Unexpectedly Intriguing!
November 11, 2010

Beginning today, 11 November 2010, for a series of eight performances at the University of Kansas (tickets available here), William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream will be performed by actors using the playwright's original pronunciation. Here's a quick sample from KU's student rehearsals (HT: The History Blog):

This would mark just the fourth time a Shakespeare production has been performed with all the words spoken in their original pronunciation throughout the world in the last century, and the first time ever in North America. KU Theatre professor Paul Meier describes what audiences can expect at KU's production:

"American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier said. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater."

Meier said audiences will hear word play and rhymes that "haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595."

"The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as 'dialect fossils.' And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries."

Or, in other words, in the kind of English spoken by the earliest American colonists from England, such as in Virginia or by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. Or for that matter, going all the way up to the Revolutionary War, when the English accent and American accent began to diverge:

Americans in 1776 did have British accents in that American accents and British accents hadn't yet diverged. That’s not too surprising.

What's surprising, though, is that those accents were much closer to today’s American accents than to today’s British accents. While both have changed over time, it's actually British accents that have changed much more drastically since then....

The biggest difference between most American and most British accents is rhotacism. While most American accents are rhotic, the standard British accent is non-rhotic. (Rhotic speakers pronounce the 'R' sound in the word "hard." Non-rhotic speakers do not.)

So, what happened?

In 1776, both American accents and British accents were largely rhotic. It was around this time that non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper class. This "prestige" non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.

Most American accents, however, remained rhotic.

Nick Patrick points to the Cambridge History of the English Language as a good place to begin finding out more about how the pronunciation of English has changed over time.


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