Patricia T. O'Conner on Shakespeare's English

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our word maven Patricia T. O'Conner Discusses Elizabethan speech—the language that Shakespeare and his actors used, circa 1600, and how it was originally pronounced, which sounds similar to the English spoken by Americans and by the Irish today. She’ll also answer questions about language and grammar. An updated and expanded third edition of her book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, is available in paperback, as is  Origins of the Specious, written with Stewart Kellerman.

We're playing clips from “Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation: Speeches and Scenes Performed as Shakespeare Would Have Heard.

If you have a question about language and grammar, leave a comment or call us at 212-433-9692!


Patricia T. O'Conner

Comments [35]

Zippi from London

You will hear "I" being pronounced "oi" all over the south of England, from Cornwall to Kings Lynn and in the West Midlands, which is where you'll find Shakespeare's county. The so-called yokel, or farmer accents are the remnants of the languages that were spoken in those regions. A map from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, shows that these regions were populated by, for the most part, the Saxons (Kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, Middlesex and Sussex) and the Angles (East Anglia and Mercia). There were others, however, the accents of these places were affected by the Danish incomers, hence the accents of the North and North East England are markedly different from those of the South, South East and Midlands.
As was said, correctly, there is no single British accent; there are English accents, Welsh accents, Scottish accents and Irish accents, all influenced by language.

Jan. 11 2014 09:40 AM
PD from Long Island

Two suggestions for two of the above comments:
pidgin -- not pigeon -- languages
phony as a 3 -- not 2 -- dollar bill

Jul. 19 2012 11:33 PM
Philip E Miller from Manalapan NJ

A day too late ... My grandmother, Anne Ruth Rouslin (nee Rosen), born in Providence RI, 1892; died in Providence RI, 1984, routinely said "amn't". She was very proud that she was a graduate of Hope Street High School, at a time when most boys and girls did not finish high school.

Jul. 19 2012 04:21 PM
fiatlux from Glasgow, Scotland

There is no British accent. Many regional accents in UK exist that were non-RP, this has to be the silliest pre-occupation, pushed by Mr Crystal. I'd suggest that your commentators spend time listening to accents, because they have no idea what an Irish accent sounds like.

Jul. 19 2012 02:39 AM
Robert from NYC

Why did you not get a real linguist for this! People don't just change a dialect to another as she seems to insinuate. They may have moved to use an already in use somewhere in the culture dialect but they are not just pulled from the air. Get a book on the history of English, please.

Jul. 18 2012 05:08 PM
James from GreenwicnVillage

Flushing comes from the Dutch town name Vlissingen. This is a town in Holland and the Dutch nameapplied tor what the British renamed Flushing, Queens. To this day, many British still call Vlissingen in Holland Flishing.

Jul. 18 2012 02:00 PM

A lover of good grammar myself, I was wondering if it could be explained why after "if" the conjugation of "I" changes from singular to plural, making "if I were" correct and "if I was" incorrect. Past English teachers have told me that this is correct, but none have ever provided an explanation. Thanks!

Jul. 18 2012 02:00 PM
roh from queens

"The town of Vlissingen on Long Island was named after a town in the Netherlands. It would become much better known, however, by the corrupted English form of the name: Flushing."


Jul. 18 2012 01:59 PM
Laura from UWS

Flushing is named for the Dutch town of Vlissingen.
Interesting story about the name:

Jul. 18 2012 01:57 PM
John from rockland county

Flushing has the English version of the Dutch coastal city of means "flowing out," I believe.

Jul. 18 2012 01:57 PM

Patricia O'Connor just touched on something I've heard before — namely, that some linguistic features (especially of pigeon tongues) developed as needed to conduct trade. So Boston as a major port might have developed some sounds to facilitate communication with those who formed the largest trading partner.

Jul. 18 2012 01:56 PM
sandra from brooklyn

very entertaining segment!

Jul. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Laura from UWS

Re: comment about Johnny Depp.
Pirate accent IS West Country English.

Jul. 18 2012 01:53 PM
Anita Feldman from East Village, New York City

A while ago, someone asked you why the names Yeats and Keats are pronounced differently, and, as I recall, you said you didn't know. I thought I knew at the time, since I'd learned in grad school that the cause of this difference was something called "the great vowel shift," which occurred over several centuries. Does the research you mention today replace this research into the great vowel shift, or does it, perhaps, include it? I'd be grateful for your comments on this.

Jul. 18 2012 01:50 PM
Al from Marine Park

Ain't you ignoring the fact that there is no such things as A British accent and that Shakespeare's accent could have been a lot different than those of the accents of the actors of his time and of anyone besdies himsdelf that was directing his plays.

