The Bard’s English

October 25, 2010

Just last week I was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and found myself stumbling afresh over those occasional awkward rhymes:

Is’t not enough, is’t not enough, young man,
That I did never, no, nor never can,
Deserve a sweet look from Demetrius’ eye,
But you must flout my insufficiency?

This happens a lot in poetry of a certain age, of course, but I have never quite grown used to it. Last week I paused awhile over the problem, trying to conjure up an accent that would make the lines rhyme true, but I couldn’t manage it. It is a nice coincidence, therefore, that today I came across a video of actors performing the play with an allegedly ‘authentic’ accent. Sure enough, it rhymes. How linguists go about deciding what does or does not constitute an authentic accent, I do not know — unless it is simply by studying lines like the ones above and trying to come up with a pronunciation that works. In any case, it’s an interesting experiment. It is surprising to hear how un-English the accent sounds.

(Hat-tip: Joe Carter)

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7 Responses to “The Bard’s English”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Thanks for passing this on Craig. I had heard that the English pronunciation of terminal r’s, one of the most distinctive features of that accent to-day, originated near the beginning of the twentieth century.

  2. melxiopp Says:

    Midsummer was written in 1590 in the midst of The Great Vowel Shift (1450 to 1750), so Shakespeare was writing in the midst of a major change in the language – not including the fact that 10% of the words in his corpus are not recorded anywhere else prior to his usage (whether he coined them or was first to write them down). I’d always been told in acting school that the modern American accent is closer to the accent of Shakespeare’s day than is the Received Pronunciation of the Royal Shakespeare Company. (One change, I was told, had to do with the Hanoverians bringing with them to England their inability to pronounce [er], which was then copied by the court as an affectation and part of the accent of the upper classes.)

  3. Yehudit Says:

    The funny thing is there are many English dialects which DO pronounce the R. My favorite (indirect literary) example of this is in “Cryptonomicon,” when Waterhouse is assigned to the Bletchley Park codegroup in England and meets various Brit officers. He hears one of them referring to “Major Wo To Hice” and eventually realizes that’s him. But later on another one calls him “Waterrrr – hoose.”

    I also saw that Shakespeare clip and went to Wikipedia in search of the Great Vowel Shift, which also maps out all the “R”s. I thought the video sounded very Irish, which I guess just means that Ireland didn’t shift along with its sister isle. If the Hanoverian theory is correct, politically that reluctance would make sense. But it would also imply that sonically Middle English and Gaelic were not that different.


  4. [...] (Via All Manner of Thing.) [...]

  5. Maureen Duffy Says:

    I have just caught up with the Shakespeare clip. I come from the North-East of England and was surprised how similar the vowel sounds in the clip are to my local accent. Incidentally, the word ‘kett’ or ‘ketts’, (from ‘cates’ which the Bard plays with in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in reference to Kate’s name) is still occasionally used in this area to refer to sweet things or children’s confectionery.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Interesting, Maureen. I was recently entertained by this quick tour of accents in the British Isles:

    To those of us reared in the vast, yet largely homogeneous spaces of North America, it is always fascinating to see regional variations over such short distances.


    • Wow, that guy has a really good command of accents. Just a pity he didn’t include any from the North-East, but I believe ours is one of the hardest for ‘furriners’ to master – certainly, it’s very rarely heard convincingly on TV or in the cinema.


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