Friday, May 29, 2009

Question from Michelle - Reconstructing accents

Hi. I realize this question is virtually impossible to answer being that there were obviously no recording devices 500 years ago :-) Nevertheless, I'm very curious if anyone has any idea or knows if there has ever been any work done (books/journals/papers) on what type of speaking accent the Tudors/Tudor-era British people would most likely have had? Clearly they used some different words/phrases and certainly different spellings, but is there any insight in to how they would have actually spoken? Would it be similar to any of the regional accents in the UK today? Thanks.


Zoe said...

I'm not sure if there's been any specific book written on this subject but it would be interesting to read up on this. My understanding is that people wrote phonetically, thus giving us our best clue as to the way they spoke and their regional accents.
For example, in 1605 the Monteagle letter which warning of the Gunpowder Plot spelled 'you' as 'yowe'. That letter was probably written by someone from the Midlands and Brummies tend to pronounce you as yowe.
A good way of guessing at the way people spoke is to look up a document or letter with the original spelling and read it aloud to yourself, taking note of all the extraneous Ts and Es. You'll sound very Chaucerian but it's a good exercise.
My own opinion is that people spoke in a rural accent, ie like the Westcountry or East Anglia accent of today. Those two areas still sound alike although geographically they're separate.

Kathy said...

When I was in graduate school getting my M.A. in English, we studied this in a linguistics class. There seem to be two schools of thought on this.

I remember the professor playing a tape of a speaker who was supposed to be speaking Elizabethan English and it sounded vaguely but distinctly Scottish to the class.

Since then, I know there has been some more research on it, and the consensus now seems to be that it sounded more as west contry England does now. It's hard to explain if you haven't heard it, but the character of Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies speaks with a west country accent.

Also, it's been hypothesized that tidewater Virginia and Appalachian accents in the US are much like Elizabethan English as they haven't changed much over the centuries because of isolation.

I'm not totally convinced by any of the arguments though. I think it's still very much up for debate.

PhD Historian said...

Fascinating question!

I do find a handful of published works on the changes in spoken English,

Charles Jones, English Pronounciation in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006);

Raymond Hickey, Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects (Cambridge University Press, 2004);

Gillis Kristensson, A Survey of Middle English Dialects, 1290-1350 in several volumes (Lund University Press, 2002).

But as you can see, none of these deal with the Tudor period. And the two books on dialects deal more with the written than the spoken word, from what I can tell.

I have encountered references in writings from the Tudor period that refer to persons from beyond the writer's area speaking with "foreign" accents, but the accent is never described.

I have to imagine that it would be exceedingly difficult to determine speaking accents when even the written word was rendered so inconsistently. Some have argued that different spellings of the same words reflect different accents, because spelling was largely phonetic in the 16th century. But at the same time, I've seen individual writers spell the same word several different ways, which would seem to negate the phonetics argument.

But I'm like you Michelle ... I'd love to know what spoken English sounded like in the 1500s.

Lucretia said...

Here's a site with links that relate to your questions:

You can click on the Shakespeare's Pronunciation section to hear how Cassius' speech from Julius Caesar and some of Falstaff's dialog would have sounded at the time they were written.

As the Renaissance Faire link notes, Elizabethan English was similar to the language still spoken in isolated areas of the Eastern US (i.e. Southern Appalachia, parts of New England) that were originally settled in the 17th century. The silent final "r" wasn't used in English until the 18th century. So in that respect Elizabethan pronunciation also sounds like modern-day Irish pronunciation,at least to me, and some of the vowel sounds seem similar to Lancashire pronunciation.

The study of the historical development of spoken language is called philology. The Wikipedia article on the topic seems reliable.

PhD Historian said...

Not to be too picky, Lucretia, but "philology" is not actually the study of spoken language in the sense of accents and such, though it is the study of the development of written language.

Philology: the study of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature.

Phonology: the science of speech sounds including especially the history and theory of sound changes in a language or in two or more related languages.

Tudorrose said...

The Tudor and Elizabethan language was deffinately different to the language spoke of the modern day.
Their speaking down to their writing was all different.
During the Renaissance and right up until the 19th centuary the english language was different.
I would say most people of the renaissance that lived in london spoke English and some probably spoke like countrymen and countrywomen.Dont forget the oldest part of london is outer london that was all that existed until the eighteenth centuary.Thats when outer london started to grow bigger and expand then you had what was called inner london.This being the more modern part of london.

Lucretia said...

Correction noted, PhD Historian.

Michelle said...

Thanks very much!

Foose said...

I had a question relating to accents and speech -- specifically, did Mary Queen of Scots, in dealing with English envoys, English captors, an English-speaking husband, speak English or "Scots" -- which appears to be a variant of English, but with enough vocabulary and syntax differences that English speakers might have found it difficult to follow? Is there any evidence that translators were required, or that she was instructed in formal English? I've always wondered -- film and TV representations range between the queen speaking a French-inflected standard English and the broad comedy of Blackadder's "Hoots, mon, waur's ma heid?" The Casket letters appear to be in a mixture of French and Scots, but I can't recall reports by English envoys on how she actually talked -- whether she addressed them in French, in Scots or in English.

Lucretia said...

In addition to the definition of philology cited by PhD Historian, I found the word used as a synonym for linguistics. (Other sources describe that use as old-fashioned, but the two below do not.)

From the American Anthropological Association

philology: the comparative study of human speech and literature, especially those aspects useful for understanding population movements and cross-cultural interactions in the past. See also linguistics and linguistic anthropology.

From Webster's New World College Dictionary

Philology definition (the second of 3)

2.linguistics: the science of language, including phonetics, PHONOLOGY, morphology, syntax, and semantics; sometimes subdivided into descriptive, historical, comparative, theoretical, and geographical linguistics; often general linguistics.

Diane said...

Back in 1986 there was a 9 part series on PBS called "The Story of English." It was about the development of the English language through the centuries. It won an Emmy award and was later used in college courses. It was made by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum and William Cran for the BBC. If you look up "The Story of English" you'll find information on the series and how to get it. There is also a companion book available.

Kathy said...

Michelle, I don't know if you are doing a project on this or not. If you (or anybody reading this) does happen to be doing one, check out something called the Great English Vowel Shift. I won't bother to describe it in detail except to say it is what changed Middle English into Modern English. The reason it happened still isn't known though I've read some theories on it. It didn't happen in any other Indo-European language, so it is fascinating to scholars.

Also Modern English is pretty much universally among scholars believed to have propogated from he London dialect of Middle English, with only a few words and tendencies creeping in from other dialects. For instance, the word vixen for a female fox came in from the Kentish dialect indicating a voiced v was more prevalent there than an unvoiced f was in the London dialect .

There's a lot of material out there. You just need to look for it. Unfortunately I don't think there is a general consensus among scholars of the period exactly what Elizabethan English sounded like though we would all love to know.

Iain Inkster said...

Audio reconstructions of Shakepear's accent.