What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like – and how we know

Shakespeare didn’t sound like this. And he
didn’t sound like this either. But if you were back in 1610 and you snagged a couple
front row tickets to the Globe, what kind of English would you hear? I have a confession. A tough one for a language
nerd. Hhh.. here goes. I never really got into Shakespeare. I remember the theatre geeks, the girl with
one hand raised, head turned, chanting lines to… whom exactly? Maybe a poetry-loving
squirrel? Neh, wasn’t for me. I was into legos and languages.
Which is how I ended up unintentionally parsing Homer in Greek before I had to face Shakespeare.
Yes, HAD to. A class assignment, I think it was the Tempest. I skimmed just enough to
pass a quiz. Then I would’ve shelved the bard forever, but for that one stray remark. As
the theatre geeks donned their best British accents, a random gadfly sneered: “Heh, you
know what Shakespeare really sounded like? He sounded like us.” No, what? Had I missed something about Shakespeare?
Something that took linguistic detective work to solve? Something like… his poor spelling.
It’s there in the “Bad Quartos” secretly scribbled by some bootlegger in his audience. It’s there
in the Good Quartos and First Folio, too. Even on his own grave, “digg” and “frend”
look almost childish. His stacked “the” and “that” keep a simplified Germanic letter,
thorn. Hmm. This isn’t HIS spelling. 1400. Chaucer’s “Englissh” was a very readable
“tonge”. So readable that, 75 years later, Mr Caxton imported a printing press to cash
in on that readability. But one day a merchant came to town and ordered eggs. A woman said,
sorry, I speke no Frenshe. The merchant got mad. He wasn’t speaking French. He just wanted
some eggs. Someone jumped in to help. Oh, he means eyren! Caxton griped, “Loo what sholde
a man in thyse dayes now write, egges or eyren?” Unleash the spelling debates! How to spell
kniht when it was evolving to nite? Should correc/s/ion have a c? And why, oh WHY, did
Chaucer’s vowels fall apart so fast? By 1600, the ongoing Great Vowel Shift was turning
iː into əi, eː became iː and oː was uː! Welcome to Early Modern English, Shakespeare’s
tongue. “Good Frend for Iesvs sake forbeare to digg
the dvst encloased heare”. Not “here”. “Heare”. Just one of many rhymes that, well, they aren’t
rhymes anymore. Pleadeth rhymed with dreadeth, her with err
and one with alone. You find crɛːtərs! Rɛːzənz! “Eye” went fine with compənəi.
“Should” kept its “l” and didn’t match wood. Extra credit: spell two words that sound like
səsəiətəi and rhyme with “variety”! Haha. You get plɛː and prɛː, and prɛː and
sɛː. But then thee rhymes with sɛː. So wait, were all of these actually iː? Or maybe
thee was thɛː? Hmh. Well, fortunately, we find earwitness accounts of a meet/meat merger:
sea was in the process of merging with see. With caution, rhymes may even help us recover
puns. Like probably “reasons” and maybe “bile”. And rhythm, like those iambs my teacher made
us drum out in class, those count how many syllables were in, say, “enclosed”. Uh, two.
Too syllables. Except here it demands three: encloasèd. Meter can also reveal stress:
not house’wifery, but ‘ʔɤzɪfɹəi. Ok, you’re learnèd now. You see in sɛː
and sɛːz a noun and verb. It’s no longer strange to hear “uhy noe the raisin, lead-eye”.
And you can stomach the news that Shakespeare’s name may have been shɛːkspiːr or shɛːkspɛːr. In 1889, Alexander Ellis added one more piece
of evidence: modern dialects. Dialects contain traces of a time before English
had a proper accent. People who still don’t merge miːt with meːt, whiches that aren’t
witches, undropped r’s, h-less hearts, and gerund endin’s – sounds downright Shakespearean. Like some dialects still do, he used both
“thou” and polite “you”: thou hast, thou’rt, you have, you’re. And that third-person -eth,
like in “she hath”, was still competing with has. And while data-crunchers deflate legends of
his peerless vocabulary, he was endlessly inventive with meaning and syntax. Try out
this word order: “though I with Death and with reward did threaten and encourage him
not doing it and being done.” Playful a tangle for audiences to untie on the spot! So, what about listening to a whole play? Linguist David Crystal tested that in a newly
reconstructed Globe. Thrown back into an era of standing, heckling and OP, Original Pronunciation,
playgoers detected suspicious traces of one particular dialect: their own. There’s something universal about learning
to pronounce. We all come as strangers to Shakespeare’s sounds, whether you’re a theatre
geek who quotes Hamlet by heart, or you’re me, who’m about to finish animating this and
read it for the very first time. I thank ye patrons for unlocking this and
keeping me creating. And to everyone watching: I prithee, tarry and subscribe for language.


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