The Problem and Promise of "Original Pronunciation"

Talking about "Shakespearean pronunciation" is complicated by two factors:

(1) the linguistic situation of Shakespeare's time
(2) the linguistic attitudes of our time.

As David Crystal reminds us on his website, Shakespeare's London was in great flux, linguistically as much as anything else. To illustrate the problems of reconstructing "Elizabethan English" pronunciation, here is a brief and rough history of the pronunciation of the words PALE, PAIL, PEAL, PEEL in London English over the course of two and a half centuries. For the benefit non-linguists, I've linked all my IPA transcriptions to audio files of me articulating the sounds. This chronology (mostly) takes after  Roger Lass in the Cambridge History of the English Language, Jeremy Smith's Sound Change and the History of English, and Dick Leith's Social History of English. There are uncertainties about what happened when, but I've tried to be vague enough to accommodate them.

14th century:
These words are pronounced /pa:l pail pɛ:l pe:l/

15th century:
Shakespeare's grandfather is born
PEEL has become /pi:l/
PALE is being, or has already been, raised to /pæ:l/ in innovative speech.

16th century:
Shakespeare is born (1564), and five years later John Hart describes in detail the sounds of his dialect of English in his Orthographie, giving us a snapshot of the sounds of the language.

There is good evidence for at least three different sociolects in the city at this point. They can very tentatively, generally and probably over-simplistically be identified with particular social groups.
— Sociolect 1, that of the London masses, has merged PALE and PAIL into /pɛ:l/ while raising PEAL to /pe:l/.
— Sociolect 2, which seems to be that of the London Bourgeoisie and the upwardly mobile "Middling" sorts with high aspirations, has merged PAIL and PEAL into /pɛ:l/ while keeping PALE distinct as /pæ:l/.
— Sociolect 3, the traditional dialect of the London Aristocracy, keeps them (mostly) distinct with /pæ:l pæil pɛ:l pi:l/ for PALE, PAIL, PEAL, PEEL.
17th century:
Shakespeare dies (1616). The three Englishes of London continue their developments in broadly similar but distinct directions. By 1640 at the latest:
— Sociolect 1 has raised PEAL to /pi:l/ merging it with PEEL, and raised PALE/PAIL to /pe:l/. PEAL/PEEL and PALE/PAIL are now homophones in this sociolect, identical to the distribution of Modern Standard English.
— Sociolect 2 has merged and raised PAIL, PEAL and PALE as /pe:l/.
— Sociolect 3 has merged PAIL/PALE raised it to /pɛ:l/, while at the same time raising PEAL up to /pe:l/, and keeping them both distinct from PEEL /pi:l/.
The times they were a-changing and the language did too. Between Shakespeare's birth and his death, just looking at these four vowels, the sounds of English rearranged themselves in different ways in three different accents all available to him in a single city. And not at a uniform rate, either. Cranky orthoepists give evidence that Sociolect 3 still has conservative stragglers resisting the PAIL/PALE merger as late as the 1620s. What was Shakespeare's pronunciation? And when during his own lifetime shall we place "his pronunciation?"

Sociolect 3 seems to hold the day as the high English literary norm through most of the rest of the century, but remains in competition with Sociolect 2, and by the 18th century both have begun to give way to Sociolect 1. For a while the PEAL vowel retains two alternate pronunciations. The merged forms of Sociolect 2 and the residual highfalutin yet low-vowelling pressure of Sociolect 3 allows the /e:/ of PEAL to hang on in a few words (great, steak, break etc.) long enough to merge with the PAIL/PALE vowel instead of the PEEL vowel. (A few Englishes, such as the older West Country Newfoundland accent, have this in many other words like sea, beak and leak.)

Modern Literary English is —more or less— the continuation of a form of English that emerged from a blend of different elements, in different proportions, drawn from the different Englishes spoken in 16th century London. There is thus no such thing as a single "Elizabethan" or "Shakespearean" pronunciation. The London of Shakespeare's day, no less than the London of our own day, was one of great linguistic variety. Pronouncing texts like a late 16th century Londoner requires asking first: what kind of Londoner exactly, and how far can you push the evidence?

Shakespeare's rhyming practice, if anything, favors Sociolect 2 in general, as one might expect given his social background and that of Elizabethan theater. That does not mean he pronounced all his work using Sociolect 2, let alone that he always intended it to be performed or staged that way. Moreover, pronunciation used in performance or recitation is not necessarily how one speaks at home. (Eminem's normal speech does not display the pen/pin merger, but the rhymes and pronunciation he uses when he raps very much do.) Like other Renaissance English poets, Shakespeare could and did maximize his options for rhymes, as well as their expressive potential, by drawing on the different varieties of English available to him. Alexander Gil (1621) even says outright that the use of English dialects is permitted of all writers only to poets for the sake of rhyme and euphony.

