Voices of Earlier English: H.P. Lovecraft's Only Good Poem

An attempt to give an idea of what Lovecraft's reading voice and accent might have been like, using the few contemporary descriptions of Lovecraft's speech, as well as his social background, his upbringing, his linguistic self-conceptions, and the regional dialect history of American English. A few things are all but certain, such as the fact that his speech would have been non-rhotic, would have the TRAP-BATH vowel split, would have diphthong raising, would have had non-velarized pre-vocalic /l/, and a couple dozen other features. Others are more tenuous.

The Messenger (p. 1929)
By H. P. Lovecraft

To Bertrand K. Hart, Esq.

The thing, he said, would come that night at three
From the old churchyard on the hill below;
But crouching by an oak fire’s wholesome glow,
I tried to tell myself it could not be.
Surely, I mused, it was a pleasantry
Devised by one who did not truly know
The Elder Sign, bequeathed from long ago,
That sets the fumbling forms of darkness free.

He had not meant it—no—but still I lit
Another lamp as starry Leo climbed
Out of the Seekonk, and a steeple chimed
Three—and the firelight faded, bit by bit.
Then at the door that cautious rattling came—
And the mad truth devoured me like a flame!

Voices of Earlier English: Sidney's "Leave Me O Love"

Conservative courtly aristocratic English accent, ca. late 1570s

"Leave Me O Love"
By Sir Philip Sidney

Leaue, me, O loue which reachest but to dust,
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things.
Grow rich in that which neuer taketh rust;
Whateuer fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beames, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedomes be;
Which breakes the clowdes, and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and giue us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth drawes out to death,
And thinke how euill becommeth him to slide,
Who seeketh heau’n, and comes of heau’nly breath.
Then farewell world; thy vttermost I see:
Eternall Loue, maintaine thy life in me.

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 the views put forth by Roger Lass in the Cambridge History of the English Languageand 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 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 merges and raises 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 English literary norm through most of the rest of the century, but has begun to give way to the vowels of Sociolect 1 by the beginning of the next. 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. But instead even if it was /ɪnsti:d/ for Sidney and Hart 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 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 OP...is 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 Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation 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 over time 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 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.) 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 Dick Leith 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: Modern English-speaking actors cannot reliably be taught to pronounce three different vowel-heights for PEEL/PEAL/PALE within a reasonable amount of time. So you have to make things simpler for them. This is completely understandable. But I see no reason not to be honest about that.
The second problem is that 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 late in the 17th century, at the earliest. 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 rhymes with each other. (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? 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. Other poets of the period do have very occasional caught/note type rhymes, but it's exceedingly rare. A corpus search of the major Elizabethan poets throws up not a single caught/not rhyme. Indeed Shakespeare's contemporaries are more likely rhyme the -ught words in other rather curious ways. Spenser has water/daughter. Drayton has slaughter/laughter, wrought her/laughter. But 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 seem to want to keep the -ught words in their own rhyme class. And -augh/-ought is a very common rhyme-ending as long as you're rhyming two or more such words with each other. There was clearly something about these words that makes it hard or undesirable to cross-rhyme words in -ought/aught 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 might still have had a velar fricative here, while others had idiolectally inconsistent realizations of /f/ 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 some of the features of "OP" are only attested half a century after Shakespeare's death, 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

Voices of Earlier English: William Blake's Chimney Sweeper

This one is much more intricately speculative. It is a performance inspired by philological imagination, not just the result of looking at data. But it felt right to do this with this poet and this text in particular.

Late 18th century non-standard London English. Non-rhotic. The speaker is accustomed to reciting in a more standard fashion. But his attitude toward the topic of the text, combined with his own linguistic background, is triggering uneven phonological input from the dialect of the city's working poor, which is his native vernacular. (H-dropping, whine/wine merger, innovative diphthongizations, /ł/ vocalization, fluctuating line/loin merger, sporadic opening of initial /v/ to [ʋ].)

The Chimney Sweeper (p. 1789)
By William Blake

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry " 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!"
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved, so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.


William Blake came from rather humble roots. He had little formal education and was largely taught self-taught with his mother's encouragement and help.

