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"Spayk the speech oy prithee": dialects of Shakespeare's England and the American South.

In their 1986 television series, The Story of English, Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum, and William Cran make reference to the belief that a dialect of Elizabethan England survives in the Appalachian Mountains. While they refute this notion (countering that the Appalachian dialect is Scots-Irish in origin), they contend that dialects in Eastern seaboard communities from Chesapeake Bay to the Carolinas have evolved relatively slowly since the time of the English settlers of the Stuart era. Longtime director and teacher with the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton, who is interviewed in The Story of English, says in his 1985 television series Playing Shakespeare that the American accent is closer to the Elizabethan accent than current British Received Pronunciation. These two claims and Assistant Professor Alexander Harrington's work with Southern students on speeches from Shakespeare's plays prompted the formation of a research group consisting of Professor Harrington and a number of students. The group conducted research on early modern English and dialects of the Southeastern United States.

In the Playing Shakespeare program and his book based on it, Barton points out that the "i" in "time" is a diphthong and that Elizabethans pronounced it so that the two constituents were perceptible to the ear. (1) Later in the book, he spells Shakespeare's pronunciation of the word as "Tay-eme."

The contemporary English long "i" in "time" is a diphthong--rendered by linguist Helge Kokeritz as [ai]. In his book, Shakespeare's Pronunciation, Kokeritz holds that the diphthong was subtly different in early modern English. According to Kokeritz, in early modern English (from approximately the late fifteenth century to the seventeenth century), the first constituent of the diphthong was either the [^] of "cut" or the [e] of the second syllable of "better." He renders the diphthong as [ei]. (2) This sound is somewhere between the contemporary English long "i" and the [ai] in "boy" and "coin." As evidence of this, Kokeritz points to the rhymes die: joy: annoy, exploit: right (1 Henry VI, 2.3.4), groin: swine (Hamlet, 3.3.24); the puns bile: boil (Twelfth Night, 2.5.2-4), fine: foin (Comedy of Errors, 2.2.73), vice: voice (Cymbeline, 2.3.33); the spelling of "smile" as "smoile" in the Folio version and "smoyle" in the Quarto version of King Lear, "voyage" as "viage" (Hamlet, 3.3.24), "employ" spelled "imply" in the quarto of 2 Henry IV, 4.2.24; and "imply" and "employ" listed as homonyms by orthographers Hodges (1643) and Cooper (1685). (3)

Barton focuses on the "i" in the word "time" because of the importance of the concept of time in Shakespeare's plays. While he does not spend as much time (or Tay-eme) on other sounds, he does recite seven lines of the Act 4 chorus from Henry V and reproduces five lines in the book. In the book, Barton phonetically spells "now.... ne-ow." The contemporary English diphthong in "now" and "house" is pronounced [au]. Helge Kokeritz renders the early modern English pronunciation of the same diphthong as [eu], a sound between "ow" in "house" and the "oo" in "loo"--essentially, the sound in the much-maligned Canadian "about." (4) In listening to Barton on his TV program, the authors perceive his pronunciation of the diphthong in "now" as the sound Kokeritz represents as [[??]u]. In the transcription of Romeo and Juliet he did for Shakespeare's Globe, found in his Pronouncing Shakespeare, David Crystal uses the same representation for the "ou" in "household." (5)

In his transcription, David Crystal only uses phonetic symbols in the spelling of words whose pronunciation was different in early modern English from what it is in contemporary British Received Pronunciation (RP). He renders "both" and "Verona" as "bo[??]th" and "Vero[??]na." Since in contemporary British RP, the "o" in these words is pronounced [o[??]] and not [ai] or [e], it is reasonable to assume that Crystal is indicating a longer sound than is currently used.

