don’t know that for a fact. You don’t know how the brain works in another person’s head period, much less in someone with that particular accent. It may for some incomprehensible reason, unknown to anyone, lend itself to decipher the text better. I wouldn’t know, being from the NE U.S, however, I wouldn’t want to make a blanket comment about something that I just don’t know. That would make me an idiot. So, while we don’t know if the Americans are lying or not, we do know something about you.

          3. Paul Rousselle says:

            West Country sounds about right. I now want to see a petition for The Wurzels to perform a Shakespeare play :P

          4. Sonia says:

            I’m American and also find the OP easier to understand than the modern British English. I think the reason is the stronger ‘r’ and the more emphatic vowel sounds. The modern English sometimes sounds kind of mumbled to me.

          5. Sonia says:

            I’m American and also find the OP easier to understand than the modern British English. I think the reason is the stronger ‘r’ and the more emphatic vowel sounds. The modern English sometimes sounds kind of mumbled to my ear.

        5. Tink says:

          Yes, when it’s proposed that pre vowel-shift English sounded a certain way, that’s not to say it sounds ‘American’, rather that certain dialects in America sound similar to the most common pronunciation at that time (bearing in mind the UK would, even then have had dialects). The way English is pronounced, as well as its content has changed extensively over the centuries. As they say in the video, there is no one ‘original pronunciation’.

          Interestingly, Old English sounds a bit like your Yorkshire accent today. When I was reading Chaucer, I found it made much more sense when read with that in mind… Interestingly, though this Shakespearean is from a later time period, it likewise shares much with certain Northern English and other British dialects, probably as much as it sounds like certain US accents. Though one can argue that the media put more focus on the US aspect probably because it would prove more surprising that something seen as quintessentially British may have sounded remotely American, whilst missing the point that it sounds equally British (because received pronunciation is not the only British accent). And missing the point that many American dialects didn’t originate from nowhere, it evolved from the existing dialects brought over from places, including the UK.

          TL;DR: Shakespeareans can’t speak ‘American’ but some Americans (and some Brits) speak dialects similar to older pronunciations of English. History is complicated, no need to be rude, folks.

      2. Erin O'Riordan says:

        “Some dude” may or may not be the author, historian and scientist William McGuire Bryson, OBE, FRS, born in the U.S. but who lived in the U.K. from 1973-1995, serving as chancellor of Durham University. He proposed in his book ‘Made in America’ that the modern British accent is, in part, influenced by the German-inflected English spoken by George III, particularly the vowel sounds. Don’t make it sound like such a crack theory; the theory has a perfectly sound pedigree.

        Personally, I do think Northern U.S. English-speakers sound more like the Irish than we do the British. The rhyme is different, but the pronunciation less so.

      3. Mark Moran says:

        From the year 1600 to the year 2000, that’s 400 years. If we consider 40 years to be one generation, that’s ten generations from 1600 to 2000. Imagine you, one of your parents, one of your grandparents, etc, standing in a queue. You could fit all the people for the entire queue of ten generations easily within a moderate size room. Sure if you whispered something in the ear of the person standing at one end and then it travelled to the opposite end there would be significant changes, but that’s not the fair analogue. Instead of whispering from one person to the next, temporarily enclose each two people in the queue so that no one besides the two can hear, have the one speak in a normal volume level to the other, and then move the enclosure to the next two in the sequence. Do you think there would be a radical change in what was spoken? Based on this “thought experiment” I would question the statement that the way English people spoke back then was “way different” from anything we experience nowadays. Clearly it was different, but I tend to think not radically different.

    2. Izzy says:

      No, what has been said is that there are, in terms of syntax and vowel pronunciation, more similarities to Elizabethan English and American English than there are to Elizabethan English and 21st century British English. That is NOT the same as saying “Elizabethans spoke American English”

      1. Tink says:

        And that’s mostly taking into account ‘Southern English’, normally received pronunciation (think the ‘typical British’ accent most people are exposed to by the media). As many of my Northern friends would attest, if you examined the regional dialects more closely, you’d see similarities there, too.

    3. Duh says:

      It’s _closer_ to American English, not the same. That is what you read, or at least should have taken from wherever you heard or read it.

