July 29, 2005

Tudor linguistic homogeneity?

I'm used to the BBC's credulity towards outlandish scientific claims, but I thought their staff retained a certain amount of common sense in the humanities. However, there's an extraordinary historical howler in Joe Boyle's 9/19/2995 BBC News story on the Globe's "original accents" production of Troilus and Cressida. And it's not Boyle's suggestion that Shakespeare's dialect is "bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina", which I mentioned in an earlier post.

No, it's the unchallenged assertion by one of the actors that Tudor society was linguistically egalitarian, or at least uniform:

Philip Bird, who plays the Trojan king Hector (pronounced 'Ecter)... says the "earthy, gutsy, grounded" accent forces the actors to find different ways of portraying power and seniority.

"When you're asked to play someone who is powerful or of high status, you act class, you act posh -- but with this production it is not available because everyone spoke the same way 400 years ago."

Why does Nevalainen & Raumolin-Brunberg's Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England have chapters on “Gender”, “Social Stratification” and “Regional Variation”? Well, I don't have a copy of the book and haven't read it yet, but I expect that they include these chapters because they don't believe that in 1600 "everyone spoke the same way."

This belief is not an unexamined prejudice. The main empirical basis for their work is the The Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC), a digital corpus of personal letters written in English between 1410 and 1680 -- "more than 6000 letters written by nearly 800 individuals (2.7 million running words)". In addition to the corpus evidence, there's some contemporary meta-discussion, such as this in Puttenham's 1589 Arte of English Poesie:

I say not this but that in every shire of England there be gentlemen and others that speak, but specially write as good Southerne as we of Middlesex or Surrey do, but not the common people of every shire.

And even in London, is it plausible that the courtiers, the scholars, the merchants and the scullions all spoke the same way? In fact, Shakespeare himself mocks the kind of linguistic pretension that can only exist where there is social stratification and social anxiety. This is from Love's Labour Lost, IV.1:

Armado: Monsieur, do you not educate youth at the charge house on the top of the mountain?
Holofernes: I do, sans question.
Armado: Sir, it is the king's most sweet pleasure and affection, to congratulate the princess at her pavillion, in the posteriors of this day; which the rude multitude call the afternoon.
Holofernes: The posterior of the day, most generous sir, is liable, congruent, and measurable for the afternoon: the word is well cull'd, chose; sweet and apt, I do assure you, sir, I do assure.

And even a small amount of poking around in drama of the period, Shakespeare's and others, gives evidence of social stratification of pronunciation, morphology, word choice and syntax. Here's a small sample, from an anonymous 1639 masque The King and Queenes entertainement at Richmond. The speakers are Tom (a peasant) and Edward Sackville:

Tom hauing discouer'd M. Edward Sackvile standing neere the Queene, as looking on, calls to him.
Tom. O Mr Yedward: M. Yedward.  
M. Sa. How now Tom, whats the matter?
Tom. Good M. Yedward. Helpe mee to spoke with the Queene?
M. Sa. With the Queene Tom. why with the Queene.
Tom. Chaue a Presence for Her.
M. Sa. Thou doest not meane thine owne Tom. she can hardly see a worse.
Tom. Chaue a Million for her.
M. Sa. A Million Tom. that were a present for a Queene indeed. Let him come in, but who hast thou there to helpe thee to bring it?
Tom. Chad not thought you had bin zicke a voole M. Yedward, as if I were not soffocient to bring a Million my zell. Yes, though it were as big as a Pompeon.

This is a few years past Shakespeare's period, but the linguistic differentiation appears to be just the sort of thing that Puttenham wrote about in 1589.

Trying to guess where this strange idea of Tudor linguistic uniformity came from, I can only imagine that someone has become unhinged by learning that many of the shibboleths of today's "received pronunciation" are innovations since Shakespeare's time. As a result, the speech of a Shakespearean noble lacked some features considered essential to "posh" speech today, and included some features that would today be considered regional, lower class or otherwise substandard. So, since Shakespearean nobles did not uphold the standards of today's BBC English, they must have had no standards at all, right? and therefore they were like all those other people with no standards, and therefore everyone must have spoken alike, in a sort of state of nature, all linguistic rabble together.

Anyhow, David Crystal (the linguistic advisor to the Globe "original accent" production) knows more about all of this than I do, and I'm sure that the idea that "everyone spoke the same way" in Shakespeare's time didn't come from him. This leaves me uncertain about whether the quoted actor, Philip Bird, misunderstood something Crystal said, or went on his own through something like the line of reasoning I sketched above, or whether the journalist Joe Boyle made it up, either out of whole cloth or by misleading quote selection, or whether an editor intervened.

It's clear that the information in the quote is wrong. But despite the fact that it's in a quote attributed to a specific individual, in an article with a by-line, it's still not really clear who is responsible for the mistake: that old problem of attributional abduction again.

[Update: Richard Hershberger emailed to observe

It occurs to me that from an actor's perspective there is a kernel of truth. A production using modern pronunciation can also use stratification of modern accents. The audience knows viscerally what is upper class and what is lower class. This is unavailable in an original-pronunciation production. Even if they could affect the proper accents this wouldn't produce the same reaction in the audience. So perhaps there was some discussion of this, and something like "we can't use accents to distinguish between social classes" morphed in the mind of the actor into "they didn't have different accents back then". One of life's little mysteries is why actors are considered authorities on this sort of thing. Similarly, the Earl of Oxford-wrote-Shakespeare crowd uses actors agreeing with them as a talking point, as if this meant anything.

That makes at least as much sense as any other hypothesis I've come up with.

My beef, if I can use that word, is with the BBC editorial process. It seems to me that for anyone with a minimal knowledge of European history, Elizabethan drama and human nature, the statement that "everyone spoke the same way 400 years ago" ought to set the BS detectors chiming. And it's easy to check -- for example, Boyle interviewed David Crystal for the article, and could have called him again on this point -- or any one of dozens of other authorities who would have been happy to return a phone call from the BBC. Nor would this article would have lost its timeliness if delayed by a few hours, since the Globe's production of T & C doesn't even open until August. Based on the amount of preposterous crap that gets into BBC News stories, I've got to conclude that the culture there is simply not to care whether what they write is true or not, as long as it's interesting, strikes the right tone, and aligns with their editorial prejudices. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2005 09:16 AM