There is a scattering of work containing speculations about Blake's dialect of English, such as G. E. Bentley Jr's Blake's Pronunciation, as well as the relevant chapters of Margaret Anne Hood's Voice of Song: A Prosodic and Phonological Approach to William Blake. Unfortunately it is all quite inept work that fetishizes rhyme in unacceptable ways. Hood and Bentley naively assume that rhyming practice always reflects somebody's living speech. This assumption may be valid for certain genres in certain contexts, like Elizabethan theater or, to a degree, the Sanqu verse of the Yuan Dynasty. But it is not some universal. It was certainly not true for Blake, whose rhyme aesthetic was acquired from reading older literature. The rhymes of Shakespeare and Milton were available to him regardless of whether they remained (or ever were) exact rhymes with identical syllabic nuclei. Blake's rhymes of the type symmetry/eye rely on literary precedent, not living speech, and are not a reflection of "cockney" anymore than E. A. Poe's melody/eye. It hardly matters that such rhymes had not been aurally perceptible for well over a century. Many of Blake's other rhymes like halter/water, for which Shakespeare's verse offers an exact precedent, need not reflect anything to do with pronunciation. Rhymes of the type scorn/dawn are proof only that Blake was influenced by non-rhotic pronunciation, which is a trivial point since non-rhotic rhymes are increasingly common in Southern English poets from the 1770s onwards.

The inexact rhymes of his verse are for the most part not out of keeping with the versification norms of 18th century English. There are only a handful (breathes/sheaves is the best candidate) that might be construed as betraying dialect phonology. But Blake's use of rhymes with neither phonetic identity nor literary precedent, such as milk/suck means that something else might be going on. Blake did not in any sense write "in dialect." He wrote the literary English that he acquired by voracious autodidactic reading, possibly with very occasional unorthodox rhymes inspired by his vernacular. The common characterizations of him as a "Cockney poet" are inaccurate and unhelpful.

But the question of what kind of accent he spoke with, and what kind of accents he read verse aloud in, is worth asking though it cannot be definitively answered. He associated for a lot of his life with people who would have spoken what had by then become the "vulgar" sociolect of the London working poor. His mother, judging by her one surviving sample of writing, seems to have spoken it or something similar. And no boarding school had ever beaten him into presentability, phonological or otherwise.

For most of the history of Modern English, non-standard London speech was simply a non-standard dialect like any other. In the mid 18th century, amid the class insecurities precipitated by increased social mobility, an obsession with propriety and gentility in language (as in all other things) led to the diabolization and widespread caricature of the speech of London's working poor. If Blake was in the habit of giving recitations, he would have usually tried to do so in a quasi-standard accent, at least with some audiences. But with other audiences, he would have let more elements of the lower sociolect emerge. In situations like that, it's not uncommon for the two target varieties to operate simultaneously in competition with one another, with the speaker veering between the two. 

Voices of Earlier English: Chaucer to his Purse

Conservative London accent ca. 1400

To His Purse
Geoffrey Chaucer (b. 1343, London)

To yow, my purse, and to noon other wight
 Complayne I, for ye be my lady dere.
 I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
 For certes but yf ye make me hevy chere,
 Me were as leef be layd upon my bere;
 For which unto your mercy thus I crye,
 Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye.

 Now voucheth sauf this day or hyt be nyght
 That I of yow the blisful soun may here
Or see your colour lyk the sonne bryght
 That of yelownesse hadde never pere.
 Ye be my lyf, ye be myn hertes stere.
 Quene of comfort and of good companye,
 Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moot I dye.

 Now purse that ben to me my lyves lyght
 And saveour as doun in this world here,
 Out of this toune helpe me thurgh your myght,
 Syn that ye wole nat ben my tresorere;
 For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I pray unto your curtesye,
 Beth hevy agen, or elles moot I dye.

 O conquerour of Brutes Albyon,
 Which that by lyne and free eleccion
 Been verray kyng, this song to yow I sende,
 And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
 Have mynde upon my supplicacion.

Voices of Earlier English: Edgar Allan Poe on Annabel Lee

Mid-19th century cultivated older southern coastal accent. Non-rhotic.

Annabel Lee (written in 1849)
By Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
⁠In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
⁠By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
⁠Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
⁠In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
⁠I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
⁠Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
⁠In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
⁠My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
⁠And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
⁠In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
⁠Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
⁠In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
⁠Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
⁠Of those who were older than we—
⁠Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in heaven above,
⁠Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
⁠Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
⁠Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
⁠Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
⁠In the sepulchre there by the sea,
⁠In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Voices of Earlier English: Marvell to his Coy Mistress

Mid-to-late seventeenth century educated London pronunciation. Marvell was born in Yorkshire, but attended Trinity College, Cambridge when he was thirteen years old.

To His Coy Mistress (Written c. 1650)
By Andrew Marvell (b. 1621)

Had we but World enough, and Time,
This coyness Lady were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long Loves Day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges side
Should'st Rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood:
And you should if you please refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than Empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should grow to praise
Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze.
Two hundred to adore each Breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An Age at least to every part,
And the last Age should show your Heart.
For Lady you desarve this State;
Nor would I love at lower rate.