    4. austin says:

      I am amazed how angry this video has made people in these comments! Apparently politics and linguistics really gets people riled up!

  1. Amanda says:

    Interesting but if going back to Shakespeare’s times why are there female actors? It was my understanding that woman weren’t allowed in the theatre at that time.

    1. Michelle says:

      You are correct but that was *in his time*. Today, as you know, it is different so women actually play the parts made for women in Shakespeare’s plays.

      1. Kristopher says:

        That seems a silly response to make to that question. We’re talking about a theater re-built to resemble Shakespeare’s time and place and a video explaining how they’re trying to go back to Shakespeare’s time instead of drag him into the 21st Century. So today being different, as you know, is precisely the point Amanda was trying to address. Izzy below makes a better point about minor boys being in school or unable to work the hours required more than likely.

        1. Tink says:

          Because, further to what Izzy said, the Globe is home to many productions by many theatre troups, each of which has its own recruitment policies, and each of which plays at many venues apart from the Globe. There have been instances of all-male or all-female Shakespeare productions aimed at trying something different, and that would include historically accurate productions. I imagine it would also be hard to find a regular stream of male actors who want to play the female parts repeatedly; expecting all parts at the Globe to always be played by men would put troupes under pressure to come up with ways to make this formula work repeatedly over the years. Though certainly interesting to watch on occasion, I wonder whether it would grow stale for both troupes and audiences alike. In Shakespeare’s day they did it because they had little choice, today women can actually take part. For the same reason I’d argue that a white actor in Blackface would be unnecessary to play Othello- there are plenty of talented black actors ready to play that, and any other role.

          But it’s fair to say that most of the theatre companies in the UK aren’t interested in being all-male because they’re not committed to that particular interpretation of Shakespeare to the exclusion of all others. They had a stunning festival a couple of years back that I was fortunate to attend, where they invited troupes from around the world to perform different Shakespeare plays in their own language, with their own cultural interpretation at the Globe. Historically accurate? No. But was it amazing? You bet.

          1. Russell Varley says:

            I agree with you, the OP accent is very remeniscent of the Dorset /Devon accent with a touch of Lincolnshire

    2. Izzy says:

      In the time of Shakespeare, the women were played by male actors, but they would have been minors (mostly minors, anyway) which would violate labor laws in regards to the amount of time a minor is allowed to work in a single day (why do you think “high school students” are generally played by adults in modern TV?) So, combine the fact that they CAN’T use boys to play women combined with modern discrimination laws– having women play women is the one concession that they have to make, despite the fact that it is not authentic.

      1. Russell Varley says:

        I was once asked to play the part of Francis Begbie in a stage version of Trainspotting, what the director did’nt explain was that I would have to play three other roles as well. Jonny Swann, a drug dealer, Mr Mackay, a school careers advisor, and Rentons mother, all had Scottish accents, but were different because of class structure. In one scene, Begbie transforms into Rentons mother, probably the most difficult thing I have had to do as an actor

    3. Nick Rowley says:

      The Globe actually has put on productions of the plays (most recently 12th Night I think I’m right in saying) with boy actresses.

      The trouble is doing that doesn’t really allow one to experience the play the way an audience of the time would have done. We all bring in near four centuries of evolving attitudes to sexuality, beauty, gender roles and sundry other areas touch upon by featuring a boy playing a girl. At best we can only vaguely see what the plays would have looked like.

      Generally, when performing a play, any play really, you want to make the performance space a living one and not a theme park. All boy casts don;t really bring much that is new or interesting to a text and this leads to a curio rather than an engaging performance.

      1. Karen K Anderson says:

        In opera, there are still any number of “trouser roles” in the mezzo-soprano repertoire wherein females always sing and act the part of male youths.

        1. Kathleen Schultz says:

          Women sing them in part because there aren’t castrato anymore. Although the number of counter tenors is increasing, so we may see more males in those roles.

