Modern versus Early Modern English

One of the things that would have been quite different during Shakespeare’s day compared to our own is the very pronunciation of the English language. Though they certainly were not speaking Old English, which was nearly 1,000 years old by Shakespeare’s time, neither were they speaking the modern English that we do today. Instead Shakespeare’s plays are written in Early Modern English, which began to develop around the 16th century and stuck around for a couple hundred years. Since then, a variety of changes in the way we pronounce English have taken place, an event known as the Great Vowel Shift, that can make reading, listening to, and even understanding much of Shakespeare’s work difficult.

For example, David and Ben Crystal, English father-son actors who specialize in putting on Shakespeare’s plays with original pronunciation, have been discovering some of what has been “lost in translation.” They have found that nearly 2/3rds of Shakespeare’s poems, of which there are over 150, contain rhymes that just don’t work in Modern English, but do work in Early Modern English. To pronounce some of his poems today would be like trying to read a poem translated from another language, the rhymes just aren’t always there, and you lose some of the musicality of the original.

Using period explanations, spellings, and rhymes and puns of the past has let actors and scholars figure out with certainty how words used to be pronounced, which words have changed and which have stayed the same. Click the video below to hear Ben Crystal read those famous lines from Hamlet. While you are listening, read along with him below and see if you can notice which words have changed since Shakespeare’s day and which words have stayed the same.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,

The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

Sources

The Queens English - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fvmcnRhTP8

Shakespeare: Original Pronunciation (The Open University) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPlpphT7n9s

Original Pronunciation - Hamlet | To Be, or not to be... | Ben Crystal - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYiYd9RcK5M

Speech: “To be, or not to be, that is the question” By William Shakespeare - https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56965/speech-to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-question

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