We now come to a sound about which there are differences among the theorists and writers that have been cited above: the "r" following vowels as in "hear" and "our" or the post-vocalic "r." In modern dialects there is great variation in the pronunciation of this letter. In David Crystal's correspondence with the authors, he wrote that it can be pronounced strongly with the tongue curved back (the retroflex "r" [r]), as in strong Northern Midwestern U.S. dialects; it can be pronounced weakly with the tongue forward, behind the upper front teeth [r] as in Network Standard; it can be trilled or burred in the same position [rr] as in Scots English; it can also be slurred in this position to become the schwa [e] (the indeterminate sound of unstressed vowels), which blends with the preceding vowel, as in British RP, New England, and working class accents in the Northeastern U.S., as well as the patrician Northeastern (Franklin Roosevelt) and Southeastern (Scarlet O'Hara) accents.

In the book of Playing Shakespeare, John Barton phonetically spells "war" as "wahrre." (6) In Pronouncing Shakespeare, David Crystal quotes Ben Jonson's characterization of the "r" sound in his sixteenth-century English Grammar.
 The dogs letter hirreth in this sound, the tongue striking the
 inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth. It is sounded
 firm in the beginning of words, and more liquid in the middle
 and ends; as in "rarer" and "riper." (7)

Crystal concludes that this "more liquid" "r" was "a constituent sound, much as is heard in West Country or American accents today." (8)

Helge Kokeritz agrees that Shakespeare would have used a retroflex post-vocalic "r," but doubts that was common in London, and thinks that actors' pronunciation would have varied. He writes,
 Because of his Warwickshire origin Shakespeare must have used ... a
 retroflex "r" medially and finally, and I doubt very much that he
 ever bothered to exchange it for the very weak preconsonantal sound
 that, in my opinion, was characteristic of contemporary London
 speech. If, on the other hand, "r" was already silent before other
 consonants--and there is a good deal of evidence that it was--then
 we are faced with the problem whether or not on the stage actors
 endeavored to pronounce the "r" in the preconsonantal and final
 position. Some of them may have, in fact, done so from personal
 conviction that each letter should be pronounced somehow or in
 conformity with rules for precise enunciation laid down by those
 letter-worshipping men who once taught them to read and write. But
 others no doubt left out the "r" as they had been accustomed to do
 since childhood. It is hard to imagine that any uniform practice
 prevailed in this respect on the Elizabethan stage. (9)

According to Kokeritz, "in some respects, [early modern English] was far more colloquial than might be considered proper or respectable today; this is particularly true of its radical reduction of unstressed syllables and its nonchalant treatment of the consonants." (10) Here are a few of the examples of radically reduced unstressed syllables listed by Kokeritz: "And" was often written as "an," "he" as "a," and "have" as "ha." "His" is often contracted into the preceding word: "all's" for "all his," "at's" for "at his," "from's" for "from his," etc. The word "it" is also frequently contracted into preceding words: "an't" for "and it;" "as't" for "as it;" "avouch't" for "avouch it" The opposite is the case for "in," which is frequently contracted into the following word as "i'faith" for "in faith." "By" and "our" are often merged in various spellings of "by our lady:" "berlady," "birladie," "burlady." "Y'are for "you are," and "th'are" for "they are" are among the many contractions found in the texts of the period. (11) Another characteristic that would be considered colloquial today is the dropping (or "droppin'") of the "g" in "ing." Shakespeare spells "blushing" "blush-in," "popering," "popprin," "reading" "readins," and spells the name "Bolingbroke" as "Bullenbrooke," and "Bullinbrook." (12)

Compare our early modern English dialect findings to those of our Southern dialect research. For the PBS special, Do you Speak American, and the book based on it, John Fought describes in his article, Rful Southern, the "hard 'r'" coloring that Barton uses in his replication of early modern English, in what he calls the "Rful Southern" dialect, defining it as "the retention of 'r' after a vowel and before a consonant or before a pause in speaking." (13) This dialect is not to be confused with the "Rless" dialect of the coastal area, which according to Fought involves--as the name implies--the dropping of the "r" before a consonant or pause, lengthening the preceding vowel sound (Fought is, perhaps, describing the replacing of the "r" with a schwa). Fought explains that these dialects are the contributions from two sets of early settlers.