   But at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My echoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv'd Virginity:
And you quaint Honour turns to dust;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

   Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning dew
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow'r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Through the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Voices of Earlier English: Thomas Wyatt on the Execution of Anne Boleyn

On the 17th of May, in 1536, from his prison window in the Bell Tower, Sir Thomas Wyatt witnessed the executions of George Boleyn, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton. Two days later he was to witness the execution of his Queen and friend, Anne Boleyn. He wrote this poem on the horror of it. "Circa Regna Tonat" is Latin for "It thunders about the throne."

Reading with a moderately conservative, aristocratic early 16th century courtly London accent.

Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei
Thomas Wyatt (b. 1503)

Who lyst his welthe and eas Retayne,
Hym selffe let hym vnknowne contayne;
Presse not to ffast in at that gatte
Wher the Retorne standes by desdayne:
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

The hye montaynis ar blastyd oft,
When the lowe vaylye ys myld and soft;
Ffortune with helthe stondis at debate;
The ffall ys grevous ffrome Aloffte:
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These blodye dayes haue brok my hart;
My lust, my youth dyd then departe,
And blynd desyre of astate;
Who hastis to clyme sekes to reuerte:
Of truthe, circa Regna tonat.

The bell towre showed me suche syght
That in my hed stekys day and nyght;
Ther dyd I lerne out of a grate,
Ffor all vauore, glory or myght,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proffe, I say, ther dyd I lerne,
Wyt helpythe not deffence to yerne,
Of innocence to pled or prate;
Ber low, therffor, geve god the sterne,
Ffor sure, circa Regna tonat.

Philological notes:

Like other Renaissance poets, Wyatt could and did use different pronunciations of the same word to make rhyme that would have been impossible for a writer restricting himself to one dialect, or with the misfortune to be born in a more phonologically stable era with a more dialectally hidebound literary language.

Middle English /a:/ — Wyatt's English had not raised the a of name. For him, rhymes such as sake/lack, haste/fast, face/pass (i.e. sa:k/lak, ha:st/fast, fa:s/pas) were acceptable, and the important distinction was primarily of length. Wyatt commonly interrhymes historical /a:/ or /a/ with each other. Very rarely does he rhyme either of them with anything higher as he does in cast/rest/best, suggesting that such raising was not the norm for his target variety of EnglishRhymes such as wrest/haste indicate only that wrest had a different vowel in his dialect than in the one which yielded the modern standard form of the word. (The manuscript in Wyatt's own hand has wrast which is what one would expect from Mercian Old English wrǣstan <- Proto-Germanic *wraistijaną, like last from OE lǣstan <- PGmc. *laistijaną. The standard pronunciation of the related word "wrestle" was "wrassle" until the 18th century when a spelling-pronunciation took effect.)
In this poem, the vowel of GRATE rhymes with Latin tonat, which would be very unlikely if this vowel had moved very farIn 1536 in cultivated courtly speech, it cannot have been any higher than [æ:] at the very most, and was probably lower than that. Italians, Germans and French-speakers continue for another fifty years or so to equate this vowel with the A of their own languages, and the orthoepist John Hart writing later in the middle of the century describes this vowel as distinctly a-like. I decided to aim for the articulatory range of cardinal [a:], allowing for somewhat higher variants, but never lower ones.

Middle English /ixt/ — I decided to give the "innovative" form of words like sight, night, might without the velar-palatal fricative. Thus /sɛit/ rather than /sɛixt/ for sight. Englishes with /sɛixt~sixt/ and with /sɛit/ coexisted in London for the entirety of the century, and probably coexisted in the individual speech of many people. Speakers with the fricatives (in some but not all such words) seem to have continued to exist into the 1600s. But throughout this period, rhymes like sight/quite, right/white are admissible in poetry. They are used in great profusion by Wyatt's younger, and very courtly, contemporary Henry Howard of Surrey.
Wyatt usually keeps etymological /ixt/ and etymological /i:t/ separate. Cross-rhymes between them are not common in his work. There are a handful: e.g. white/brightsprites/nights and right/quite. But Wyatt also didn't mind inexact rhymes (e.g. man/am) and one could argue that these are instances of such. (The same stanza that rhymes sprites/nights also rhymes both of these with strikes.)
He does commonly rhyme words of the night type with delight (<- MidEng. delite). But this word in particular seems to have have acquired an alternate folk-etymologized pronunciation /dɪlɛɪxt/ based on Latin dilectus. Compare the modern pronunciations of interdict, edict, verdict, perfect ending in /kt/. This is an etymologizing pronunciation which, under the influence of more recent loans like predict, has replaced the earlier pronunciations which had no /k/ sound. (MidEng perfet, enterdite, edite, verdite.) The pronunciation of verdict as verditt survived into the mid-18th century. Today the only remaining relic of the older state of affairs are the pronunciation of indict, and words like respite where the Latin etymology didn't wind up bleeding into the standard orthography.
All in all, Wyatt himself may well have pronounced /sɛixt/ /nɛixt/ etc. But many (very possibly most) of his contemporaries, including some at Henry's Court, definitely did not. On balance, it seemed the innovative form was both a safe choice and completely justifiable.

