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The Original Pronunciation Movement: KJV and Shakespeare

June 21, 2012

The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting fantasticoes—these new tuners of accent!  “By Jesu, a very good blade!  a very tall man!  a very good whore!”  Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsir, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardona-me’s, who stand so much on the new form that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench?  O, their bones, their bones!

Romeo and Juliet Act 2 Scene IV, Mercutio

There is a growing movement to perform Elizabethan and Jacobean works in original pronunciation:

What does original pronunciation sound like?  Well, here is an mp3 file of the Lord’s Prayer in Original Pronunciation, here is Hamlet’s soliloquy (“to be or not to be”), and you can find more examples here. 

Here is Open University’s video introducing original pronunciation


Advocates of original pronunciation say that it allows us to capture original rhyming passages which do not today rhyme in modern English.  The British Library recording gives us the following examples from Shakespeare’s sonnets:

  • Sonnet 71:  moan/gone
  • Sonnet 116:  love/remove, come/doom, proved/loved
  • Sonnet 154:  warmed/disarmed, thrall/perpetual, by/remedy, prove/love

Indeed, the claim is made that 96 of the original 154 sonnets have couplets that fail to rhyme in modern English.

Advocates also claim that original pronunciation allows us to recapture original wordplay.  Some examples:

  • In As You Like It, Jacque gives the following speech (emphasis added), leaving open the question of why Jacque laughs for an hour.  One possibility:   “hour” and “whore” are homonyms in original pronunciation, so this is a pun:

A fool, a fool! I met a fool in the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and, yet, a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I. ‘No, sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune:’
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
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.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial
. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.

  • In Henry V’s “Once More Unto the Breach” speech, there is a reference to “mettle of your pasture” – but this may be a pun in original pronunciation playing on pasture/pastor.
  • In Comedy of Errors Act 3 Scene 2 when Dromio says “I am an ass, I am a woman’s man and besides myself,” there may be an original pronunciation pun on woman/woe-man.

Original pronunciation advocates claim that trying to understand Shakespeare in original pronunciation is no more difficult than trying to understand Shakespeare in a regional dialect.  I have to say that I am not entirely convinced – for audience members who hear Shakespeare for the first time, it may be difficult to follow Shakespeare’s intricate wordplay and linguistic structures even in contemporary English pronunciation.  I am not sure that they can track original pronunciation in real time and both capture the puns and perform the mental translation of original pronunciation.  I wonder if original pronunciation is not perhaps best for those who are following along with a written script.

After hearing the examples above, what do you think?  Does original pronunciation unlock new layers of meaning for you?  Or does it add a new layer of complexity in understanding Shakespeare?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. nzumel permalink
    June 22, 2012 1:23 pm

    The change in pronunciation is rather less radical than I assumed — at least, since I’m accustomed to American pronunciation anyway, the OP doesn’t sound too very very different from contemporary British pronunciation to my ears.

    I think, especially for those plays where I don’t know the dialogue by heart, I would pretty much just hear it as it is pronounced, without thinking about the puns. For example, in the
    example that they used: “from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe” — I would just hear “from whore to whore, we rape and rape”, and take it at face value.

    If I wanted to really appreciate the puns, I would need the written script.

  2. June 22, 2012 2:58 pm

    Your point is well taken, and is essentially what Crystal claims (that understanding original pronunciation is no more difficult than understanding regional dialects.) But I once saw a Scottish production of Macbeth and I remember thinking that if I had not already known the play well, I would have been lost!

    I think the strongest argument that Crystal gives for original pronunciation is hearing couplet rhymes that are not present in modern dialects — and thus it is especially appropriate for the Sonnets. The same point can be maken about rhythm (consider a word like “marriage” that is pronounced very differently in contemporary pronunciation, even to the point of having lost syllables).

    I have a recording of T. S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land.” It is fascinating to hear Eliot’s half-American half-British accent. I can perfectly understand his articulation (at least of the English parts of the poem). But I did not begin to understand “The Waste Land” until I read it — over and over and over again — and tried to seriously study what Eliot was doing with words.

  3. June 22, 2012 4:32 pm

    I am not sure that they can track original pronunciation in real time and both capture the puns and perform the mental translation of original pronunciation. I wonder if original pronunciation is not perhaps best for those who are following along with a written script.

    After hearing the examples above, what do you think? Does original pronunciation unlock new layers of meaning for you? Or does it add a new layer of complexity in understanding Shakespeare

    The whole notion of “original pronunciation” ignores so very much about Shakespeare (the KJV English) and about language. Not all of the characters in Shakespeare’s plays speak the same way or would even necessarily do well to speak with the same pronunciation. Likewise, I’m not sure the KJV translators were imposing even, regular “original pronunciation” on their English. This movement toward “original pronunciation” presupposes that accents do not vary within a single context and even that they do not vary much over time. In other words, even during Shakespeare’s day, his lifetime, the English pronunciations he heard and reflected in his poems and his plays could not have been a uniform and a singular phonemic set. As the rhymes we read now suggest, he was playing with language.

    And I think the KJV translators were creative too, with phrasing like “hallowed be thy name.”

    So I listened to the ostensibly “original” pronunciation of the Lord’s prayer linked to here. But although some of Shakespeare’s sonnets suggest that the word Hallowed may, for some, have had only two syllables, I think the original pronunciation may, for others, have had three syllables.

