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The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare... in Kansas

How did Shakespeare's plays originally sound? Audiences at the University of Kansas will get to find out, with a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" entirely in the original pronunciation, the first time such a production has been staged in North America.

Here is the official announcement from the University of Kansas.

LAWRENCE — Like an archeologist reconstructing the fossilized skeleton of an ancient species, a University of Kansas theatre professor has pieced together the bones of a form of English that has never been heard in North America in modern times — the original pronunciation of Shakespeare.

Thanks to the work of Paul Meier, audiences can get a sense of what it might have been like to eavesdrop on opening night of “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” at the Globe Theater in London or to listen in on a shipboard conversation on the Mayflower as it approaches the shores of the New World.

“What did English sound like back then?” Meier said. “Was it posh or down to earth? Was it anything like today’s British or American English? Would we understand it?”

Meier is staging Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in November, and it will be the first time in North America that a Shakespeare production is being performed entirely in the original pronunciation. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11-13 and 19-20 and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 14 and 21, all on Stage Too! in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre.

In his 30-plus years as a teacher, director and dialect coach, Meier has researched dialects of languages from around the world and has been a movie dialect coach for such films as Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil,” Tim Robbins’ “Arlington Road” and Billy Baldwin’s “Elmer Gantry.” His love of and experience directing Shakespeare’s plays is the impetus behind the mounting of one of the greatest of the Bard’s comedies.

For the KU production, Meier has been collaborating with David Crystal, one of the greatest living authorities on original pronunciation. Crystal was the scholar tapped by Shakespeare’s Globe in London when that theater company mounted the first original pronunciation production in 2004. The author of more than 100 books on a wide range of linguistic topics, including the “Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” and “Pronouncing Shakespeare,” Crystal spent two weeks at KU in September, working with Meier and his cast.

So what will the KU audiences hear when they attend this production?

“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier said. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater.”

Meier said audiences will hear word play and rhymes that “haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595.”

“The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as ‘dialect fossils.’ And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries.”

Because the KU production will be only the fourth in the world, preceded by the two Globe productions and a production of “Julius Caesar” by John Barton at Cambridge in the 1950s, audiences may wonder why there have been so few original pronunciation productions. Crystal said it’s not because competence on the nature of early modern English is lacking, but that so few of the linguists who can demonstrate it with authority also have theater interests and credentials.

“Theaters might well have a desire to put on original pronunciation productions, but without Crystal and a dialect coach like myself, who has implemented his designs, there is an almost total lack of qualified personnel,” Meier said.

“Original costume, dance, staging and music have been staged repeatedly, but not in the original pronunciation,” he said. “To restore the lost rhymes, the lost wordplay, is exciting. To hear how much more swiftly the actors of 1600 would have delivered the text is another hugely important insight. To hear the words free from the baggage that attaches to contemporary dialects is likewise exciting and illuminating.”

After the stage production closes, the cast will spend several days in the recording studios at Kansas Public Radio, creating a radio drama production, complete with music and sound effects, to ensure that the performance is available to everyone through radio broadcast, netcasts and CD. KPR’s Darrell Brogdon, a veteran radio-drama director, will direct the production in collaboration with Meier.

Provided by the University of Kansas.


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Wednesday October 27th 2010, 2:06 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
It was my impression that the dialect in the mountains of Tennesee, Kentucky (Appalachia country included) was 16th century English, or remnants of it.

I can't remember if it was West Virginia or Kentucky, but one of those sends out (or sent out) a little booklet detailing the expressions that have passed down. Perhaps it is the pronunciation in those areas that has changed.

I loved the article!
Wednesday October 27th 2010, 2:21 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: Here's what Sally Thomason said about the "Elizabethan English in Appalachia" myth on Language Log in 2005:

The myth that pure Elizabethan English, as in Shakespearean English, is spoken in Appalachia lives on: I just heard it from a folklorist on NPR, who reported that isolated English settlers in Appalachia maintained Shakespeare's English -- an example, he claimed, of the nonchanging periphery of the spread of a tale or language variety, vs. its alteration in the place it came from, in this case Merrie Olde (16th-century) England.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There are said to be features of Shakespeare's English that are preserved in Appalachian English but not in Standard English; but they would be noticeable only because they have vanished from Standard English. The many features of Shakespeare's English that remain in Standard English are not noticeable: they're just ordinary -- though they are of course what makes it possible for American high-schoolers to read Shakespeare today. I bet Appalachian English has lost some Shakespearean linguistic traits that Standard English has retained, too. Differential retention of inherited linguistic features is one thing that characterizes divergent dialects of the same language. It's not a surprise, and it's not evidence of super-archaicness in any dialect.
Wednesday October 27th 2010, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Ben! I sort of thought you'd have the explanation! What I'd understood is that the isolation of these settlements allowed for the retention of English as it was spoken when people settled there.

Something similar has happened in Canada, with Quebec French. Many of the constructions, there and, I should add, among the Acadians, are not found or understood readily, in contempary continental French.

At least that's what my late husband always told me.

I'll be able to get a proper explanation of that from one of his colleagues within the next few days.
Wednesday October 27th 2010, 8:31 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jane: On Language Log a few years ago, I talked about the similar notion that French as spoken in Maine somehow resembles the language of Louis XIV. I warned against viewing Franco-Mainers as "living linguistic fossils who could chat amiably with Molière":
As with the Appalachian case, retentions from le français classique specific to the Maine dialect are only noticeable because they have dropped out of Standard French usage, while retentions in the standard dialect pass by unnoticed precisely because they are still standard.
Sunday October 31st 2010, 7:58 AM
Comment by: Susan D.
"Like an archeologist reconstructing the fossilized skeleton of an ancient species...."
But there are no bones, no recordings, no physical record of that earlier pronunciation. So how do you reconstruct from written language the spoken language?
Sunday October 31st 2010, 2:06 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
I am enjoyed the dialect. It is a first time for me that i listen Shakespeare in English, and for good reason!!!
Thank you so much indeed, i would like a lot of dialect to listen. Pronunciation is very good for me.
Thank you .
Friday December 10th 2010, 8:27 PM
Comment by: MARIE B. (VALLA BEACH Australia)
I with I were learned enough to enter this argument with a counter-argument, but I would like to say thankyou for adding to my knowledge. I am 87 years of age and hope to continue to learn and learn for a long time yet. It is harder now to read because of sight and a slight lessening of concentration - articles and stories like this are mana from Heaven. I am hoping to have the opportunity to watch the movie(especially as a lont-time fan of Ge offrey Rush (and Colin Firth - shades of Pride & Prejudice).

I pass this web-site information to all I can as it has opened up a new world for me. Always have I had a Rogets Thersaurus beside my computer but this is so much more fun.

Again thank you.
Friday December 10th 2010, 10:14 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Welcome, Marie, and you needed worry about presenting any arguments to a discussion. Your observations are fine, and much appreciated. Just enjoy... And it will happen.
Saturday February 19th 2011, 7:26 AM
Comment by: Chocoholic (New Delhi India)
Helena and Lysander switched from the American to Scottish accents in the performance. I could actually feel the change in their pronunciations. Did Shakespearean plays actually sound like that? I really want to know exactly how Paul Meier found this out. I like listening to and observing and imitating different accents!

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