/ɛi ɔu/ for MIND and MOUND — These are the sounds that orthoepists throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth century actually describe. The common view that they must have begun as centralized /ǝi ǝu/ is misguided. An exact parallel to the diphthongization of Middle English /i:/ -> /ɛi/ is provided by Dutch. Middle Dutch /i:/ (written <ij>) shifted directly to /eɪ~ɛi/ in the Early Modern period without any centralization stage. Extending the analogy, some modern Dutch speakers have now begun to shift /ɛi ɔu/ to /ai au/.

In any case, as Roger Lass puts it:
Claims for early centralisation are not based on the orthoepic record; they are purely theoretical, based on assumptions about the nature of sound change, considerations of economy and simplicity, etc. It’s proper (even necessary) to use theoretical argument when harder evidence is lacking, or as a guide to interpretation...but not when it forces one to disregard harder and safer evidence...Crucially, no orthoepist before Hodges (1644) reports anything interpretable as a central vowel in the relevant positions; most report something quite different. If we disregard our good early sources on this issue, it’s hard to justify our faith in them on others. And indeed, writers who have a problem with early [ei, ou], etc. generally have other axes to grind (e.g. Kökeritz wants a ‘modern’-sounding Shakespeare). Without very good grounds indeed, it is dangerous to assume mass ineptitude on the part of virtually all primary sources in just those cases where their descriptions fail to harmonise with a preconceived view.
To this I would add that Hodges is also the first to describe stressed centralized unrounded vowels in words like us, son. The rise of a centralized vowel as a semi-distinct phoneme seems to come hand in hand with the first description of diphthongs with a centralized onset.

There is some additional evidence for an early modern realization of /ɔu/ for ME /u:/ that has not yet been integrated into discussions of Early Modern English Phonology. The first English poem written by a Welshman is Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdal's (1436 - 1470) ode to the Blessed Virgin. It is in Welsh metrical forms, and is transcribed more or less phonetically into Middle Welsh graphemes. Ieuan's transcription <ei> for ME /i:/ is ambiguous, but his <ow> for ME /u:/ is telling. 

Sound Change in Prɔgress

In my English, water and daughter are not exact rhymes. I have /wɑtɚ/ and /dɔtɚ/ with a rounded vowel in the latter but not the former. The thing is, I didn’t REALIZE they were inexact rhymes until I thought about it. I am so used to seeing them used as rhymes in poetry that I didn’t even notice the actual difference in the vowel nuclei. And I am someone who pays an obsessive amount of attention to speech sounds.

Lesson for historical phonologists and philologists: words don’t have to have identical vowels to be considered and experienced as full rhymes. The question of what is and isn’t a good rhyme, just like the question of what isn’t and isn’t metrical language, is a matter of what is in your head and not just what is in your mouth. And there is a good deal more in your head than how you actually talk.

Now, /wɑtɚ/ is the form for people who have the cot-caught merger. I don't have that merger. I distinguish cot/caught, body/bawdy and other such minimal pairs as kɑt/kɔt, bɑdi/bɔdi. But my pronunciation of "water" seems to have been taken over from speakers who do have the merger. Ditto my pronunciation of "walk" (which I merge with "wok") but not of "talk" (which I have distinct from "tock").

This is what sound-change in progress looks like in real time. Variation in individual lexical items. Until it is complete, a sound-change in progress will appear lexically determined: more common in some lexical items than others. A sound change does not usually instantaneously occur in all terms in which it is possible. It begins in some words and spreads gradually. My English is in the very early stages of the cot-caught merger.

The change may stop before it is completed, and fail to affect all lexical items. English has a lot of cases of such "arrested development." The three different vowels in modern English flood, good and mood (from Old English flōd, gōd, mōd) are the result of successive sound changes that failed to affect all possible lexical items. Some time in the early sixteenth century, they were all three /flu:d gu:d mu:d/. Then a shortening hit flood and turned it into /flʊd/ but didn't hit good or mood. In the seventeenth century, after /ʊ/ was unrounded to /ʌ/ and turned /flʊd/ into /flʌd/, the change hit  good and turned it into /gʊd/ which was now distinct from flood /flʌd/. But it never spread to mood. 

Voices of Earlier English: Shakespeare's Sonnet 116

My reading aims at a somewhat cultivated accent of the 1590s. Picture, if you will, a young Ben Jonson getting his hands on a manuscript copy and reading it aloud.