Coastal plains in what is now the southeastern United States were areas of early European settlement. Fought explains that early settlers came mainly from "the Rless areas of Southeastern England, where both prestigious and popular speech varieties had become Rless shortly before emigration began." (14) According to Fought, starting around 1750 and continuing for many years, Scots-Irish speakers immigrated to America in large numbers. (The Story of English has Scots-Irish Immigration to America beginning in the 1720s.) By that time, however, the prime tidewater areas along the Southern coasts had been colonized and fully occupied. These newly arriving British Northerners fortunately found open land in the uplands of the Piedmont and along the valleys and streams of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains. Although Fought finds the Rless dialect brought by the coastal settlers "has been losing ground," he contends that the Rful Southern Mountain Dialect has been gaining. (15)

Certain characteristics of the "Rful" Southern Mountain dialect correspond with theories of Early Modern English pronunciations. For example, the sentence, "There ain't narry a bit of sense in it" would be expressed as "th[[ei]] n n[ae]-[e] r[i] b[i[??]]-[e]d[i] s[i[??]]-[e]ns [i[??]]-[e]n [i]t." (16) From this example, one may note several things. First, vowels are pronounced for a slightly longer period of time than those in standard forms of English, and also diphthongs can clearly be heard to have two distinct vowels. But even if a sound is not a diphthong, it may be "diphthongized." For instance, the [i] in "bit" is diphthongized to [i[??]-e], and the same is seen in the words "sense" and "in." Also, many times sounds are shortened and unstressed. For example, "there ain't" is expressed as "th[ei] n", which instantly chops off one syllable. Another example of this shortening technique is heard in the dropping of the "g" sound after words with "ing." For example, the word "hunting" is expressed "h[^]]nt[i]n" or even "h[^]-[i]n."

During our research, we stumbled across a few communities along the coast that had remained somewhat isolated since the time of their settlement. These areas have retained some of the pronunciations and verbal constructions from the late eighteenth century, when they were settled. Of these areas, we visited two: Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay, VA. We found that churches, local digs, and bars were the best places on these islands for conducting research. There, accents were thick and heavy and the locals talked with ease as they recounted the events of their everyday lives, their past, and their work.

In the Ocracoke community, one interviewee used the [ei] in words such as "island" and "fly," as Kokeritz writes was common in early modern English. On Tangier Island, we found that one resident used the contemporary [ai] diphthong in words such as "drivers," while another used the [ei] in words like "right" and "high school." An Ocracoke resident pronounced words such as "out" with the [eu] diphthong that Kokeritz postulates for early modern English. Speakers on Tangier, however, pronounced the diphthong as the common American [au]. The "O" as in "know" and "Ocracoke" was pronounced as the diphthong [o[??]i] by residents of both Tangier and Ocracoke--a possible similarity to the long "o" David Crystal highlights in his Romeo and Juliet transcription. Post-vocalic "r"s varied from person to person and word to word. One fifteen-year-old that we spoke to on Tangier Island, in giving the name of a business, used an [e] in the first name "Charles," as is common in British RP and some Northeastern and Southeastern American dialects, and a standard American R in the last name "Charnick." Crystal speculates that the latter was the common pronunciation in early modern English. On Ocracoke, however, there was a different situation. In words like "Vermont" and "thirty," Roy Parsons, a local shop owner uses the hard "r" that John Barton suggests would have been the early modern pronunciation.

The dialects of these islands still have elements from Shakespeare's time, but sadly, thanks to television, tourism, and the modern world creeping in, these unique islands with their pockets of dialect are slowly but surely losing their idiosyncrasies. Of the two islands, Ocracoke has been the most affected by tourism. The children and young adults have all but completely lost the Ocracoke Brogue. Tangier Island, due to the small size of its habitable area, has not been as heavily influenced by tourism and many of the children still retain the dialect. For both islands, the dialect remains perceptible in most adults and is very heavy in the older adults.