Shakespeare's sonnets seem to me to rhyme in Sociolect 3 slightly more than his plays do. But only slightly. Compare this to, say, Sir Philip Sidney whose sonnets rhyme almost without exception in a conservative Sociolect 3 throughout, with no evidence even of the PALE/PAIL merger. Yet for all his highfalutin, Sidney rhymes instead as if it were /ɪnsti:d/ seemingly drawn from Sociolect 1. John Hart's phonetic script too has <instịd> /ɪnsti:d/ for the same word. John Davies has an epigrammatic witticism rhyming indeed with instead (spelled <in steed>). But instead even if it was /ɪnsti:d/ for Sidney, Hart, Davies must have had another pronunciation alongside this one, in order to yield the word's modern form.

Sound-changes do not happen at a uniform rate in all lexical items in which they are possible. They happen in some words earlier than others. Which words those are will differ from speaker to speaker. (Click here for an account of precisely this phenomenon in my own pronunciation of English.) This has important implications for the use of rhyme to determine the chronology of mergers and vowel shifts: just because a vowel has shifted in a given word it does not necessarily follow that all the other words in the same lexical class have shifted too. A word undergoing a shift will for a time retain two alternate pronunciations, and sometimes if the sound-change is interrupted it can end up shifting "back" and settling on its older form. If a poet only occasionally interrhymes two formerly distinct vowels, this by itself cannot be taken to imply that the vowels have completely merged in the poet's dialect. If the interrhyming disproportionately occurs with the same small set of lexical items (like, say, if meat specifically is repeatedly being rhymed as if it were meet but other /e:/ words are kept distinct) then one is doubly unjustified in suggesting that a full merger has occurred.

Ultimately, even though Early Modern London English is better documented than a lot of other historical Englishes, we still lack the level of evidence necessary to reproduce that level of granular detail from four and a half centuries ago. Any phonological reconstruction of a language in the middle of massive sound-change must content itself with approximate generalities.

That is the problem of Shakespeare's time.


The problem of our own time is a fungus of ideologies concerning Shakespeare's English and its relation to Modern English.

We like to feel that Shakespeare's English is "Our Language." It is part of many a literate English-speaker's self-conception. This is why we so commonly overestimate how well we actually understand Shakespeare's language, and also why many who happily forgo the King James Bible for a more modern English Bible have continued to express horror and incredulity at the sacrilegious idea of literary translations of Shakespeare into modern English.

Performing a reconstruction has the effect of distancing the text from Modern English, and it follows for artistic, and also ideological, reasons that that distance must be managed to productive ends. In practice, what actually seems to happen with many OP performances is a back-projection of modern notions of standard or correct language into the world of the Renaissance, a historicization of Modern Standard English that claims for it a past and a determined canon of sorts. This by itself does not actually bother me. What bothers me is pretending that that isn't what you're doing.

A lot of discussion and description of what is commonly labeled OP has come from parties with axes to grind: a vested aesthetic interest in a Shakespearean English that sounds equally relatable to all modern Englishes and which is also "no more difficult for an audience to understand than any modern regional accent." David Crystal, one of the world's foremost experts on the history of English, has defended his use of unrounded vowels in words like "cut" and even "doom" in OP with the point that rounded vowels "pushed the accent too much towards Irish, and – as a general principle – I find directors don’t want characters to associate too strongly with any one modern accent." Ultimately, as Crystal says, "the beauty of that it contains echoes of many modern accents but can be identified with none of them."

The desire to preserve this "beauty of OP," an aesthetic of linguistic equidistance which validates the conception of Shakespeare's English as our "Mother Tongue", is in unresolvable tension with the professed aim of trying "to get as close as possible to the sound system that Shakespeare himself would have heard and used." In Crystal's case, one could be forgiven for thinking the quest for that beauty has led him to posit unrounded vowel for Shakespeare's time in the flood lexical set, which he massively expands. And I'm just getting warmed up.

Crystal says in his dictionary that:
 there are rhymes with unrounded front vowels that are also suggestive, such as shudder / adder, Sunday / array, us / guess, punish / languish. My view is that both unrounded and rounded variants were in use at the time 
First, I'm not sure how array/sunday is at all relevant to the point. Looking at the context in Love's Labor Lost, I'm not convinced that guess/us/thus is meant as a rhyme. It seems more likely that the rhyme is meant to be us/thus with the line-ending guess as a singleton breaking up a long series of couplets. And I genuinely doubt punish/languish in Pericles is actually intended as a rhyme at all, given the context. There's no arguing that shudder/adder is intended as a rhyme, though. And there are a handful more such forms. But they are rare, and no more common in Shakespeare than rhymes of the type hither/father which cannot be taken to imply anything about either vowel involved. Rhymes are largely useless for this particular question.

There really is no solid evidence for such an unrounded vowel in, say, CUT existing at all in English before the 1630-40s, let alone in words of the flood type. But there is no other option, really, if you want to both preserve rhymes like doom/come and avoid sounding "too Irish" for our delicate Anglo ears.