Let me not to the marriage of true mindes
Admit impediments, love is not love
Which alters when it alteration findes,
Or bends with the remouer to remoue.
O no, it is an ever fixed marke
That lookes on tempests and is neuer shaken;
It is the star to euery wandring barke,
Whose worths unknowne, although his higth be taken.
Lou's not Times foole, though rosie lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickles compasse come,
Loue alters not with his breefe houres and weekes,
But beares it out euen to the edge of doome:
   If this be error and upon me proued,
   I neuer writ, nor no man euer loued.

Voices of Earlier English: Benjamin Franklin Declares Independence

Benjamin Franklin, in creating his phonetic alphabet in the 1760s, left us a reasonably good description of his pronunciation of 18th century New England English. So just for kicks, here's me reading the opening of the American Declaration of Independence in a reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin's own pronunciation:

NOT at all what modern Americans would imagine a Founding Father sounding like

Note the following:

The lack of allophonic variation for the historical short /a/. — Franklin seems to have an English that raised short /a/ to [æ] in the 16th century without ever lowering it again to /a~ɑ/ before /r/ in the 18th. With the same vowel in hand /hænd/ as in large /læːrdʒ/. It is quite possible that Franklin is unduly influenced by traditional English spelling there, but transcribing are as if it were /ɛr/ if anything suggests the opposite of lowering. This would make sense as a kind of relic of English-speakers who left Southern England for America some time in the 1600s. The first witnesses to the lowering of pre-rhotic /æː/ date to the middle of the 18th century. It is unambiguously attested by Mather Flint in the prestige speech of the 1740s. Franklin's un-lowered /æ/ would be a generation or two behind schedule, but would probably not have been negatively evaluated by Londoners. John Walker's pronunciation dictionary in 1791 suggests indirectly that there were varieties of standard English that resisted this lowering.

The quality of /r/. — Franklin's actual description of the sound can only be an alveolar trill or tap. But was it a tap/trill everywhere? Given that he uses art as a keyword for this sound, where the /r/ is in coda-position, it's certainly possible. But a trill with more approximant allophones in coda position would be in keeping with other descriptions of upper class English in the early part of the century. Mather Flint in the 1740s equates the English R with the French R (which was at that time a trill) and mentions that it is more weakly pronounced at the ends of syllables. Franklin's description of his speech is at the very least consistent with the self-perceptions of a speaker who had a trilled /r/ in initial position, but an approximant [ɹ] in coda.

The vowels /o: e: i: u:/ are still clear vowels with no diphthongization. An extremely conservative value /ɛ:/ instead of /e:/ would also be consistent with Franklin's description, but contemporaries describe this lexical set quite unambiguously in terms of French close E, and there is no reason to think Franklin was at odds with Londoners on this point.

The vowels of SOUND and MIND have a more centralized starting point /ǝʊ~ɔʊ/ /ǝi/.

Franklin seems not to be sensitive to any distinction between the vowels of food and good. This is disconcerting to historians of the language, but the distribution of /u: ʌ ʊ/ had not yet fully stabilized. There appears to have been a good deal of variation in these lexical sets among different speakers. Franklin for his part seems to treat /u: ʊ/ as interchangeable, while having a separate symbol only for /ʌ/. 

The Uneducated Arab

In the debates on language issues in the Arab world, and in the teaching of Arabic as a second language, the prototypical speaker most constantly referenced is the "Educated Arab." One serially encounters discussions of the views, needs, and practices of the educated Arab in articles, scholarly books and language textbooks. But tens of millions of adult Arabs — disproportionately women — are completely illiterate. Illiteracy rates in the Arab world are much higher than in many poorer countries.

So what about the uneducated Arab? When uneducated Arabs are discussed in relation to language, the claim is often (and increasingly) made that they still "understand" Literary Arabic — at least in its spoken form — even if they cannot speak it or write it. The claim is supported generally by reference to the popularity of TV programs, particularly news broadcasts and documentaries, that are mostly or completely in Literary Arabic, or which include educated codeswitching between Literary and Colloquial Arabic. Thus even without education, the claim goes, everyone understands the language. But no empirical study has yet examined this claim.

Understanding and knowledge of a language are difficult issues to investigate. Language that everyone understands is not necessarily language that everyone understands equally well, or understands completely. And a listener's — or reader's — subjective impression of how much they understand is not to be naively equated with how much they actually do understand.

My experience and observation suggests that when a listener or reader believes that what they are reading or hearing is (in one or another sense) "their own" language, this is precisely when they are liable not to notice that they don't understand something. Widely divergent registers or historical varieties of what is sociolinguistically felt to be a single language are one such circumstance.