Scholars who postulate early modern English pronunciation are involved in educated guessing based on rhymes, puns, orthographic and orthopoeic works, and, to a lesser degree, spelling. When John Barton argues that there were more diphthongs in Shakespeare's time, he probably means that the constituent sounds were more perceptible. On Ocracoke and Tangier Islands, some residents use some of the diphthongs that Kokeritz and Crystal argue were common in early modern English, rather than the diphthongs of British RP and American Broadcast Standard English. The tendency to pronounce the separate constituents in diphthongs or to "diphthongize" vowels is common throughout the South. While contraction or the reduction of unstressed syllables is characteristic of all colloquial speech, according to Fought, it is particularly extreme in Mountain Southern (i.e., "th[ei]nt" for "there ain't"), and, according to Kokeritz, even the polite speech of early modern English. Barton argues for a near-piratical postvocalic "r" in early modern English. Crystal speculates that post-vocalic "r"s were pronounced and not slurred. Kokeritz is ambivalent on the point and believes that by Shakespeare's time slurring was becoming the norm. (17) If one accepts Barton and Crystal's views, Network Standard and Mountain Southern postvocalic "r"s are similar to those of early modern English.

Are the dialects of the older generation on Ocracoke and Tangier Islands extremely similar to early modern English? Probably not. Do these accents and dialects share some features? Yes. An argument can certainly be made that these dialects, along with Mountain Southern, with their perceptible diphthongs, extreme contractions, and pronounced post-vocalic "r"s, are closer to the accents of Shakespeare's actors than contemporary British RP. In response to English actress Lisa Harrow saying, "we sound much more genteel now, don't we?" Barton responds, "Genteel, yes, that's a good word. Elizabethan English is rougher, isn't it?--and tougher." (18)

Research by the "Dialects of Shakespeare's England and the American South" Creative Inquiry Group, Dept. of Performing Arts, Clemson University: Christopher Z. Bellinger, Nicole Goodrich, Elizabeth Harvey, Kevin Johnson, Laura Jones, Patrick Jordan, and Kenneth Alexander Smith.

Appendix: Phonetic Symbols

[[??]] lengthens preceding vowel sound


[a] between the "a" in American Network Standard (NS) "can't" and in standard American "father"; the "a" in British Received Pronunciation (RP) "can't"

[a[??]] as "a" in NS "father"

[^] as "u" in NS "rut"

[e[??]] as "e" in French "les"

[e] corresponding short vowel

[e] as "e" in NS "bet"

[e] the schwa (unstressed vowel) as "o" in NS "talon" and "a" in NS "around"

[i] as "i" in NS "lit"

[i[??]] as "ee" in NS "bee"

[o[??]] as "o" in French "mot"

[o] corresponding short vowel [c[??]] as "aw" in NS "saw" [u] as "oo" in NS "good"


[ai] as "i" in NS "bike"

[au] as "ou" NS in "house"

[ai] as "oy" in NS "toy"


[r] as in "ring" and "merry"

[rr] burred or trilled "r"

[r] weak preconsonantal or final "r"

[r] retroflex (tongue curled back)

Dialect-Specific Dipthongs

[ei] 'T' as in early modern English "like"

[eu] "ou" in EME "house"

[o[??]i] as "o" in Ocracoke and Tangier Island "go"

Alexander Harrington, Justin Ames, Margaret McGill, and Corrina Miller, Clemson University


(1.) John Barton, Playing Shakespeare (New York: Anchor, 1984).

(2.) Helge Kokeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven: Yale, 1953), 216.

(3.) Kokeritz, 217. He does not supply a play citation.

(4.) Kokeritz, 244.

(5.) David Crystal, Pronouncing Shakespeare (Cambridge, 2005), 38.

(6.) Barton, 63.

(7.) Crystal, 50.

(8.) Crystal, 50.

(9.) Kokeritz, 315.

(10.) Kokeritz, 6.

(11.) Kokeritz, 271-80.

(12.) Kokeritz, 314.

(13.) John G. Fought, "Rful Southern," American Varieties, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, 2005, (accessed February 9, 2007).

(14.) Fought.

(15.) Fought.

(16.) Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, American Dialets (New York: Routledge, 1997), 135.

(17.) Kokeritz, 6, 315; Barton, 63; and Crystal, 50.

(18.) Barton, 64.
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Author:Harrington, Alexander; Ames, Justin; McGill, Margaret; Miller, Corrina
Publication:The Upstart Crow
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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