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

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.

100 Replies to “What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like – and how we know”

  1. I say heart as ghrt /xɚt̚/ x is mostly just a h but sometimes bach rides the loch ness monster but of course not arrrrrt

  2. It sounds like a russian speaking lithuanian trying to sound overly brittish without even knowing the orthography

  3. What is even cooler, yet darker, is that Shakespeare hid codes in his writing.
    And some of the symbols made perfectly correlate with freemasonry.
    This guy was a wicked genius.

  4. As a German speaker, I find the old words and pronunciation very recognizable, much more so than modern English. From eyren (Eier) to knicht (Knecht) to creature (Kreatur), they are all more similar to German cognates in sound and spelling (which is more sensible, too, than the modern English chaos).

  5. For anyone interested in the origins and development of the English language. I recommend the emmy award winning TV series 'The Story of English' by MacNeil, McCrum and Cran 1986, it is riveting. Robert McNeil actually interviews some old men in a pub in the midlands where Shakespeare came from. It is fascinating to here the slight ghost of a dialect that the Bard would've recognised and spoken. A group of Americans from a Pilgrim Fathers re-enactment society are also taken to meet a couple of Wainwrights in East Anglia. They look blown away when they here the Old boys start chinning, sound very much like Americans from the South. Alas these dialects are all but gone now, so to hear them in this seminal piece of work is a joy. I believe it is on Youtube.

  6. there are different pronunciations now ..in English not everyone speaks with BBC accent .or received pronunciation .Geordies and jocks and Scousers..i.e.

  7. The accent really hurts, as someone from Stratford-upon-avon (where Shakespeare was born and raised) his accent would have been a lot closer to the Welsh and Midland ones. But, it is fair to say that many people in London watching his plays would have had a southern accent (I assume that's what he's trying to do), think of you're stereotypical pirate talk

  8. "I have a confession…ah here it goes I never got into shakespeare." For a second I thought it was going to be an actually happend vid.

  9. Oy waaz baarn in Waarkshur, north o Shagespur's Straatfurd. Thay old Waarkshur doylect iz still 'erd amangst olda peepul, an at sounds jurst like this vadeo. Oy r'mamba whan oy were a' school, outsoide tha area, oy 'ad no trouple raydin Shagespur bercuss oy 'ad been brortup lasnin t' accen thaa 'ad tha same rathems an vary simla pr'nunciation t' Shagespur's wurds. Oy 'ad ta memrise Portia's co'room spaych, an troy az oy moyt, oy cad only do at wi' a Warkshure aaccen, whach cawsd amusement amongs moy claarsmates bat praise from moy teachuur, who sayms t' 'ave been aware o' tha nuances o' Shagespur, av'n thow at were ova 50 yers ago…an oy can stal r'meber at t'day, whach is, oi serpose, raatha sad!

    Translation:
    I was born in Warwickshire, north of Shakespeare's Stratford. The old Warwickshire dialect is still heard amongst older people, and it sounds just like this video. I remember when I was at school, outside the area, I had no trouble reading Shakespeare because I had been brought up listening to accents that had the same rhythms and very similar pronunciation to Shakespeare's words. I had to memorise Portia's courtroom speech, and try as I might, I could only do it with a Warwickshire accent, which caused amusement amongst my classmates but praise from my teacher, who seems to have been aware of the nuances of Shakespeare, even though it was over 50 years ago…and I can still remember it today, which is, I suppose, rather sad!

  10. "Shakespeare didn't exist." Or if he did, he never wrote the stories; he was an illiterate laborer who worked for the theater. A French guy wrote all the stories, and his name was Jacques Pierre which his name was changed to "Shakes-peare" by the English thieves.

  11. Maybe it goes back to my days of being a bully and beating up nerds at school, but listening to this faggot speak makes me wanna find him and punch him straight in the fukn face as hard as i can

  12. And you sound like Pedro Pascal 😂😂. Just a little more accent and you can say "I am Oberyn Martell, brother of Elia Martell" perfectly!

  13. Fantastic i loved this. I noticed that english had ti sound different centuries ago when I studied the tyger of William Blake. It says: Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
    In the forests of the night:
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
    So i know Blake was a bit after, but…
    If.we want to keep the ryme between eye and symmetry…
    Was It simmetr-I or something???
    Love your videos

  14. You frequently refer to “I,” but your YouTube and Patreon Page don’t say who you are. Who is “I”?

  15. Hold on a second. Do Americans not have words like learnèd? They still exist in the UK now, in pronunciation only though I think. Seperate to learned.

  16. I don't care how many of your linguist nerds say Shakespeare wrote (or spoke) 'Early Modern English'. That is not 'Modern English' of any kind, early or not.

    First of all, the alphabet is not modern. That right there should inform you it's not 'modern'. Early Modern English, whether you like it or not, came about in the early 1700s, not in Shakespeare's time. When the current English alphabet was created and commonly used (instead of those obviously foreign letters on Shakespeare's gravestone), THAT was Early Modern English.

    Look at that gravestone and those papers with the clearly foreign alphabet they used, which looks nothing like actual Modern English. I don't know how you 'linguists' can keep a straight face claiming any of that is 'modern' English.

  17. Shakespeare didn't sound like an American you dumb colonials. Don't be so bitter that your language comes from another country.

  18. It’s fascinating, the more you listen the most it becomes less West Country and more: West Country + Irish + Welsh + East Anglia and you can see how the dialects of the UK developed and which ones were more standard. It sounds nothing like Geordie which is influenced more by Norse but you can see how slightly south in Yorkshire why Leeds sounds like Loides

  19. Watching this as a Dutch woman is pretty damn interesting. It seems like my language made all the different decisions and that's why it's similar to English, but far from the same. Like you guys say egges or, well, eggs. We say a modern version of eyren: eieren

  20. You say people here their own dialect in this, but Im betting that only applies if youre European. I certainly dont hear any trace of Australian in it, for example

  21. I feel like the author of this video is merely flaunting his erudition without actually caring whether he is explaining anything. The only new thing I carry away from this is what Mr. Caxton said.

  22. This is so interesting. Used to know someone who was brought up with Gaelic from the Hebredise and he sounded a lot like this

  23. 6:09

    who'm?

    Or you're me, whoms't'd've'dist about to finish animating this and read it for the very first time.

  24. The great vowel shift didn't happen as much in the North East of England hence some of the original vowel sounds in the Geordie dilect

  25. Do American students really attempt to put on English accents during Shakespeare's plays? The cringe factor must be over 9000.

  26. In all seriousness, when I originally watched the OP video from the globe reconstruction I was shocked at how close OP is to the Newfoundland accent, or how unchanged their accent is.

  27. Everyone's saying he sounds Irish, Jamaican, Welsh or even Dutch when we CLEARLY all know what he really is…
    He's obviously a pirate.

  28. Ok. When did all this now evolved to “I’m thirsty” meaning I want to have sex? Seriously, this is what my kid said. 😒 oh boy.

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