A highly educated modern Chinese, when reading a classical Chinese text, may be quite prone to comprehension errors which they have a hard time recognizing or acknowledging as such. They may get offended if a non-Chinese points them out.
Educated English-speakers routinely overestimate their degree of comprehension of Shakespeare. Presented with evidence of how commonly even relatively simple passages from Shakespeare are misunderstood, the speaker frequently asserts that *they* just happen to be especially familiar with Shakespearean language. When presented with evidence of their own miscomprehension of a passage, they may insist such errors are trivial. But they are exactly the kind that advanced adult learners make.
In my experience, educated Arabs confronted with archaic or rarified Classical Arabic of the kind found in Pre-Islamic or Medieval poetry have the same kinds of issues. At least a bit. They don't always know when they don't know.

But in none of these cases is the language incomprehensible. Elizabethan English does not sound like gibberish to any Modern English speaker. It's just that our comprehension is partial depending on the text. When we listen to a reading of a straightforward narrative passage from the King James Bible, all we miss is a bit of nuance here and there, if that. When watching a Shakespearean performance, we miss a lot more than that, but can still follow what's going on easily enough and figure out for the most part what the characters are telling each other. Even if it often requires more effort from us than we realize.

It seems to me very possible that something like this happens when illiterate Arabs listen to an Al-Jazeera broadcast. But nobody has bothered to investigate the matter.

For much of history and in most of the world, diglossia in a literate society has probably been more common than its absence. It offers communicative benefits and advantages that are often overlooked by people from homoglossic societies such as those of Modern Europe. Calls for its abolition in the Arab world in the mid 20th century proved unnecessary and increasingly absurd. It is not an insurmountable barrier to modernity, or for that matter to mass-literacy. Just as the extraordinarily difficult orthography of Japanese has not stopped modern Japan from achieving the highest literacy rate in the world.

But diglossia does have a cost. Just as maintaining the Japanese mixed orthography comes at a cost of most Japanese children not knowing enough kanji to read a newspaper until highschool.

Comprehension of Literary Arabic is clearly more widespread now than it ever has been. There is every sign that it will continue to increase. Even uneducated or semi-literate Arabs clearly do develop strategies to extract a lot of meaningful content from television programs, newspaper articles and Friday sermons. But one ought not to make assumptions about how much effort this requires, or the completeness of comprehension achieved. I wouldn't be surprised if these strategies turned out to be not all that different in practice from the coping mechanisms which adult learners of a foreign language develop long before they attain full reading or listening comprehension.

The Chinese Language as a Medium for Poetry: Why No Sound for a Zhīyīn?

The divine lord Shùn said "Kuí! I ordain you to preside over music, to teach our princes to be upright yet amicable, tolerant, yet reverent; that they be firm yet not cruel; straightforward, yet not arrogant. The lyrics express true aims; singing draws forth that expression; the mode of musical accompaniment attunes the sounds, so that the eight timbres harmonize, none encroaching on the other, so Gods and Humans are brought into concord." Kuí said "I strike and stroke the sounding stones. The sundry creatures dance together." 帝曰:「夔!命汝典樂,教冑子,直而溫,寬而栗,剛而無虐,簡而無傲。詩言志,歌永言,聲依永,律和聲。八音克諧,無相奪倫,神人以和。」夔曰:「於!予擊石拊石,百獸率舞。」
—The Classic of History, Canon of Shùn.

After Qí and Liáng, the true sound ebbed away — as people sought no more the ancient ways. Yet we who stir up those flagging waves may be wiser than the modernists.當齊、梁之後,正聲浸微,人不逮古,振頹波者,或賢於今論矣
— Jiǎorán's Shīyì

From his [Fenollosa's] lecture on the Chinese Character, I took what seemed to me most needed, omitting the passages re: sound
—Ezra Pound

Of course, the living sound of poetry is a crucial part of its expressiveness. It is really astonishing that so few Western students of traditional Chinese poetry write much about its aural aesthetics
—David Branner, “Tonal Prosody in Chinese Parallel Prose”

Long, long ago in another century, something weird happened to the translation of Chinese poetry. That something was a someone named Ezra Pound. I will not maunder on about Pound's ignorance of Chinese, the dishonesty of his representation of Fenollosa's writings, or what semantic gulfs separate his versions in Cathay from the Chinese. These have been treated by hands more capable than mine, and whose background in Chinese stands in the same relationship to mine as mine does to Pound's. And I will leave aside Pound’s translation of the Shijing, as it is his Cathay which has been more influential in setting the tone — or rather atonality — for Chinese verse in English.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet (1996) is quite different - flagrantly and flippantly so - from how many have learned to appreciate Shakespeare, but it presents Shakespeare in a way that is rewarding and intelligently conceived. It is in an obvious sense "untrue" to Shakespeare, though arguably no more so than the linguistic and cultural remove of a modern English-speaker pouring over a leaden-footnoted and mercifully begloss'd Norton Shakespeare in the comfort of a freshman dorm that falls far short of the indecorum and rowdiness of an Elizabethan theater. More importantly, it is true to something of what Luhrmann saw in Shakespeare.

