What Shakespeare's English Sounded Like - and how we know

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NativLang
Published at : 04 Dec 2020
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Botched rhymes, buried puns and a staged accent that sounds more Victorian than Elizabethan. No more! Use linguistic sleuthing to dig up the surprisingly different sound of the bard's Early Modern English.

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~ Briefly, and without spoilers ~

I'm embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I ever really got into Shakespeare. There's a personal story here, which I'll quickly share in the video.

The idea of reconstructing his pronunciation intrigued me. As I started making trips to the library and downloading old grammars, I just found the questions piling on. I did find some answers for you.

It starts with his odd spelling - well, the spelling he inherited. Chaucer's medieval spelling was followed by modern sound changes, including the start of the Great Vowel Shift. The introduction of Caxton's printing press and the spelling debates put Early Modern English in a state of flux by Shakespeare's time. They also left our first trail of evidence.

Other evidence comes from rhythm, rhymes and - more reluctantly - puns. Many of these don't work the same way anymore, from the rhymes like "sea" and "prey" to the rhythm of "housewifery".

Modern dialects add another layer of evidence, at times preserving features that standard English accents, notably RP, have lost.

The sound of his language is also shaped by his grammar. His use of "thou" and his third-person "-th" vs "-s" verb endings always stand out to English speakers. Finally, though data-crunchers challenge his legendary status as king of all the words, we consider how innovative he was in the way he used words.

We end with a note on linguist David Crystal's Original Pronunciation ("OP") experiment at the reconstructed Globe Theatre, and some thoughts on what studying Shakespeare's sounds as a different pronunciation system says about him and about us.


~ Credits ~

Narration, art and animation by Josh from NativLang. Some of the music, too.

Sources for claims and for imgs, sfx, fonts and music:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/183wkdASSh4RfY52I5hdPOB3-v2gquXwlpd8EyINZHSE/
shakespeareshakespeareanshakespeare english

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