Amid all the hullabaloo about the body of Richard III being discovered underneath a parking lot, an important issue has been ignored: what did he sound like? Fortunately, Dr Philip Shaw of the University of Leicester provides a sort of answer in a university press release (passed on to me by the excellent AJP):

In a University of Leicester podcast interview, Dr Philip Shaw from the School of English discusses how Richard III may have sounded in his own lifetime. […]
Dr Shaw […] said: “I found that Richard III’s spellings are relatively consistent, and in many ways reflect the same educated spelling practices employed by his secretaries. However, he also differs from the practice of his secretaries occasionally, and such quirks may provide clues to how he spoke.
“Like today, there were various dialects (with different features of accent and grammar) around the country. Unlike today, individuals were more likely to spell words in ways that reflected their local dialect. Therefore, by looking at Richard’s writing, I was able to pinpoint spellings that may provide some clues to his accent.

It’s a fun listen.


  1. Non-rhotic Rs. That’s just Dr Shaw rather than necessarily Richard, I’m guessing.

  2. And the woman who interviews Dr. Shaw? Is that a Midlands accent? I have to say I find her accent a bit grating.

  3. Is that a Midlands accent?
    Doesn’t sound much like one to me, East or West Midlands. I’m a Midlander.

  4. And the woman who interviews Dr. Shaw? Is that a Midlands accent?
    I believe she’s from Cambridge originally.

  5. “I have to say I find her accent a bit grating.” I found it worse than that.

  6. Trond Engen says

    If he’d been rhotic he’d have been Doctor Shore.
    A grating accent is a feature of gutter speech.

  7. Trond Engen says

    It follows that Richard himself may have acquired a grating accent during his years in the parking lot. And a piping voice.

  8. It has to be said: he was a sub par king.
    About the nonrhotic, I offer this ancient joke.
    “Do you know the Shaws?”
    “What Shaws, old boy?”
    “I don’t mind if I do: double whisky, please.”

  9. At around 2:30 we hear “… ascertain us of your news. Here, …” But I first heard that as “… ascertain us of your nose, hair …”
    When Shaw is speaking Richardly, he’s plenty rhotic, except perhaps in “pertain”. In Richard’s day, all English was rhotic, with the exception of the “early loss of R” that gives us bass (the fish) < OE bærs, moss-trooper (found in the marshes, not the mosses), palsy < paralysis, and American ass < arse along with many other American examples surviving and archaic.

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I lived 16 years in Birmingham, and I heard nothing (or almost nothing) that suggested Birmingham to me. If I’d heard the recording without any introduction or explanation I would have been reminded of other recordings I’ve heard of how English is reckoned to have been pronounced at that time.
    I agree with those who found the interviewer’s accent very unattractive, but that way of speaking is becoming more and more common.

  11. In Richard’s day, all English was rhotic
    Thanks, John. i thought that was the case.
    that way of speaking is becoming more and more common.
    Isn’t it “Estuary” or “Essex”? Unlike everyone else. I don’t find it ugly (esp. compared to Birmingham).

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Yes, I think it’s estuary English. And no, it’s not uglier than Birmingham (which would be difficult).

  13. It never occurs to me to call people’s accents ugly or beautiful, perhaps because I see them as “natural objects” in Primo Levi’s sense:

    Some people hate spiders because they are “ugly and hairy”. [Discussion of hairiness omitted.] As for ugliness, there does not exist a more ambiguous and debated term: it would be wise to confine its use to man’s works. There are no ugly natural objects, nor animals, plants, stones, or waters, and even less are there ugly stars in the sky. We have been taught to call ugly (“ugly beast”) certain animals considered harmful, but their natural ugliness ends there.

    “On Arachnophobia”, from Other People’s Trades
    An accent, it seems to me, is not a “work of man” in the relevant sense. We do not choose our birth accents, nor are they designed by anybody to be either pleasing or displeasing. They are just there, as plain as a fart and as inevitable as death.

  14. It depends whether you think that beauty & ugliness are absolutes, which I don’t, I think people’s perception changes over time. On the other hand, I’d never dream of calling an animal or spider ugly, that would be a losing pot & kettle argument, coming from a human.
    Many people in the British Isles find a Birmingham accent ugly, many in Germany find a Saxon accent ugly, many in Norway find a Bergen accent ugly. I agree it’s not very politically correct, but it’s a fact.

  15. i was told once by my japanese coworkers that my mongolian sounds beautiful like french, i was like why french, i am sure they didnt mean anything double meaning, just the sounds i make speaking sounded to them like that
    or my mom once said when my younger sister was repeating her french lessons’ homework at home, it sounds like kazakh, i was like how so, seems like so too different sounding languages, or another example, when i was flying home, the person sitting next to me on the plane a young chinese student met his classmate who came to sit next to him to talk a little and her chinese sounded so different what i thought the chinese language should sound like, without any much stressed up and downs, very flat and musically sounding, so i mean judging the languages and dialects ugly or otherwise is very subjective i guess
    korean always sounds to me as if like too hard and harsh sounding, it’s something like german of asia i guess, it also reflects just my experience with the people i met, how i perceive the language, thinking of facts, i mean

  16. Doe’s it matter what his speech was like. The important thing is Richard III was the last THE last English King. And the last King to die in battle.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Doe’s it matter what his speech was like.

    That’s what we’re interested in on this blog?

    The important thing is Richard III was the last THE last English King.

    I burp in your general direction.

  18. Richard was of course not English at all; he was a frenchified Viking barbarian, the last of that lot to sit on the English throne. The last unimpeachably English king was Athelred Unræd ‘Ill-counseled’, who reigned from 978 to 1016, unless you want to count his son Edmund Isenhealf ‘Ironside’, who held a contested throne against the Danes for six months in 1016.
    After Richard’s day, of course, we have had the Welsh, Scots, and German dynasties: not an Englishman or Englishwoman among them. England has been a conquered country for a long time, and so has Wales, and if Scotland was never conquered, it was certainly subdued for centuries.

  19. Actually, it’s kind of sexist to call the current lot German. The Hanovers are descendants of Mary Stuart, who was as English as her Stuart forebears i.e. through James I’s mother. I don’t think even the British National party, or whatever it is the Blackshorts call themselves these days, would buy the idea that Richard III was the last English king.
    Ideally Hilary Mantel would now become queen but I don’t want to distract her from writing.

  20. She’s a Catholic, though lapsed, and as such ineligible. Perhaps, however, she would think that Westminster is worth a Mass.

  21. She should become queen and start beheading people. I think “Bloody Hilary” has a ring to it.

  22. She should become queen and start beheading people. I think “Bloody Hilary” has a ring to it.

    This reminds me of a story I saw years ago in The Onion where Bill Clinton publicly rebukes Hillary Clinton for failing to produce a male heir. It quotes him as saying something like, “Hilary, I rebuke you and your infertile womb!”.

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