Olivier Had it Wrong: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation


Friday, April 11, 2014

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 (©Library of the University of California, Los Angeles)

We’ve learned to understand Shakespeare from the likes of Lawrence Olivier (or perhaps the likes of Ethan Hawke). To our ears, Olivier seems to define the sound of Shakespeare, but he was probably way off. For 400 years, the pronunciation of English has changed so much that we’re not getting the full flavor, or full meaning, of Shakespeare.

David and Ben Crystal, a father and son team, have recreated what they say is the original pronunciation — OP, they call it: how Shakespeare’s plays would have been sounded around 1600. How did they achieve this Jurassic Park-like resurrection of a long-dead accent? David, the elder Crystal, is a linguistic scholar, and he starts with the sonnets. Of the 154 known, 96 don't rhyme perfectly, "and why is that?” he asks. “Was Shakespeare not a very good poet then?" "You can't get out of it by saying, ‘these were eye rhymes’ — rhymes that looked right even if they didn't sound right — because that wasn't the fashion of speaking in those days." Crystal looks in the works of 17th-century grammarians, who explained which words rhymed and which didn't. "Proved" and "loved" don’t rhyme to us, but Shakespeare, it turns out, would have said "pruvved" and "luvved." When the rhymes are reset, ancient puns surface — some of them fairly dirty.

The OP accent that emerges from the Crystals’ research sounds closer to Northern England or even some American accents. “Received pronunciation,” the very proper, clipped speech we associate with fine actors or BBC news anchors, didn't develop until the early 1800s, when the upper classes wanted to distinguish themselves audibly from the burgeoning middle class.

Ben Crystal is an actor and director who works with theater companies — from London to Reno, Nevada — to teach the OP. He says the more colloquial speech loosens up actors and transforms the way they speak the lines. Just as in early 17th century productions, "they talked to the audience … ‘What do you think I should do? Do you think I should kill Claudius? Do you think I should believe the ghost?’" OP also moves much faster, shaving minutes off the production.

The Crystals say they are 90% certain of their reconstruction of OP. "Dad obviously from an academic point of view sort of hates that final 10%," says Ben. He sees it as an opportunity for the actors to incorporate their own accents and experiences, and to make the language their own. He even enjoys doing workshops in cowboy country like Texas, where "it works brilliantly in Southern American." 


Bonus Track: Kurt’s extended conversation with David and Ben Crystal

Some highlights:

  • 7:30 — Shakespeare’s “real” accent: Given that Shakespeare's actors all spoke in their own regional dialects, Kurt wonders if the Crystals actually unearthed the playwright’s own accent. "No, we'll never know that," David responds. What they are reconstructing is the "sound system" that allowed people of different accents to understand each other. For example in 1600, all the English pronounced "invention" as "in-ven-see-UN" whether they were Welsh or Londoners.
  • 18:10 — “Speaking like us”: David remembers meeting a group of teens from London's grittier neighborhoods during one of their productions at the Globe Theater. "And I said, how are you finding the play guys?" "Oh it's great!” they told him. “Normally when we go to theater, it sounds all posh, whereas these people, they're speaking like us!"  
  • 23:30 — On punning: Their research into Original Pronunciation unearthed many long forgotten puns. When performing Romeo and Juliet, the Crystals discovered that "lines" and "loins" rhymed. "Their bodily loins and their genealogical lines — there's a pun here," David says, "which until the OP production, nobody had never noticed before!"
  • 21:30 — Shakespeare NSFW: Yes, the Crystals also discovered dirty jokes as well. The character Touchstone in As You Like It recounts a joke that made him laugh for an hour. "And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe / And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot / And thereby hangs a tale." In modern English, it's not funny. It's actually a depressing commentary on human mortality. But in OP, hour is pronounced "ore" — the same pronunciation of the word "whore." Suddenly, ripe and rot take on a whole new meaning.  
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Ben Crystal and David Crystal

Produced by:

Eric Molinsky

Comments [7]

Ron Haley from Huuston, Texias

"To be" or "ain't", is that the question?

from wikipedia:
"Beliefs about Appalachia's isolation led to the early suggestion that the dialect was a surviving relic of long-forgotten forms of English.[70] The most enduring of these early theories suggested that the Appalachian dialect was a remnant of Elizabethan English, a theory popularized by Berea College president William Goddell Frost in the late 1800s.[71] However, while Shakespearean words occasionally appear in Appalachian speech (e.g., afeared), these occurrences are rare.[72] Most European speech patterns and vocabulary that occur in Appalachian English come from the greater British Isles, rather than just England itself."