    4. lisa says:

      that was the first thing i said. if they want to get it right, better put men in those dresses. no women actors in Shakespeare’s tyme.OP does sound better than the modern English and Shakespeare just doesn’t work at all in “American”. why do we still call it English? i’m an anglophile but we speak “American” here, not English. English, Irish, Scots, Welsh. these accents all float my boat. hard to find an American one that does. Maybe genteel southern. or New England. nah….gotta be British of some sort

      1. Tink says:

        Because it’s a dialect and not a language of its own? Not being facetious here, Northern Irish English is still English, as is Scots English despite differences in pronunciation and some different vocabulary. We can argue about where a dialect becomes a separate language, true – that’s a hard question to answer.

        But whilst there aren’t serious grammatical differences, and most speakers of one can perfectly understand the other, calling them different languages because speakers reside in different countries seems excessive, and more down to trying to assert an independent identity than grammatical truth. There are many English dialects that are far harder for me to understand as a Southern English/RP speaker than most American dialects I’ve come across.

        To make things confusing I’m Eastern European, and many of our languages are similar to the point that, politics aside, they may be more accurately classed as dialects, but that would be a politically difficult thing to say given the fractious history of many states. In these cases, perhaps acknowledging differences avoids ethnic tensions in volatile regions which have pasts going way back. Clearly language remains a powerful political topic that many people feel deeply about and can be tied to a notion of nationhood. I just feel that a nation such as the US has enough security to be able to call its language English without feeling it will be taken over by the UK.

    1. Rorgg says:

      I was thinking somewhere between Irish and Scottish — which may lead to the impression that it was close to the “American” of Appalachia (an Irish-Scotch region)

  2. George Stateson says:

    Thank you very much! I remember being troubled by some of the rhymes in the Sonnets and wondering if it was, in fact, a pronuncian difference twixt EME and ME. I knew about things like the great vowel shift earlier, but I didn’t think there was any real pronunciantion difference. How wonderful to be proved so wrong! Thank you for enriching my understanding of the Bard’s works.

  3. Cate says:

    OP sounds very much like traditional Newfoundland English. This isn’t surprising, as the settlement of Newfoundland by English folk began in Shakespeare’s time. Developing in isolation since then until about 1950, their spoken language, especially along the north-east coast, retained features now lost in more dominant dialects of English.

    1. Juliette Harris says:

      I have often wondered if it is the case for the version of the French language spoken in various parts of Canada.

      1. Izzy says:

        It is called “Colonial shift,” where the colonial settlers retain the original pronunciations while the homeland’s pronunciations evolve.

  4. ggggg says:

    My biggest fear for the future is that Englsh langage will evlve 2 the pnt tht we will no lngr B albe to undrstnd Shkspre

    1. mand says:

      Of course it will. We can no longer understand Chaucer today, let alone a recital of Beowulf. A language that never changed, that’s a horrifying thought – I love, and really enjoy, the fact that this evolution goes at a speed I can actually discern in my own lifetime unlike the evolution of the animal species I’m familiar with. (Fruit flies leave me cold…) :)

      1. MJO says:

        actually Beowulf is pretty easy to understand, the trick is to speak it out loud… it’s a bit surreal that once it’s vocalized it becomes clear… until you realize it was written phonetically (at least in the mind of the author)

      2. Tink says:

        I agree with Mike and MJO – reading Chaucer aloud makes it easier to understand. I can’t speak of Beowulf, I’ve only covered Middle English and Shakespearean whilst at school, but I feel what makes both these look daunting is their newness to most people. Reading aloud, preferably with an annotated text really helps to break it down. And in practice I found that the language itself wasn’t so often the cause for my class to come stuck, but the copious biblical and Classical references, as well as those to contemporary life. A good annotated text helps there, as does a bit of Classical knowledge. Once you get used to the metaphors and bawdiness, it becomes easier. Never easy, but not impossible at all.

        I think English will have to evolve quite a bit before it becomes completely unintelligible to us. Right now, I’d say Shakespeare is something most people who speak English comfortably can understand, if they read it with annotations that explained the references we are less familiar with today. Exposure makes it easier, I feel if most people read it more often it would come easier to them. Mind you, there would be many people who would always struggle, but that’s true of any challenging topic; but then again people couldn’t necessarily sit through a lecture in modern English because of its intensity. I just think Shakespeare has a formidable reputation because many have horrible experiences of being forced to sit through the dense stuff without a teacher who made it interesting, relevant and clear.