Speaking of our delicate Anglo ears, it is also no accident that most OP productions don't use a trilled or tapped /r/ in prevocalic position even though the sources strongly suggest that this was the case in at least some varieties of 16th century London English (and even though Crystal's Dictionary actually distinguishes this sound with [r], using [ɹ] in preconsonantal position.) Almost all modern rhotic dialects of English have an alveolar approximant. The use of a trill or tap would inevitably sound too distractingly regional. That it was not so regionally marked in Shakespeare's day turns out in practice to be of secondary importance.

Crystal, to be fair, is not naive. Nor is he dogmatic. He has introduced various levels of variation in the OP performances he has helped stage. He understands that OP is a modern performance tool rather than a museum piece. This is probably why he has succeeded where many other OP experiments failed.

But there is a sleight of hand that I find rather irritating. I get the claim of "Shakespeare in his own authentic pronunciation" as a marketing tactic. At what point, though, does it become false advertising?

Looking in Crystal's Shakespearean pronunciation dictionary, I immediately find things to raise the eyebrows: great and grate are transcribed as homophones (/grɛ:t/) whereas sate and seat are not. This is odd, especially since none other than seat and great rhymes in Shakespeare and one would have thought the desire to restore the euphony in Shakespeare's rhymes would've motivated at least a listing of a higher vowel as an alternate pronunciation of great, but the only rhyme-motivated alternate given for great is /gret/.

Just from this it's hard to avoid the suspicion that modern standard forms of English are having a weirdly determinative effect on what Crystal would have OP sound like. As I have just described above, the real trajectory of the vowel in great (i.e. the PEAL vowel) was rather complicated. As late as the early 18th century, there were still speakers who pronounced great as if it were greet.  Transcribing great as having /ɛ:/ and thus merged anachronistically with grate (he also does this with brake/break) is to let modern standard pronunciation dictate the OP forms rather mechanically. (On the other hand speak is given two alternate pronunciations.)

Now, you've got to make things a bit simpler for the actors. Crystal's OP transcription generally has the (somewhat anachronistic) peel/peal merger:
These two types of word [PEAL/PEEL], phonologically distinct in Middle English, are not distinguished in this dictionary. It is not clear just how far a merger would have taken place by the end of the sixteenth century, or which words would have been affected. But there is a consensus that the gradual rising in this part of the vowel-space still had some way to go before reaching the present-day value of /i:/, which is shown in Gimson and derivative works as close to cardinal 2. In OP it seems likely to have been nearer to cardinal 1—and thus similar to the Modern French vowel in bébé. Transcriptionally, it could therefore be symbolized as /e:/—and this was the practice adopted in Crystal (2005). However, actors found this confusing, with the letter e also being used for the more open short vowel (see above); there was a persistent tendency to over-open the long vowel, so that sleep, for example, would be pronounced as /slɛ:p/, thus neutralizing the contrast between such pairs as meek and make. In the present dictionary I have accordingly kept the /i:/ symbol, so that in OP training it is necessary to remind practitioners of its more open character compared to RP.
Oh but it is clear that the merger had not fully taken place by the end of the 16th century. To my knowledge, no historical phonologist specializing in Early Modern English thinks otherwise. Rhymes of the type TEA/SAY continue into the early 18th century, and very few poets show anything like a full merger before then. Statistical analyses of rhyming habits tend to back this up as well. The PEAL vowel is indeed far more likely to rhyme with the PELL vowel or the PILL vowel than the PEEL vowel. None of the many sources we have for this period describe anything like /i:/ for the PEAL vowel. On the contrary, contemporary foreign observers tend to equate it with their language's /e:/ or even /ɛ:/. The various early phoneticists trying to reform English spelling make it very clear that they perceive the PEEL and PEAL vowels as distinct.

More importantly for our purposes, Shakespeare generally does not interrhyme the two anymore than he interrhymes other similar (yet unarguably distinct) vowels. He is just as likely to rhyme the PEAL vowel with the PELL or the PALE/PAIL vowel (as in sea/say,  Macbeth/heath, bequeath/death, bless/peace, east/west) as he is with the PEEL vowel (e.g. sea/thee, please/knees, beseech/teach.) Moreover, many of the most commonly-cited cases of this (read, these, scene, and the pun on peace/piece in King John) are in fact probably not exceptions at all.

Read was in fact /ri:d/ from Anglian rēdan, and is thus transcribed in John Hart's phonetic script. In  the verse of most contemporaries, including Drayton, Lodge, Sidney and Fletcher, it is only ever rhymed with /i:d/ words. Though that is not the whole story. John Donne, for one, rhymes read/proceede, (=/i:d/) reads/beads (=/e:d~ɛ:d/) and reade/dead (=/ɛd/), and I am not at all sure what to make of that. Many investigators have been misled by the spelling of read into faulty inferences.
Assumptions from spelling also plague the correct interpretation of the word these, which is transcribed as <ðẹz> by Hart. Modern these from Old English þǣs by way of Middle English þēse would be expected to have the PEAL vowel, which the rhymes of contemporaries show it did.
With the peace/piece pun what we probably have is actually variant pronunciations of piece (<- Middle English pēce.) Otherwise, we have a case of dipping into Sociolect 1 for comic relief.
Forms like scene, threne, theme, extreme etc. have other more trivial explanations.