Apr. 29 2014 12:03 PM
David Carlyon from New York NY

I'm late to the party, having just heard about this conversation, but I'm compelled to register my disappointment.

Though the Crystals make sense, nothing in the conversation is new to any actor who's studied Shakepeare, nor is it even a surprise to the self-taught but observant actor. Of COURSE the pronunciation was different. Of COURSE the rhymes make that clear. That's old news to actors (like me) and to academics (like me). But a few actors using the accent would sound affected so it needs the entire cast doing it, an effort the Globe asked the Crystals to help them with.

The other difference may be historical. Americans have been in and out of cultural fealty to the English for centuries: the Brit accent sounds authoritative — and now the OP accent sounds more "real," "authentic."

P.S. The "Shaksperian" actors in Huckleberry Finn, mentioned in an earlier comment, were a pair of con men, relying on British credentials to fool the credulous.

P.P.S. Meanwhile Mark Twain was fooling his credulous readers because, contrary to the impression he left, antebellum audiences even in the smallest towns knew their Shakespeare, as de Toqueville pointed out. The con men's "Hamlet's Soliloquy" reads like bad Shakespeare that impressed yokels who did not know Shakespeare but it was actually Twain's echo of common Shakespeare burlesques that worked precisely because antebellum Americans DID know Shakespeare.

Apr. 20 2014 05:29 PM
MRW from Las Vegas

Wonderful segment. To the father-brother team, please put on some show or workshops. I could listen to you for hours.

Apr. 18 2014 03:09 AM
Ron Haley from Huuston, Texias

Pronunciation is significant for rhyming and punning, but not much for acting. Olivier did not "have it wrong" and he would have conveyed the same mood had he used the Crystal pronunciation -- once more, but with the same FEELING. Crystal achieves his meaning-changing slight-of-hand by speaking fast and GLIB.

They makes the naked assertion that the Elizabethians spoke faster than than our high-speed generation does. Their case for universal North English Elizabethan pronuciation was not fulsomley pruvved ither -- especially given Elizabethan propensity to phonetic spelling and Shakespeare's invention of some many new words. (Why wouldst he spelt them differently than than they soundeth?

In acting, it's not how you pronounce it, but the way that you say it. Saying "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" in a glib manner would alter the phrase's meaning with any pronunciation, but would be one more outrageous wound to Hamlet and truth. (Written slowly and NOT LOL)

Apr. 15 2014 11:47 AM
Blown away from West Side

Good god; this is the best segment I've heard in ages on the programme. I've needed to urinate for the past hour but I've been locked to my seat listening to this father-son discussion (with live demos too). They should set up some sort of traveling show -- they reminded me of the actors in Huckleberry Finn who would crisscross the South putting on plays (and mostly hustling the uninformed audiences).

I wanted to hear what they would say on the proved/loved rhyme. They are exactly right. I'm no linguist but I'm French-speaking and the way you pronounce 'proof' in French (preuve) matched the way they pronounced 'proved'. It indeed rhymes with 'loved.'

Everything Kurt does is semi-magical but this segment cast quite a spell on me. And I'm a hardened New Yorker. Loved this.

Apr. 13 2014 03:02 PM
Rob Ayotte

I would love to hear more on how the OP can be learned, a web site or the like. I want to re-read the works with this changed perspective.

Apr. 13 2014 12:30 AM
Ann LAngdon from Madison, CT

Love this program; loved this segment especially!

Apr. 12 2014 08:35 AM

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