  5. calanteeker says:

    It is really interesting. I just prefer watching actors like Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson performing Shakespeare.

    1. Nick Rowley says:

      That’s because some of those pronunciations are retained in both of those dialects.

      You can also hear Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire and a sort of mix of Devon and Somerset in places.

  6. Frac says:

    Methinks Shakespeare also may have been using the puns to slide shocking lines past the censors of the time. If they challenged what the actors were heard to say on stage, he could question their morality for hearing it that way and refer them to the script.

      1. Frac says:

        Then that strengthens my supposition, not weakens it. The script read as innocuous, and would get approved. By the time it was read on stage in a presumably ribald tone, it was too late.

    1. Nick Rowley says:

      And yes there are actually a few different strands going into a modern Scottish persons speech:

      English: that is the standard language of the United Kingdom
      Scots: The sibling language to English, the language used by Burns for his poetry and one which most Scots code swtich between quite easily.
      Both of those obviously also have regional accents acting upon them

      And then there is Gaelic which isn’t spoken by as large a population as used to but still has some influence. But you are correct; if does sound a little like Scottish because some of those pronunciations have been retained, it also sound like a selection fo English regional accents in places.

  7. Mia says:

    Actually, I think the OP sounds far closer to a modern West Country accent. The modern day Bristol and Somerset area accent is very similar to the way he’s pronouncing things. Of course, this depends entirely on the part of the UK he’s basing what the 16th century OP would be. After all, if the difference between a Newcastle (Geordie) accent and an Essex (Estuary English) accent is as wide today as it was back then (and I suspect more so, due to the lack of travel and exposure to accents outside the average person’s daily life), then it stands to reason that if the 16th century Southern accent may have sounded as they demonstrate, but the 16th century range of Northern accents was just as wildly different as they are today, and not sound anything like they sound on this clip. Shakespeare himself was from the Warwickshire in the Midlands, which has a variety of accents today varying around the Brummie accent. Stands to reason that Shakespeare didn’t sound like these guys, but had a regional accent that was some variant of the way they’re speaking.

  8. Phil says:

    It would seem that the Scottish and Irish accents come from the English accent at the time their countries were being forced to switch away from Gaelic/Gallic, so it is thise languages that sound like the prevailing English of the time, and not the other way around. While the American variant is also an old (18th century) form of English, the Scottish and Irish variants may indeed be closer to O.P. Modern Queen’s English is, linguistically speaking, the furthest removed, despite its geographic proximity.

  9. Ade Jones says:

    Thic accent they be using sounds loike they be spikkin in they dialect of thy Vurrest of Dean, zurry!

    (This is a dialect which hasn’t changed very much in hundreds of years, due to the isolation of much of the area until relatively modern times.)

    You could step over the border into Herefordshire, or head on over to Radnorshire, and the accent would also be applicable. I would imagine that if you could find an old Warwickshire accent, you’d be closer still, but I doubt that this is much in evidence nowadays.

  10. Lindsey says:

    It sounds a lot like the older generation of working-class/farm labourers in Oxfordshire – my gran and great-granddad sound a lot like this! I drop into these vowel sounds and drop h’s myself if I’m not careful.
    Although people have said that the Oxfordshire accent sounds similar to West Country. I wish I could get away with speaking like that all the time, it sounds brilliant :D

    1. Jac says:

      Yes, from a South Oxon/Bucks background I recognise an awful lot of this as my own original accent. “Monarchs”, the vowel shifts, the missing H – they’re all still audible in older speakers. There are some more northern sounds in there too, but I suspect I could manage a switch to OP with relative ease if I tried. (Especially with the Crystals on hand to advise!)