I am not sure what Crystal actually means when he says that "there is a consensus that the gradual rising in this part of the vowel-space still had some way to go before reaching the present-day value of /i:/." There is certainly a consensus that the HEAL vowel had not yet merged with the HEEL vowel. But if he means that neither the HEEL nor the HEAL vowel had yet reached /i:/ then I am not sure what tree he is barking up. By most accounts, HEEL was already essentially /i:/ in this period. Historical phonologists of a great many methodological schools, from Donka Minkova to Roger Lass are in agreement on this. (The most that some will allow is that early on this may have actually been phonetically a bit lower for some earlier speakers, a sound transcribable as [ɪ̟:] or [e̝:].)

It is certainly possible for a language to lack an /i/ sound. Many Quechuan languages have only /ɪ/. Tehuelche has just the vowels /e a o/ with no close vowels. Adyghe and many Sepik languages have a vertical vowel system consisting only of /ɨ ə a/. But in languages like this, the lack of /i/ is paralleled by a lack of other close vowels, or is compensated for by allophonic variants that do surface as [i]. And it would be typologically anomalous in the extreme for a language whose vowel-grid contains /ɛ: ɪ~i ɔ: o: u:/ to lack /i:/ altogether.

That whole paragraph frankly seems like it is soft-peddling its solution to two understandable problems.
First problem: as Crystal himself has admitted elsewhere, modern English-speaking actors cannot reliably be taught to pronounce three different vowel-heights for PEEL/PEAL/PALE within a reasonable amount of time. I myself, as an accent coach for a stage performance employing Middle English, found it extremely difficult to get a single actor to reproduce an /i: e: ɛ:/ contrast consistently. I could only imagine the problems that would be involved with getting a whole cast to do this. So that is completely understandable. But I see no reason not to be forthright about that in the dictionary.
Second problem: a HEAL/HEEL contrast would actually make some of Shakespeare's rhymes (like beseech/teach etc.) rather less perfect than they would be if read aloud in a modern accent. That is really not a problem at all, unless you proceed from an ideological assumption that Shakespeare's rhymes must always be more euphonious in late 16th century pronunciation than in a Modern accent. On average this is certainly true, but a language with more vowel contrasts  naturally lends itself to somewhat more "imperfect" rhymes. In a London where coexisting sociolects had related but perceptibly different front-vowel mergers in progress, there is no reason at all to assume that the concept of "full" rhymes meant exactly the same thing to Shakespeare as it does to us. Nor is there reason to assume that a rhyme that is "good enough" for the stage must be "good enough" for a sonnet. Different genres may have different rhyme requirements. I can't believe I'm saying this, but one really ought not to make rhyme into an aesthetic fetish that blocks out other considerations.

Moving on to somewhat lower vowels, I'll say that some of the sources Crystal cites in the introduction to his dictionary don't necessarily mean what he takes them to mean. He cites Sir John Harrington's anecdote about how a gentlewoman mistook the French name Jacques for "Jakes" (the scabrous term for a privy.) Then since Jakes is rhymed with Makes by the same author, the logic goes, the pronunciation must be /dʒɛ:ks/. But this implies certain assumptions about how the vowel in makes is pronounced in the first place. It's not clear, to me anyway, that something more like /dʒæ:ks/ is not to be inferred instead.

Some of Crystal's phonological arguments are suspicious too. For example, he gives words like war, guard as /wɑ:ɹ, gɑ:ɹd/ with a back-vowel. He then claims that  this vowel
must have been a noticeable feature of OP as Jonson, among others, pays special attention to it, contrasting it with the normal use of a (‘pronounced less than the French à’): ‘when it comes before l, in the end of a syllabe, it obtaineth the full French sound, and is uttered with the mouth and tongue wide opened, the tongue bent back from the teeth’. He gives all, small, salt, calm among his examples.
This is an unacceptably selective reading of Jonson. What Jonson actually says in full is
With us, in most words, is pronounced less than  the French à : as in art, act, apple, ancient. But when it comes before L, in the end of a syllabe, it obtaineth the full French sound, and is uttered with the mouth and throat wide opened, the  tongue bent back from the teeth, as in all, small, gall, fall, tall, call.  So in all the syllabes where a consonant followeth the L, as in salt, malt, balm, calm. 
In other words, Jonson appears to hear the words art and apple as both containing the same kind of a-vowel. Furthermore, he finds this kind of a-vowel in art and act is perceptually different from that of all, small etc. Yet Crystal reconstructs the same /ɑ:/ for both small and art, and then gives a different vowel /a/ for words like act. This "OP" is quite clearly not the English that Jonson is describing.

