July 24, 2005

Shakespeare as a Tarheel, Ajax as a privy

According to a BBC News article by Joe Boyle (7/19/2005),

In August the [Globe] theatre will stage an "original production" of Troilus and Cressida -- with the actors performing the lines as close to the 16th century pronunciations as possible.

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended.

Boyle quotes the actors as saying that

their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire -- yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

You can listen to Colin Hurley, who plays Thersites in this production, reading a few lines in a BBC Radio 4 interview. I've created a URL for just the relevant bit of the BBC RealAudio stream here, and a local clip here in .wav format. The lines that Hurley reads are a collage of fragments from Act 2, Scene 1, where Thersites is cursing Ajax (if you want to see Thersites' lines in context, the play's etext is here):

The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!

... Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows ...

... scurvy lord!

I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had the scratching of thee; I would make thee the loathsomest scab in Greece.

I can't say that I've ever heard anyone from North Carolina who sounds like this. I'm skeptical of the view that this passage will be "completely intelligible" to North Carolinians, or indeed any more intelligible to them than to any of the rest of us. I suspect that this is a variant of the "In the Appalachians they speak like Shakespeare" myth (see myth #9 in this collection, for example), filtered through Boyle's somewhat fuzzy concept of American geography (there's a bit of Appalachia in the west of North Carolina, but most of the state's population lives in the lowland regions).

If you'd like some more, here is Philip Bird reciting an abridged version of Hector's speech from Act IV, Scene 5, first in a modern pronunciation and then in the reconstructed Tudor pronunciation.

You can hear the whole BBC Radio 4 interview here, including a nice exchange with David Crystal, who is the linguistic advisor to the production. Here's a (slightly edited) transcript of what Prof. Crystal has to say in that interview about reconstructing 16th-century pronunciations:

BBC: David Crystal, how accurate can we be in trying to recreate the sound of Shakespeare's English, do you think?

David Crystal: Well, I think we can be about 80% accurate, on the whole. I mean, there are three important sources of evidence for this. One is, as Colin says, the sounds of the puns and the jokes that are in there.

BBC: So you work it out backwards, by saying "here's the joke", therefore this is what it must have sounded like.

David Crystal: That's right. And then the second piece of evidence is the spellings that are in the quarto and folio texts, which actually tell you sometimes how it's pronounced. But the third and the most important piece of evidence is that at the time, there were a group of guys there, phoneticians, "orthoepists" they were called, who actually wrote, in great detail, about how the sounds of English were pronounced. So how do we know that there was that "err" sound after the vowels? Because people like Ben Johnson tell us. They tell us there's a "doggy sound" -- think "grrr", you see -- after the vowels of Elizabethan English.

One of the recovered jokes is Thersites' implication to Achilles that Ajax (= "a jakes" in Shakespeare's pronuncation) is beshitting himself in fear of Hector:

THERSITES. A wonder!
THERSITES. Ajax goes up and down the field asking for himself.

I wonder how David Crystal's "phonetic scripts", which the actors have been rehearsing from, were expressed. Are actors at the Globe, like opera singers, expected to know IPA? If so, I'll add this to the press kit for the Language Log IPA PR campaign.

[Update: Ben Sadock writes

I think I can shed some light on the slightly cryptic comment about "original pronunciation" Shakespeare being intellegible to North Carolinians. It's not an incarnation of the 'Elizabethan English in the Appalachians' myth; I suspect it actually has to do with the backed/raised /ay/ vowel the actors are using, which is thought to be typical both of the Lumbee ethnolect of Robeson County NC and of the dialect of Ocracoke Island NC.

Ben is talking about a pronunciation that is sometimes caricatured in orthographic approximation as "toid" for tide. This would explain the geography, though the linguistics and the demography are still silly. For one thing, this is one small (and not very confusing) vowel feature among many -- folks from Ocracoke don't say "grace" for Greece, and so on. For another thing, Ocracoke and Lumbee speakers can't be as much as a tenth of a percent of the population of the state of North Carolina. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 24, 2005 08:08 AM