  11. Kev says:

    Forgive the misguided from my country. Not Appalachian at ALL and yes, scottish/irish area with some left overs but it is nice that the OP has more of a scottish lilt to it. There are some wonderful left over musical themes which have survived here that are making there way back into modern UK. If asked, yes, I do live right within the APP. region

    1. Helen says:

      I repsonse to Kev’s statement:

      Forgive the misguided from my country. Not Appalachian at ALL and yes, scottish/irish area with some left overs but it is nice that the OP has more of a scottish lilt to it. There are some wonderful left over musical themes which have survived here that are making there way back into modern UK. If asked, yes, I do live right within the APP. region

      We both know that there are a wide variety of accents in the area known as Appalachia…not all have twangs as someone else said. I would again assert that the OP dialect is much closer to what I hear in Tennessee than the modern British speaker, particularly the modern British Shakespearean actor. Using the word misguided just makes you look condescending.

      1. George says:

        That’s because you clearly know nothing about modern Britain. ‘Tennessee’? Nothing alike at all.

        OP has its closest affinity to West Country dialect in southern & eastern England. Look it up.

        1. alkh3myst says:

          George says:
          That’s because you clearly know nothing about modern Britain.

          Why on earth would you think Americans need to have expertise with your myriad accents? How is this important? This delusion that British culture is somehow automatically superior to that of the United States seems to persist with people like you, and that’s sad.

          I think we’ve acquitted for ourselves quite well over the last few centuries, and we have noting to be ashamed of. To make a better case, you would have to stop your countrymen from buying so much of, and becoming hooked on our music, films, and modern artists like Robert Rauschenberg, whose works feature so conspicuously at the Tate Modern, and the Gagossian Gallery.

          Get over yourself, and your absurd provincialism. The sun sets every day on your little “empire”, these days.

  12. Emily says:

    Very cool, interesting topic but —
    I am super distracted by young Mr. Ben Crystal and his gravelly voice. I don’t care what accent he adopts.
    Om nom nom.

  13. BigWillyStyle says:

    There’s a documentary about an island named Tangier in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay that does not have a bridge which reached it so there was very little communication with the mainland the past several hundred years. This is believed to be the only place left on earth today where you can get the closest approximation to what the Elizabethans probably sounded like.

  14. Don K. says:

    Fascinating demonstration of “OP” – original pronunciation of the English spoken in Elizabethan/Jacobean times. David Crystal’s demonstration of OP is actually rather conservative compared to other examples that I have heard. Previous demonstrations emphasize the connection to 20th century Irish accents. Elizabethan/Jacobean accents were the foundation for North American pronunciation. In the 1930’s, a Federally funded project documented regional American accents. The study found that there were some very signifigant links between the accents found in Appalachia and Elizabethan/Jacobean speech. It’s enought to make you wonder what Will Shakespeare & Dick Burbage would have thought!

    1. George says:

      OP is nothing like ‘Irish’ accents – I get the impression the only dialects / accents Americans know are Irish, Scottish and some generalised Hugh Grant type British accent.

      Suffice to say, OP has its closest affinity to West Country dialect in the south and south west of England.

      1. lynne says:

        Very west country and if you ever read an old manuscript the clues as to how its spoken is there for all too see.
        I suppose these days we’re all used to hearing and unfortunately speaking American English which is very sad.

        1. Chris says:

          There have been a lot of comments sort of implying that modern English is inferior to this OP English.

          As much as I enjoy Shakespeare, and as much as I love hearing it performed this way (primarily because of how much more comes through from the text), the way English is spoken now is just fine.

          I don’t say this as a modern, but rather as as someone examining the history of the thing. Shakespeare didn’t speak the way Chaucer did, and Chaucer didn’t speak the way Langland did, and none of them spoke the way that whoever wrote Beowulf did.

          I’m not saying that modern English is superior, either, but it is not inferior. Merely different. The beauty of the English language (and one of the reasons that literature works so well in it) is the constantly changing nature of things. It is an amalgamation of different languages that constantly cause it be in a state of flex. This grants the written word the flexibility necessary to create dual (or more) meanings, and allows it to be so captivating.

          Since modern English is merely a further growth and change of the language, I think that it is unfair to hate on it too much.

      2. joe says:

        George, after reading through these comments with literally no clue why I was reading the crap everyone else was spewing I got to yours. Thanks, please continue to educate the rest of the world, the closest accent to this is, by far and away, a west country accent, far away from an “American” accent.

        Also for the record, people need to understand that there isn’t really such thing as an “American” or “English” accent. Maybe slightly less the case in the USA compared to the UK, but in England alone there are so many accents that sound completely different, as, if not more different than “American” and “English”.

