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Proof of what is unseen

The Original Pronunciation for Shakespeare’s Plays

Well isn’t this fascinating. Shakespeare’s plays were pronounced significantly differently when they were originally performed. And we miss some humor and rhyming because of it. It is more than possible—and this video argues that it is pretty well universal—that contemporary actors have solemnly intoned 16th century sex jokes to audiences who all nod sagely while, along with the actors themselves, totally missing the point.

Phonology is, for me, an almost entirely unexplored dimension of English language change. Boy, I don’t know if I have the energy to learn “OP” just in order to catch euphonies or assonances that the KJV translators employed that we today miss… The video—which I can’t believe no one has sent me before!—simply demonstrates one more dimension of language which has changed in the last 400 years in ways modern readers just cannot be expected to know without specialized training. I’m tired. Do I have to do it?

And now let me note for my own benefit, and maybe for yours, the three ways that the main linguist in this video says we use to reconstruct OP:

  1. We read what writers of the time said about the way their words were pronounced. People were prolix in print in those days, just as they are today. You pick up things.
  2. We look at spelling, which was far less fixed than it is today. If someone wrote film as philome, there’s a good chance it was a two-syllable word in that day.
  3. We look at rhymes and puns. If “we never can prove the delights of his love” (that, of course, is not Shakespeare, but a hymn only a century-plus old), there’s a good chance that one or both of those words was pronounced differently in a previous era.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Duncan Johnson on July 3, 2019 at 8:05 am

    This is quite interesting.

    Yet I wonder, wouldn’t the genre difference between texts written for oral performance make OP dramatically more important for Shakespeare than it would be for a translated text with a vastly different moral value? I guess we can’t really know this for sure. We’d have to evaluate valid translational options that the KJV translators may have rejected in favor of a reading with some desirable phonological impact.

    I do think, though, that in theory we could start toward this enquiry relatively cheaply down one line of evidence though: surely we could run the KJV vocabulary against a modern dictionary list computationally and flag divergences for further analysis. I guess the difficulty would be in ensuring the similar spellings were actually for synonymous terms. And I don’t have the datasets for this sort of thing just laying around, building those would take work.

    Also seems there is a fair bit of wordplay in the production of this video itself… e.g., David Chrystal at 9:22 says that the two sound shifts “produces a coming together of the two words.” Ahem, right.

    I once had a striking conversation with someone rather well-known from the UK. When that person learned that I was a graduate of BJU, he asked me “Oh, so are you a Shakespearean?” (I am not sure how one qualifies for that, but most likely I am not.) He figured that everyone there at least enjoys Shakespeare (as I do to an extent). I suppose I shan’t hear that Rodeheaver productions will be given in OP anytime soon. 😉



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