In fact we have relatively little indication, either from rhymes, foreign descriptions or native orthoepists, that the vowel in art was any lower than that of act until some time after Shakespeare's death. Crystal does something similarly unconvincing with /ɐ:/ for the vowel in bird, mercy, sir.
The open quality of this vowel is heard today in many regional accents, on both sides of the Atlantic, reflected in dialect-writing in such spellings as the exclamatory ‘marcy me . . . !’ The spelling evidence in the Folio is seen in the use of an a in such words as merchant / marchant, sterling / starling, German / Iarman, and rhymes such as serve / carve, stir / war. Phonetically, there is little difference between this quality and that of /ɑ:/ below, but I have kept the transcriptions distinct, to draw attention to the different phonological relationships with their present-day equivalents.
A few things spring to mind. First, I'm not sure that stir/war in Richard II is actually meant as a rhyme. Second, even granting the merger for the sake of argument, why would the result necessarily be /ɐ:/? Just because there are modern English dialects with pre-rhotic /ɐ/ for orthographic "e" does not mean that Elizabethan London English had the same kind of vowel. Cross-linguistically, we know that this kind of lowering before /r/ can produce many different vowels in the vicinity of [a].  "Phonetically, there is little difference between this quality and that of /ɑ:/ below" says Crystal. Yet the sources describe the A-sound even before R as being rather different from whatever the vowel of ball is.

What is more likely, and more supported by both the rhyming practices of the day and the statements of orthoepists, is that the vowel of act and of art was indeed the same vowel. The most straightforward inference is that this vowel was simply /a/ or something fo the kind. When the vowel of serve was allophonically lowered from something like /ɛ/ into the neighborhood of [æ], it tended to near-merger with /a/ when and where the latter in its turn began to shift higher.

Crystal, on the other hand, essentially uses /ɐ:/ to just put his OP through the NURSE-merger. That is, the merger of the vowels in EARTH, DIRT and TURN originally /ɛɹθ dɪɹt tʊɹn/.

This merger had not fully taken place in Shakespeare's lifetime. The orthoepists don't seem to register it until 1640. And when they do, what they describe is not a three-way merger, but a merger of the DIRT and TURN vowels, leaving the EARTH vowel distinct. The DIRT and TURN vowels begin to merge during Shakespeare's lifetime. At the same time, though, there is a competing lineage of English, attested more scantily, in which the vowels of EARTH and DIRT merged into /ɛ/ while keeping the sound in TURN distinct. This allowed Shakespeare to interrhyme all three of them. A rhyme fir/fur would work for some speakers, and a rhyme learn/burn would do the same for others. These two merge-patterns seem to have interacted with one another in complex, unsystematic and idiolectal ways until 1780 or so, at which point the merger is complete everywhere.

The idea that Mainstream English by, say, 1600 had completely merged EARTH/DIRT/TURN into a single vowel is incompatible with the evidence. Perhaps there were sociolects in which the merger was much more advanced early on. Language variety is like that. But evidence is wanting.


When I commented to Crystal that his merging of all three of these pre-rhotic vowels was at odds with the evidence of the time, he wrote back
"I think spelling pronunciations played an increasingly important role at that time, with everyone being very sensitive to the spelling reform issue. The character of Holofernes, probably satirising Richard Mulcaster, illustrates the way some people were thinking. And orthoepists of course are perecisely the sort of people who would want pronunciation to reflect the spelling. So I tend to take what they say with a very large pinch of salt, just as I do with present-day pronunciation prescriptivists!"
In the study of Early Modern English, it is common to lump a great range of sources for pronunciation under the label of "orthoepist." But not all of them were primarily prescriptivists concerned with "correcting" defective pronunciation. Many of them are better described as early phoneticians, whose aim was to describe a kind of speech that already existed. The label of "orthoepist" can be justified by the fact that all of them were concerned, one way or another, with the description and propagation of what they held to be the prestige dialect of English.

There is a long tradition of mistrusting the "orthoepists" — an assumption that they did not record what they actually heard around them, but rather an artificial pronunciation based on spelling. (Often it comes from people who are trying to use a preconceived theoretical framework for sound-change which happens not to tally well with what these sources say.) Now, a belief that pronunciation ought to reflect the traditional spelling is increasingly a vice of later centuries. But in 16th and 17th century, matters are a bit different.

In fact, many of our 16th and early 17th century sources were quite happy to do the reverse: revise orthography in order to make it reflect actual pronunciation. The "orthoepist" John Hart invented a new orthography for English precisely because he found the traditional orthography unsuitable to represent the actual sounds of the language. Nor is he the only one to attempt this in the period. Some were more radical than Hart in the reforms they proposed. (Robert Robinson, in a work published the same year Shakespeare died, even went and created a whole new script unrelated to the Roman alphabet in order to get around the limitations of its character-set.)