Likewise, though I might call Cathay untrue to the Chinese texts it purports to represent (even if it is not quite so untrue as Sinologists have wanted to claim, so long as one expands one's criteria beyond the strictly philological) it is quite true to Pound, to his vision of what English ought to be made to do. The English works it contains, and much of the tradition of Chinese poetry in English from Pound onward, are among the many important voices of Chinese literature in translation, and one of China's great contributions to western literature. In that tradition, some of the twentieth century's most skilled poets, few of them fools and not all ignorant of Chinese, have produced works where several generations have found what they didn't know they were in need of. As with human beings so too with human texts, there is little sense in stigmatizing an uncertain paternity. Bastardization is no more a moral failing than being born a bastard.

Whether a translation succeeds or not is a question of what it manages to do in the target language, whether it manages to successfully convey whatever it was that made the source text worth translating in the first place. Pound found something he needed (by means however questionable) in Chinese literature, and conveyed his findings to English-readers in a way that resonated to great effect. It would be churlish to say he was unsuccessful.

But Anglophone translation of traditional Chinese poetry has now gorged itself on an aesthetics based in part on willful misunderstanding, and could really stand to lose a few excess Pounds by getting out on its prosodic feet more. Too often has a poundcake of English, cooked up by off-brand clones of Gary Snyder, been swallowed down as transparent proxy for all that matters in Chinese poetry. As Sue Gouderen reminds us in On Translating the Sonnets of Pierre Menard: “in taking the creative translator to be a mere transmitter, one is ever liable to take sheer invention for mere quotation.”

In reading traditional Chinese poetry, coming to it as I do against the background of a study of Chinese historical phonology and a grounding more in Russian than in Anglophone modernism, I find something a bit different. I find a world of sound, artists with an intimate relationship to the word as the intersection of sound and sense. There is Lǐ Bái whose shifting rhyme patterns in a ballad mirror and enhance a shift in mood. There is Liǔ Zōngyuán whose “Goshawk Song” uses a heavy concentration of harsh clipped-tone words to evoke the bolting and barreling and thrashing of the bird, punctuated by level tone sequences where the bird soars at ease. There is Sīmǎ Xiāngrú whose rhapsodic verse makes dense use of onomatopoeia, whooshing and whisking and sloshing and slashing its way through passage on passage.

Contrary to what even some recent learner's manuals may lead one to believe, traditional Chinese poetry is not - as a rule - merely for reader's or the mind's eye. Within China itself at least, it was never merely a "visual object", as one pedagogue put it. While it’s quite true that written language is not merely a copy of speech, it is equally true that when traditional Chinese literary critics discuss poetry and poetic word-choice, they have always done so in terms of sound and sense. Not character shape. Aestheticizing character-shape as a component of poetic word choice is associated with the reception of Chinese poetry outside of China, particularly in Japan and among the Westerners who acquired their understanding of Chinese via Japanese intermediaries. It would be nonsense to suggest that the writing-based aesthetic is any less legitimate simply for being non-Chinese, but it will not do to pretend.

There is a lot of testimony about the importance of poetic sound in the circumstances of reception throughout Chinese literary history. So much so, in fact, that I am impressed by the masterful inability of many an Anglo-American Sinologist to treat sound-patterning in Chinese verse in anything but schematic terms as dry as the driest Cabernet Sauvignon; that level of unconcern is not easy to maintain. The passage from the Classic of History quoted at the beginning of this screed was to become a focal point of traditional discussions of poetry in later times. We know that all sorts of poems, contemporary and not, were performed and sung during the Hàn dynasty as a matter of course. Many Hàn genres developed in the context of court performance, and such poems sometimes have long passages which may appear monotonous and repetitive to the reader but make perfect sense in the context of a performance art, and are at times abrim with sound-play which can now only be accessed via phonological reconstruction. Later, new lyrics would continue to be written for pre-existing tunes. Thanks to Meow Goh’s Sound and Sight: Poetry and Courtier Culture in the Yongming Era (483-493) English speakers now even have available to them an interesting account of the obsessive and creative concern with sound-play that occupied the poets of the Chinese “late Middle Ages.” Even during the Táng, when composition in erstwhile performative genres became bureaucratized as a requirement for the civil service examination, poems were often chanted and the prosodic and rhyme requirements which grew up around the more prestigious genres bespeak great concern with the sound of literary language. There is much about the poetry of the high Táng which only makes full sense if one also knows that many poems were composed with a sung or chanted delivery in mind. Later still, whole new genres which became popular during the Sòng and Yuán were drawn from popular song and operatic performance, with new lyrics composed once again to fit existing melodies.

