David Crystal is a linguist with a wide variety of interests, including Shakespeare—his website Shakespeare’s Words is “the online version of the best-selling glossary and language companion.” He has also devoted himself to the practice of “original pronunciation,” the attempt to perform works written in older forms of English more or less as they originally sounded, and as his blog recently announced, he has launched an Original Pronunciation website:

This site is devoted to the production or performance of works from earlier periods of English spoken in original pronunciation (OP) – that is, in an accent that would have been in use at the time.
The present-day movement to perform works in OP began in 2004, when David Crystal collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe in an OP production of Romeo and Juliet. This was so successful that the following year the Globe mounted a production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. Subsequent interest from American enthusiasts led to OP Shakespeare events in New York, Virginia, and Kansas, ranging from evenings of extracts to full productions. As only a handful of works have so far been performed in OP, interest is growing worldwide to explore the insights that the approach can provide.
I’m sure there must be other OP initiatives around the world, and until now there has been no place where they can be brought together. The time thus seems right to provide a website where people can find out about OP, archive their events, announce plans, and share their experiences of working with it and listening to it.

I approve, and would love to see such a performance. (To head off a possible objection: no, I don’t think all, or even very many, productions should attempt this—it would have to be done well to work, and there’s not that much expertise available. Besides, performances in modern pronunciation are perfectly fine, and doubtless communicate better to most audiences. But I’m glad the alternative is out there.)


  1. It can even work in translation. We once saw a production of The Servant of Two Masters translated into Scots/Scots English of the mid-18th century -Servant of Twa Maisters.

  2. There was a wonderful outdoor production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Shakespeae Garden (planted with flora named in the plays) in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, many years ago now.
    The mortals spoke English while the fairies spoke French. It was magic.
    (The English was modern pronunciation, the French translations fo Shakespeare are all in relatively modern French).

  3. Are there any extant French 16-17C translations of Shakespeare?
    There’s a similar idea, a lovely Shakespeare Garden, in Central Park.

  4. No, nothing until the Anglomania of Voltaire’s time. He isn’t mentioned at all in print until 1685. Louis XIV did have a folio, so its marginal note is maybe technically the first written mention.

  5. Jonson, on the other hand, had French fans.

  6. Like this?

  7. There’s a great bit in the TV series Playing Shakespeare (from the early 80s but now on DVD) where the director John Barton gives a speech from Henry V in OP, including the names of the French aristocrats as the Elizabethans would have pronounced them (it makes the Dauphin/Dolphin joke more intelligible).
    I’ve also heard some “historically informed”/period instrument ensembles using OP in songs by Dowland, Byrd et al. To my ears, it sounds “purer”, almost as if the singers were from the Orkneys, if that makes sense.

  8. Is there in fact a consensus as to what “original pronunciation” was? Roger Lass, who taught me phonetics, maintains that Modern English sound changes happened quite late and that Shakespeare in original pronunciation would be unintelligible.

  9. Jonson, on the other hand, had French fans.
    …and French detractors. I think Jonson (or “Janson”) is the only English author Saint-Amant mentions in his “burlesque” poetic dissing of the “rosbifs”, Albion (1644).
    Saint-Amant knows the English are smart enough to realise their stupid language (son sot baragoin) is not for export and will never achieve international currency:
    Il [i.e. England] est bien assez matois
    Pour juger que ce patois
    Bourru, vilain et frivole
    Est un oyseau qui ne vole
    Qu’aux environs de ses tois.

    Nevertheless, they have the nerve to boast about their authors:
    Il a neanmoins l’audace
    De vanter ses rimailleurs;
    A son goust ils sont meilleurs
    Que Vergile et Horace.
    Seneque au prix d’un Janson
    Pour la force et pour le son
    N’est qu’un poete insipide,
    Et le fameux Euripide
    N’a ny grace ny façon.

    Bon Dieu! Quelle impertinence! Of course, I doubt Saint-Amant knew enough English to judge the merits of Jonson. According to my edition of Saint-Amant, no one quite knows why he reacted so explosively to his trip to England in 1643 when he had praised the country as a demi-paradise in 1631. He certainly didn’t like the Roundheads, got robbed once, had a bad experience with a barber and got shoved in the street by some yobs who called him a French-dogue. He should have come back at them with “Your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries.”
    (I’m a rosbif, but I like Saint-Amant. In any case, we got even by sending the French an even more curmudgeonly traveller of our own, Tobias Smollett, in the 18th century).

  10. M., thank you very much for those links; I’ll get the English one, I think. I didn’t think Voltaire was all that keen on Shakespeare (though you didn’t say he was).

  11. A nice site. I really enjoy Crystal’s recitations in OP; I blogged last year about the Shakespeare productions in OP he was involved with, though unfortunately I didn’t see either of them. I had been watching with great enjoyment the DVD of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Benjamin Lazar and Le Poeme harmonique, done in a reconstructed 17th century pronunciation. From all I could tell, that was a much more original and thoroughgoing reconception than anything attempted in the Globe productions, where OP seemed to be a lonely token element of “authenticity” in what sounded like a typical postmodern hodgepodge. But maybe someone who actually saw them would say otherwise.
    Early musicians have learned, belatedly, that the only way to make this kind of “reconstruction” compelling is to play to a modern audience’s imagination, even if that amounts to “cheating” a bit. I remember in Ben Bagby’s performance of Beowulf in Old English (which luckily I WAS able to see) how he delivered the line “þæt wæs god cyning!” (that was a good king) with an intonation that made it perfectly comprehensible to everyone.

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