Revitalising the Sound of Shakespearean English

23/05/2016 12:25 | Updated 23 May 2016

Judge a book by its cover, always.

A picturesque jacket enveloping a creamy hardback, with publication details in turquoise type, a yellow woven bookmark, the crisp white pages turning with a perfect swish...


In view of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death this year, The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation has arguably been the most anticipated book of 2016 for Shakespeare lovers, readers, actors, directors, and scholars. After over ten years of massive research, David Crystal has furnished a dictionary of paramount significance to Applied Linguistics, Historical Linguistics, Lexicography, theatre and Shakespeare studies - one to be shelved next to the iconic Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shakespeare studies are flourishing today as ever before. While it seems (usually to people outside the specialist field) everything has been said already, there is always a possibility for an intriguing new dimension in Shakespeare. Indeed, as with any work of genius. One of the latest breakthroughs in Shakespeare scholarship has been the revitalisation of the interest in Early Modern Pronunciation. And David Crystal has been a pioneer in rekindling a fresh fascination with the Original Pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare's time, which has culminated in this beautiful, impressive dictionary.

There is already plenty of auditory material in OP we can access through Crystal's Original Pronunciation website but the dictionary itself comes with a slip with information on personal access to the special online sound files resource on the OUP platform.

The book consists of Crystal's introductory text and the dictionary itself, extending over 600 pages. In the introduction, Crystal lays out the conventions in the dictionary format, gives important background of the research process and the making of the dictionary as well as a historical overview of OP. Crystal expands on the historical attempts to revive OP, which, among others, involved many regarded academics of the time, particularly Daniel Jones, Randolph Quirk and A.C. Gimson at UCL.

The author writes that the inspiration for the dictionary came from the Globe production of Romeo and Juliet in OP in 2004, the experience of which Crystal relates in his book Pronouncing Shakespeare: the Globe Experiment. Several other OP productions followed as the interest and excitement grew, including A Midsummer Night's Dream at Kansas University, Hamlet at the University of Nevada, Pericles in Stockholm, As You Like It at Bangor University, and later Macbeth and Henry V back at the Globe. Moreover, the interest to capture OP has spread beyond Shakespeare, with King James Bible among the texts which have been sounded in OP. And this very month, Crystal is involved with the OP readings of Henslowe's Diary and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare's Globe. The OP beat goes on.

Crystal answers the immediate question in the minds of many of us - How do we know? He derives his techniques from previous research as well as his own fresh examination of the evidence which is of four main types - spellings, rhymes, puns, and observations by contemporary writers. He also highlights the pragmatic possibilities of OP through wordplay or phonaesthetic effects as well as the character choices, and the sociolinguistic and stylistic factors.

"One of the most important things to appreciate about OP is that the range of accents it generated lacked a single prestige variety such as we encounter in present-day RP. RP was an accent that developed at the end of the eighteenth century - a class accent contrived to allow the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the way people from other classes talked. ... No such accent existed in Shakespeare's day. ... The only way you could show, through the way you talked, that you were a member of the educated elite was to use special vocabulary or grammar."

The most remarkable effect of OP on stage is probably the way it endears the audience. Crystal writes of audience members identifying the accent as close to their own, while coming from all sorts of places.

"... people always hear echoes of other accents in OP, and Irish is one of the commonest impressions, though only a few of the features of OP have a direct correspondence with modern Irish accents. However, reactions of this kind have been heard every time OP has since been presented, right down to the present day."

Crystal broadly uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for the transcriptions of words which sound different from RP, and he clearly illustrates it in the introduction. It is very easy and anyone who has learned English as a second or foreign language or used a monolingual or bilingual English dictionary, would, of course, take the transcription part for granted. The presentation of the entries is comfortable to the eye, inviting long hours of magical journey through the sounds of the past.