Hart set about trying to reform English spelling to make writing reflect speech, not the other way around. He occasionally does lapse into what are clearly spelling-induced forms (as when he transcribes who as <huo>). But for the most part his transcription is not based on spelling-habits. It tries very hard not to be. Hart comments at length on variant pronunciations to be heard in his day — some of which he approves of and others which he resists. We know, for example, that his own English had the PEAL/PAIL merger of Sociolect 2 above. His phonetic transcription is full of evidence that the diphthongization of the vowel in PILE was in his English more advanced in some words than in others (Hart has /ti:tl̩, ɛksɛrsi:z/ for title, exercise but /tɛɪm, ɛɪ, lɛɪk/ for time, I, like). He disapprovingly mentions other speakers who have the diphthong in more words than than his idiolect does. He prefers not to say /ɛksɛrsɛɪz/ for exercise, although it is a word "which the common man, and many learned, do sound in the diphthongs." This kind of lexically determined variability is exactly what sound-changes in progress look like to somebody experiencing them in real time. He also gives a distinction between /ð/ and /θ/ which English spelling has never done. The man isn't making stuff up. Crystal knows this, and his reconstruction is perceptibly informed by Hart's transcriptions in several ways.

So it is quite perverse to assume that someone like Hart would have been so blinded by the traditional orthography — which he held in considerably less esteem than your 6th grade English teacher — as to transcribe the EARTH/DIRT/TURN vowels as separate if they were really fully merged in his speech. (In point of fact, they are not yet fully separate in a great many present-day regional Englishes.) Men like John Hart spoke and heard —more or less— what they said they did, and tried to transcribe it as best they could.

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."—Mark Twain
What there isn't evidence for is sometimes every bit as important as what there is evidence for. One example of this in Crystal's OP reconstruction will suffice. He reconstructs an /ɔ:/ for -aught and -ought words like wrought, sought, taught etc. Alright, fair enough. But consider what these words do and don't rhyme with. In Shakespeare, words of this kind only rhyme with each other (caught/thought, daughter/caught her etc.) and with a small handful of other words with a tautosyllabic consonant in the stressed syllable like oft/naught, after/daughter. A single passage in King Lear includes after/daughter/halter/caught her/slaughter as indubitable rhymes with each other. And there is a possible (but not certain) rhyme of slaughter'd/butcher'd in Richard III.  (Crystal gives forms for halter and after in which the F and L are optionally not pronounced. Which is plausible enough. But oft cannot be thus explained.) Now, Shakespeare rhymes things like note/pot, smote/not. But never once does he rhyme words like pot or note with -aught/-ought. The vowels /o:/ (which is the vowel of note in Crystal's OP) and /ɒ/ (the vowel of Crystal's pot) are less similar in every way than /o:/ and /ɔ:/. Why does Shakespeare rhyme note/pot without ever once using rhymes of the type caught/note caught/not? Assuming it isn't some freakish coincidence, the best explanation is that Crystal's OP has gotten some crucial feature of the -ught words quite wrong.
A corpus search of poets born before 1600 throws up not a single caught/not rhyme. Indeed Shakespeare's contemporaries are more likely to rhyme the -ught words in other ways, some of them rather peculiar. We occasionally find fault rhymed with thought, brought (Lady Wroth) and nought (John Davies). Spenser has water/daughter. Drayton has slaughter/laughter, wrought her/laughter (remember that in Shakespeare, laugh is rhymed with things like staff, and cough. We probably have dialect forms here of the same type implied by such early spellings as <dafter> for daughter.) But all this is rare. John Donne, who was no slouch about rough rhymes, has no confirmed instances of crossrhyming -ught with any other type of word. (A poem of doubtful attribution to Donne has fought/out.) For the most part, poets of Shakespeare's generation seem to want to keep the -ught words in their own rhyme class. It is largely in the following generation of poets that sporadic rhymes like thought/note (Edmund Waller) and naught/wrote (Sir John Denham) begin to show up.
There was clearly something about these words that made it hard or undesirable to cross-rhyme them with other types of words. It is possible that the pronunciation of words of this type varied in some quite drastic way among speakers. Some speakers probably still had the velar fricative of Middle English here, while others might have had idiolectally inconsistent realizations of /f/ after historical back-vowels, or no consonant at all. In any case, my suggestion would be that the vowel itself is not yet /ɔ:/ but rather a diphthong of some kind like /au/ or /ɒʊ/. I suspect the diphthong is to be found in most of the other words where Crystal reconstructs /ɔ:/, such as in awful, fault, cause.


On the matter of "eye-rhyme" (or rather approximate rhyme) Crystal cites George Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie where the author rails against inexact rhyming. From this, he infers, that "It is the ear, not the eye, that is the theme of sixteenth-century writers."

"It is the ear, not the eye" indeed. But two points emerge from this. First, the fact that George Puttenham rails against the "fowl faults" of the "bungler" who "falsifies his accent to serue his cadence" actually confirms — as Crystal admits — that inexact rhyme of whatever kind was in use as a poetic strategy and was widespread enough to annoy the likes of Puttenham. (In the earlier half of the sixteenth century, poets like Wyatt and Henry Howard employed all manner of approximate rhymes: am/man, sprites/likes, loud/rood etc.) One must not mistake prescription for description.