When English-reading Chinese people express dismay at English translators’ neglect of versification, rhyme and sound-patterning in Táng poetry, the Anglo-American response may be something along the lines of “you just don’t get how English poetry works.” The abysmal and unreadably wretched (though rhymed) English versions of traditional Chinese poetry produced by the likes of Xǔ Yuānchōng are reason enough to believe that there is truth in this.. But to leave it at that is to dismiss as unimportant the question of why literate Chinese even today find rhyme and ordered rhythm in Táng poetry to be so crucial to its experience.

By way of aside: what is one to make of the fact that translators do this not only with medieval, but also early modern Chinese verse? While Chinese poetry in the 21st century is very rarely rhymed, that of the early 20th was a festival of prosodic and rhyme experiments. Yet the great poets of China’s Republican period have been, with very rare exceptions, translated into English as free and prosodically unconcerned verse. The irony lies in how willfully disconnected this is from what the poets themselves were trying to do. Back before the red deluge of Maoist doggerel ruined formal verse in modern Chinese so thoroughly that only aging eccentrics like Zhèng Mǐn have the will to do it anymore, great poets like Biàn Zhīlín, Wén Yīduō, Féng Zhì, Guō Mòruò and many others devoted immense amounts of attention and polemic to hashing out experimental principles for proper formal versecraft in Modern Chinese. They even made a point of how important rhyme and rhythm were in translating rhymed and metrical verse from Western languages. Afterward, Western translators made a point of ignoring their concerns. Only one translator of Féng Zhì’s sonnets into English has rendered (some of) them into anything other than loose free verse. Others keep only the 4+4+3+3 spacing as a visual echo of the erstwhile form. It is a pity for Féng Zhì, who so admired Rilke's brilliant formal translations of Valéry and Labé, and looked to them as a model for how to translate foreign verse into Chinese. Biàn Zhīlín has fared little better, for all that he even expounded in essays on how his contemporary translators into Chinese were too unconcerned with poetic form. And what, I wonder, would Wén Yīduō think of the many translations of his poem “Deadwater” done by people who see fit to ignore the metrical technique which made that poem famous in the first place? Here the translator hasn’t the excuse of temporal and cultural distance. This wasn’t some court clique in 15th century France, rhyming because that's just What One Does.

There are form-conscious English translations — good ones — of Rilke, Valéry, Petrarch, Mallarmé, Pascoli and Stefan George.

What makes Biàn Zhīlín, Wén Yīduō or Guō Mòruò any less deserving?


And not one thing makes Dù Fǔ, Lǐ Bái, Lǐ Qīngzhào or Zhū Shūzhēn any less deserving than they.

When so many English-speaking translators, critics and theorists — when pressed — will happily hold anything and everything except prosody and sound-patterning to be important in translating or understanding a poetry whose creators and native critics conceived of it in terms of sound-aesthetics, this is not an oversight. Less still is it hypocrisy. It is an ideology, the mindset of one who simply needs certain things to pass for true in order for the world to make sense. Anglo-American critics in the second half of the 20th century, after all, did read pre-modern English verse in much the same way, treating rhyme as mere flourish or mnemonic ornament, and disregarding matters of versification even while discussing the well-measured strophes of Keats or Shelley, or Frost for that matter. (Whereas Roman Jakobson, raised in a very different modernist avant-garde tradition, developed his concept of “poetic function” mainly from study of sound-patterns and prosodic forms.) It was Anglo-American poetic ideology that allowed theorists to maintain that free verse is theoretically the more daring, innovative and liberating despite having become as normative as anything imaginable in practice by the end of the 20th century, and despite the fact that rhymeless and meterless poetry is literally as old as Babylon. For the same reason, the modernist departure from prosodic norms heralded by Pound and Eliot has been often treated as analogous to political liberty, with continued metrical composition in the manner of Edna St. Vincent Millay taken for a sign of conservatism. Never mind that Eliot was a throne-and-altar conservative, Pound a full-blown fascist, and Millay an incorrigible libertine and feminist activist.

Without grasping the intimate association between poetry and music throughout much of the Chinese tradition, appreciation of the former is unduly limited. I don’t mean that all pre-modern Chinese poetry at all times was performed to music, or meant to be sung, but rather that Chinese poetry sprung from a musical aesthetic with which it remained in contact, however varied, throughout what is badly termed the medieval period. In this, literate Chinese civilization during the first millennium and into the second was not so different from some other societies traditionally more familiar to English-speaking readers, such as that of Ancient Greece, with its ethic and culture of μουσική or “Musecraft.” With Classical Chinese as with Classical Greek, the legacy of ancient music calls for hearing - rather than merely apprehending - in more ways than one. Even (and perhaps especially) when the texts are consigned to the undead Lethe of philology.

A good friend of Chinese poetry ought to be, at least some of the time, a 知音.