Original pronunciation

Many people have written to me recommending a video by David and Ben Crystal on the “Original Pronunciation” (OP) of Shakespeare vs. the Received Standard pronunciation we’re become accustomed to in performances of the Bard of Avon.  Fascinating stuff, treated in a Language Log posting by David Beaver of 9/7/13: “Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)”.

Note that “Original Pronunciation” doesn’t mean the first there was, because that would take us back to Old English and Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European and beyond (insofar as we can imagine beyond). And the terminology is misleading because it suggests that there was only one pronunciation for the characters in the Shakespearean canon; there was unquestionably variation in the pronunciation of characters according to their place in society. But the OP label does highlight differences between current performance practices and the ones of Shakespeare’s time.

However, my point here is not to revive this discussion, but to note that one of my correspondents refers to the variety in question as ancient English, a label students of mine have often used for what is technically Early Modern English (not oven Old English). Well, it’s old, really old, so it must be ancient.

In the case of Shakespeare, we’re talking a few hundred years. Old English — this is a technical term — aka Anglo-Saxon goes back roughly a millennium. Ancient Greek (also a technical term) goes back even further. As NOAD2 has it, the adjective ancient denotes

belonging to the very distant past and no longer in existence: the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean.

Of course, this is a matter of perspective. From the point of view of some of my students, 1900 is unimaginably far back (my grandparents were young people then), and 1600 even more so.

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