The second point is that "an agreeing sound in the last silabes" does necessarily imply complete identity of syllable nuclei. The common assumption that inexact rhyme is to be understood primarily as "eye-rhyme" is the result of centuries of print culture. "Eye-rhyme" is beside the point. The question is: how similar do the vowels have to be in order to be acceptable as ear-rhyme? A cross-linguistic and cross-cultural comparison of poetic rhyme traditions throughout the world and history will show that this is not simply a question of phonetic, or even phonological, fact. In German, höh/See and über/lieber are not considered inexact rhymes. In traditional Italian versification, /ɔ/ and /o/ on the one hand, and /ɛ/ and /e/ on the other, are permitted to interrhyme (otherwise Dante wouldn't be able to enjoy rhyming amore/cuore on a semi-regular basis.) Crystal goes on to discuss the cases of inexact rhymes that even his OP can't get rid of and finds that many of them are cases "where the phonetic distinction is so slight that the rhymes might well have been perceived to be identical" and in a footnote says that "most so-called half-rhymes in Shakespeare are in fact differentiated by a single distinctive feature." Well then, suppose that two vowels only differ in prosodic length?

Suppose they are the indeed quite similar but not for all speakers? You can get around problems like Shakespeare's waste/cast by positing an alternative pronunciation /wast/ for waste. But what is one to make of the fact that, whereas Shakespeare rarely uses rhymes of the type chat/gate, poets like Sidney and Donne feel free to use begat/hate, fat/adulterate, placed/cast?

What, on the other hand, is one to make of the fact that in some styles, he seems to want to keep the reflexes of Middle English /a:/ and of Middle English /ai/ distinct as rhymes? In A Lover's Complaint, (where came/aim/tame/maim/exclaim are meant to be rhymed ABABB) he seems to deliberately treat them as if they were separate rhymes in a single stanza. If these were merged in everybody's English in London at that point, then they must have been meant as "eye-rhymes" in some sense, a silent effect to be enjoyed by those familiar with older poetry. If they were still unmerged in the English of at least a few conservative speakers (as Alexander Gil's orthoepic transcriptions would suggest) then another peculiar effect may be implied.


To get back to my point, there are lots of ways to interpret often-ambiguous data. But the way Crystal is interpreting it in particular is so peculiar, so at odds with what even the sources he uses seem to think they're hearing (and with the findings of a good many historical phonologists), that it is hard to simply attribute this to a difference of scholarly opinion. Most or all of the questionable parts of Crystal's OP have something in common: they help push the language in a more "modern mainstream" direction than would otherwise be the case. I cannot shake the suspicion that Crystal is trying to manipulate his "OP" phonology into something that won't sound too off-puttingly weird to modern ears. The pre-rhotic vowels of the English varieties spoken in Shakespeare's London didn't behave like they do today. There are still more aspects of the vowel system that seem to have been unlike most modern Englishes, and which Crystal's OP effectively bleeds out in the same manner.

Maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare's English would indeed be a bit "more difficult for an audience to understand than any modern regional accent." But that wouldn't sell tickets, would it? And just what would it take to teach modern actors to reliably pronounce it in a reasonable amount of time? And what good would an OP-movement do if Shakespeare's phonology proved to be less congenial to us than his texts?

But I come to praise Crystal and not just to bury him. First though, some lexical quibbles.



For verdict: a form without the /k/ should be given. This 18th century form is unlikely to be recent.
For satire: a variant should be given with the same vowel as nature 
For fierce: a form /fɛ:rs/ should be given the same vowel as in pierce
For servile: a form /sɛrvɪl~sǝrvɪl/ with a non-tense vowel in the second syllable.
For inveigle: a variant in /ɪnve:gǝl/ (or in Crystal's transcription /ɪnvi:gǝl/) should be given with the SEA vowel
For spirit: alongside /spɪrt/ and /sprǝɪts/ a disyllabic variant /spɪrɪt/ should be given (As in "Which like two spirits [/spɪrɪts/] do suggest me still" vs. "The worser spirit [/spɪrt/] a woman coloured ill.")
For evil: alongside the etymologically expected /ɛvɪl/, the form with ME-lengthening /i:vǝl/ (attested from 1580 onward in Bullokar et al.) ancestral to the Modern English pronunciation should also be given.
For nephew: alongside the forms ending in /ju:/ the form /nevi/ should be given. This form, which surfaces in 18th century dictionaries, is a direct continuation of Old English nefa by way of Middle English nevi. 

Crystal's indication of word-stress in those words where the accent has changed since the 16th century is generally good and reliable. Of those that I have checked, he usually gives the original form correctly: revénue, siníster, délectable, útensil, pretéxt, illústrate etc.

The following accentuations, however, should be given but aren't:
— retínue as in "But óther of your ínsolent retínue..." (attested securely through to the 18th century)
— súccessor as in "chalks súccessors their way, nor call'd upon."
— turmóil (n)  as in "and there I'll rest as, after much turmóil."
(Crystal gives the verbal form turmóilèd, but túrmoil for the noun. The sole instance of the noun in Shakespeare suggests turmóil at the very least as a variant. A contrast between túrmoil as a noun and turmóil as a verb is attested from the 18th century on, but matters were earlier different.)