    For example, could one get away with pronouncing “hallowed” in the following lines with only two syllables?

    Pym, that ador’d Publicola,
    Who play’d the base –––––
    Who got a Lust to sacrifice
    The Heroë to the Peoples Eyes,
    Whose back-from-Hell-fetch’d-knaverie
    By some is nick-nam’d policie,
    Would be a Lyon with a pox,
    When at the best hee’s but a Fox;
    And just like him that set on fire
    The hallowed Ephesian Spire,
    Hath purchas’d to be largely known,
    In that he is an Addage grown:
    All this to honest John is lent,
    By Privilege of Parliament.

    These are from a poem written sometime between 1639 and 1661, when it was published in a collection in London. So here’s evidence of a least one metered, rhyming poem that suggests “hallowed” was pronounced with three syllables, significantly differently from how the “original pronunciation” reader reads it (as only two syllables).

    On the matter of language change, even effected by Shakespeare or perhaps language changing around him, there’s this from Mark Liberman. Liberman is focusing on pronunciation too, and he notes:

    One of the pieces of evidence brought forward is Shakespeare’s punning, examples of which include “Arden-harden, art-heart, ear-here, eat-hate, heir-hair, heir apparent-here apparent, here-year, hour-whore, and perhaps Hiren-Irene-hiring”.

    What I’d like to focus on also in this small set of minimal pairs is not so much the rhymes but the fact that this is not a set of pure homophones. Who knows whether the “h” and the “wh” in the “hour-whore” pair were pronounced the same? ‘ow can anyone be sure? How? ‘ow?

    Did Shakespeare “drop his h’s”? All the time, for himself, and for each character in every play? An hour of study of this matter should help one conclude that spelling – or even metered, rhyming poetry written – doesn’t always predict “original pronunciation” to be mimicked somehow later. It doesn’t predict “original pronunciation” in Shakespeare or in the King James Version. Language unfixed changes, and pronunciation tends to vary within the body of excellent works of literature.

  4. June 22, 2012 5:01 pm

    nzumel and Theophrastus,

    I read your comments after I posted mine (as I’d opened the comment box earlier in the day but just now got to writing in it, and didn’t refresh the page to see yours.) I agree that a script helps follow puns and rhymes (unless one somehow is already familiar with and very aware of the pronunciations). And it’s wonderful to hear Eliot read “The Wasteland.” Would have have thought it appropriate how others read it aloud, in different Englishes during his day and after?

    Your conversation reminds me of something Robert Pinsky told an interviewer:

    TS The “second life” meant how a work was received. But what is the relationship between the first life of art—that is, the actual making of it—and the reception of it?

    RP The poetry I love is written with someone’s voice and I believe its proper culmination is to be read with someone’s voice. And the human voice in that sense is not electronically reproduced or amplified; it’s the actual living breath inside a body—not necessarily the second life of reception—not necessarily the expert’s body or the artist’s body. Whoever reads the poem aloud becomes the proper medium for the poem.”

    Isn’t he suggesting that a poem can be pronounced, properly, “originally,” in different ways?

    And here’s one by Kay Ryan, in which she reads aloud in her own voice in her own pronunciation lines from her poem. But toward the end she reads aloud (and the youtube video shows) a comic strip character reading her lines, and she then uses, at the very end, what she imagines the character’s voice – or pronunciation – might be. “You’re a nerd, and poetry is stupid!” she exclaims, in her effort to give this some “original pronunciation” not her own necessarily. This is too subtle for the point I’m trying to make, but there it is:

  5. June 22, 2012 6:08 pm

    Well, there is something else going on with Eliot’s pronunciation. Eliot speaks in something close to the classic upper-class accent (also sometimes called the transatlantic accent) that we associate with Franklin Roosevelt or in the acting of Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn. Outside of the performing arts, that accent is entirely dead in the US now (and in significant decline in Britain). To many Americans now, it seems to be an entirely affected accent.

    When I hear Eliot talking, my first instinct is to dismiss him as impossibly patrician. Of course, that is a great misreading of Eliot (or at least a misreading of the 1922 Eliot who wrote “Waste Land.”

  6. June 22, 2012 6:46 pm

    Kurk, I agree with you that Shakespeare is far more complex than “original pronunciation” suggests. And this is also true of Eliot, as I suggest above. And while Crystal’s pronunciation of the KJV is interesting, the classic sing-song intonation of countless preachers is equally valid — indeed, the latter let us “smell the sawdust.”

    But certain writings are so associated with certain ways of speaking that I cannot imagine hearing them any other way. For example, I am thinking of the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill (with his dramatic pauses). Churchill’s diction was so unique that I hear his voice even when I read his historical prose.

    As another example, one of my favorite spoken word recordings is the BBC recording of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Richard Dreyfuss acts the role of Stephen Douglas and David Straitharn acts the role of Abraham Lincoln. As a review notes, Dreyfuss and Straitharn do not attempt to mimic 19th century Midwestern accents, but they do make a considerable effort to adopt the pacing and speaking patterns of 19th century American orators. I have to say that this recording opened new doors of understanding for me — although I have long been familiar with the written transcripts of the debates.

    Here is a small excerpt (the full CD set runs 16 hours long):


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