  15. yaY says:

    Very interesting and informative. As someone who dabbles in North American colonial history, would it be fair to conjecture that the Africans who ended up in the colonies learned English from colonists who spoke the language with pronunciations closer to that of Shakespeare’s era?

    1. Ann says:

      Yes, but their native African languages remained an important influence. African language influenced the accents of white southerners to a small degree because of the many white children cared for by mammies (by the way, “mammy” was originally an English dialect word, and is still sometimes used in Ireland) whose language had African influences. Here’s a link to a very dense article- in case you have the fortitude to wade through it.


    1. Tink says:

      That’s not coincidental :) After the Norman invasion, many French words were incorporated into English, which is particularly obvious if you read/listen to Chaucer. Mediaeval English was a complicated thing.

  16. Bob says:

    Generation(s) aging or dying off now in Vermont, USA, have/had traces of these accents/dialects, saying “poin” for “pine” and “toim” for “time” and “caow” or “naow” for “cow” or “now”.

  17. DannyJane says:

    I admit to limited knowledge, but the OP accent that is demonstrated sounds an awful lot like the accent still used in in England’s West Country.

  18. MikeR says:

    “The eminent Shakespearean scholar, John Barton, has suggested that Shakespeare’s accent would have sounded to modern ears like a cross between a contemporary Irish, Yorkshire and West Country accent – and cites the present-day speech of the Appalachian Mountains as the most suitable model for actors attempting to imitate a period performance.”


    There you go.

    1. Tink says:

      Thanks for that link! It really helps the conversation (particularly upthread where things got a bit heated)…

  19. Sam Pepys says:

    I’m waaay out of my comfort zone posting here but I would like to say that having lived in the southern part of the US all of my life, I had no trouble at all understanding the OPaccent. In fact, I would prefer listing to The Bard’s plays in this dialect. Thank you for sharing this and thanks to the posters for their thoughts. Ya’ll have a nice day.

  20. Jerry Stauffer says:

    I saw a production of “The Taming Of The Shrew” that the cast had “updated” with costumes and accents from the American West (picture Hoss Cartwright). It was sad. Do it OP. Why be modern retro?

    1. Tink says:

      There’s scope enough for Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in myriad ways. In different languages, by different genders, different races and with different pronunciations, each time trying something new. Where would the fun be if we stuck to one formula every time? I don’t mind the odd ‘modern’ retelling, as long as we don’t lose sight of the original entirely…

  21. Aviwe says:

    Modern english is far beyond register as compared to queen Elizabethan time ,because of the introduction of foreign languages in various country’s

  22. Tim says:

    I find it interesting the number of UK ‘cousins’ that get upset by the notion that the OP sounds familiar to Appalachian dialects. (Which, depending on local, it does!) Don’t focus on the accent, but the pace and pronunciation. This is something that many Appalachian Scholars have studied and suggested – nothing new in this theory.

    Furthermore, what constitutes a “Southern Accent” is a VERY complex thing. Being a fan of BBC over the pond I have seen a number of very good, accomplished British actors BUTCHER an American accent. Particularly a Southern Dialect. (Though the Boston accent gets its fair share of muddling back in the Mother country.) Anytime someone criticizes an American actor for a bad British accent I tell them to go watch MI6: Virginia routinely gets rough treatment by Brits trying to send up Langley and the “Deep South”.

    Keep in mind that the land area of the Appalachian Mountains encompass a region roughly the same size as the whole of the British Isles. It’s reasonable to assume that the variety and difference of language across the UK is similar to that found across the Eastern United States. There are a number of American scholars that make careers out the subtle differences between region and dialect just in Appalachia.

  23. Liz says:

    All that has been said before aside, sounds a mix of Lancashire and Bath/Avon orientated to me. I am from the north and my mother-in-law from Bath. I can understand every word. Is it just not about regional tones and that maybe Shakespeare amalgamated the two????

  24. Randall says:

    This definitely piques my curiosity: Why if prove and love used to be phonetically similar, would one shift in pronunciation but not the other? Shouldn’t “love” in modern English technically be spoken as “loov”?

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