Now then


Our funerals are never really for the dead, but the consolation of the living. No matter that the living often believe otherwise as an article of faith. So too, no matter what rituals of literary piety we may perform to preserve the soul of Shakespeare's Tongue in an imagined eternity, a modern performance of Renaissance drama is ultimately not about the Renaissance. Nor should it be. Historical appreciation and literary appreciation are not necessarily the same thing.

Which is why it hardly matters that many of the features of "OP" probably post-date Shakespeare's death by a generation or more, that it turns out to be practically impossible to train an entire cast of Modern English-speaking actors within a reasonable amount of time to reliably reproduce a three-way contrast between peel/peal/pale, or even that so many OP performances continue to employ a typologically implausible phonology with the PEAL/PEEL vowels merged as /e:/, the PALE/PAIL vowels merged as /ɛ:/ yet with no /i:/ phoneme in sight at all.

Crystal's "OP" may be slightly mis-labeled, but it does bring "us" closer to the English of Shakespeare, if not all the way there. It resurrects puns on hour/whore, buy/boy etc. It makes a lot of Shakespeare's soundplay more aurally perceptible, if not always using the same phonemes he would have heard around him.

The primary value, justification and interest of the OP movement is not an accurate reproduction of late 16th century London English. Rather, it is the production of a new accent of Modern English that modern actors can be trained to pronounce, and that modern audiences can enjoy associating with Shakespeare. On this score, the modern OP movement has succeeded marvelously.

You may rightly wonder, then, why I don't just chill out and....

Image result for shh let people enjoy things

The answer is: because it's best for OP-proponents to be honest with themselves and others about what Crystalline OP is, and what it isn't, about what it does, what it doesn't do. The fetish of authenticity can only shortchange the accomplishment. Let OP shine for what it really is. You don't need to believe in Santa Clause to enjoy the magic of Christmas. Otherwise, assholes like me will just keep ruining the fun by calling attention to the man behind the curtain.

Now I've said all that, you may well ask: why then do I bother making recordings using reconstructions that aim for high-res accuracy?

Well, shit, why shouldn't I? It is fun and awesome. Do I need any more reason than that?

And, as audience responses suggest, Modern OP is also really fun. In fact, I see no reason why its use should be limited to the staging of Renaissance drama and the reading of Renaissance texts. Why not write new modern works, perhaps set during the Renaissance or reacting to Renaissance literature, to be performed in OP?

Here, let me try.

A Shakespearean Language Sonnet

Now doth my tung with Tyrant Tyme debate
In bloodie sport upon a ruined stage,
To second thy tired tongue, and lash the State
Whose centuries do beseige the famined page.
As ancient blades worne blunt in shocke with ages,
Thy lines which vaunted deathlesse at decay
Do fall with lesser moment in the pages
Turned by the powres which turne the world to-daye,
Unlesse thy voice unto my vice repare
And, steeld afresh, match Time with force which flows
In change unchanging, as this yeares fresh heire
Of last yeares rose still bears the sweet name Rose.
To keepe my word to thee, my wordes I break,
That though the tongue be mine, thy voice yet speake.

Can you spot the wordplay depending on 16th century semantics? How about the wordplay depending on OP? Here's a transcription into Crystalline OP to help:

nǝʊ dɔθ mɪ tɒŋg wɪθ tǝɪrǝnt tǝɪm dɪbɛ:t
ɪn blɤdǝɪ spɔ:ɹt ǝpɒn ǝ ru:ɪnd stɛ:dʒ
tǝ sɛkǝnd ðɪ tǝɪɹd tɒŋg ǝnd laʃ ðǝ stɛ:t
u:z sɛntrǝɪz du: bɪse:dʒ ðǝ famɪnd pɛ:dʒ
ǝz ɔ:nsɪǝnt blɛ:dz wɔ:ɹn blɤnt in ʃɔk wɪð ɛ:dʒǝz
ðǝɪ lǝɪnz ʍɪtʃ vɔ:ntǝd dɛθlǝs ǝt dɪkɛ:
du: fɑ:l wɪ lɛsǝɹ mɒmǝnt ɪn ðǝ pɛ:dʒǝz
tɐ:ɹnd bɪ ðǝ po:ɹs ðat tɐ:ɹn ðǝ wɒɹld tǝdɛ:
ɤnlɛs ðɪ vǝɪs ɤntu mǝɪ vǝɪs rɪpɛ:ɹ
ǝn sti:ld afrɛʃ matʃ tǝɪm wɪ fo:ɹs ʍɪtʃ flo:z
ɪn tʃɛ:ndʒ ɤntʃɛ:ndʒɪn ǝz ðɪs je:ɹz frɛʃ ɛ:ɹ
ǝ last je:ɹz ro:z stɪl bɛ:ɹz ðǝ swi:t nɛ:m ro:z.
tǝ ki:p mɪ wɔ:ɹd tǝ ði:, mɪ wɔ:ɹds ǝɪ bre:k
ðat ðo: ðǝ tɒŋg bɪ mǝɪn, ðǝɪ vǝɪs jɪt spe:k

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