Jul. 18 2012 01:48 PM
Mike T. from Piscataway, NJ

Great program. Can "original pronunciation" provide guidance to actors portraying commoners in Renaissance festivals?

Jul. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Gary from Port Washington

Two questions: is the accents you hear from the people from the Boston area linked to how old English was spoken?

And why is the Democratic Party sometime called the Democrat Party? The latter sound more like a prejortive.

Jul. 18 2012 01:47 PM
Laura from UWS

Why not follow up here in the comment thread...instead of e-mailing?

Then we could all see the results, continue these delicious conversations!

Jul. 18 2012 01:46 PM
Jim from New York

I was led to believe that there are isolated pockets in the Easter US, tangier island in the chesapeake, parts of north eastern North Carolina and even parts of eastern long island that have remnants of an Elizabethan accent. for instance, I is pronounced oi.

also British pop music always seems to sound American in its pronunciation.

Jul. 18 2012 01:46 PM

I've been tiring of the ubiquity of all of these affected British accents that have blanketed our culture over the last few decades. It was fun in the old Monty Python days some decades back, when witty British comedic irony was relatively new and novel, but it wears thin already.

I'm now so happy that I've retained my trusty old "low class" Brooklyn accent despite all the pressures to get rid of it. At least it is authentic, and not like the phony, "high falutin Queens English" that we now are learning is actually as phony as the $2 bill. It was just affected by the upper classes trying to separate themselves from the rest.

Jul. 18 2012 01:45 PM
Joan Adler from Brooklyn

When did "Litrally", "Vetrin", and "Vetrinarian" become acceptable?



Jul. 18 2012 01:44 PM
Marsha Andrews from UWS

As much as I love President Obama, it "drives me crazy" when he uses the long pronunciation of "a" all the time instead of "uh".

Jul. 18 2012 01:43 PM
Irene from Manhattan

How about the fact that educated Brits say "et" for "ate", as in "He et dinner?"

Jul. 18 2012 01:42 PM
Jay from Hoboken

Could Ms. O'Conner comment on the recent (last 5 years) phenomenon of people answering a direct question by beginning with "So,..." Example: Leonard asks an author "What is your new book about?" and the author responds, "So, it's about a time in my life when...." Lots of people have adopted this taciturn way of answering a question.

Jul. 18 2012 01:41 PM
Stew from Manhattan

Patricia - please confirm that "often" and "forehead" are pronounced with a silent T and silent H, respectively, i.e. "Off-en" and "For-ed"

Jul. 18 2012 01:36 PM

So are we all going to be saying "aks" for "ask" in a century? Or were they say "aks" 400 years ago?

Jul. 18 2012 01:36 PM
Allison from Brooklyn

So what is going with the use of "addicting" rather than addictive? As in the cookies are so good...they're addicting. It's driving me crazy. Please tell me it's not becoming correct.

Jul. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Marcelo from Park Slope

The F train has a recorded message saying "This train will NOT stop on Smith/9thSt in BOTH directions". Is that correct? Shouldn't it be, "This train will NOT stop on Smith/9thSt in EITHER direction".???

Jul. 18 2012 01:28 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I notice folks nowadays often don't know when to use "burned" vs. "burnt"....any comment/explanation of which is which?

Jul. 18 2012 01:23 PM
David Ranada from Long Island City

The CD in question, is not the "first of its kind," as reports (quoted at the British Library page). There was an LP recording issued in the 1950s in conjunction with the publication of Helge Kökeritz's Shakespeare's Pronunciation (Yale UP 1953) on which Kökeritz read various speeches in his version of Shakespearean pronunciation (in the book it is notated as a phonetic alphabet). It would be fascinating to compare the two recordings, since Crystal's work is based on Kökeritz. I have yet to find the Kökeritz recordings on-line, unfortunately. Would love to know if they've been posted somewhere. Kökeritz also did pioneering work on Chaucer that was used for some long-gone LP recordings of Chaucer.

Jul. 18 2012 01:17 PM
stuart from manhattan

My 6 yr old asked about the term "offhand" (I wasn't wearing my watch and he asked what time it was. I told him "offhand I can't tell you" then spent a few minutes trying to explain the joke).

Jul. 18 2012 12:22 PM
Jon Pope from Ridge, NY

Did Patricia not say in a previous show that before America was colonized, England's dialect sounded a lot like ours today? If so, why did their dialect change?

Jul. 18 2012 12:07 PM

I've read that many pronunciations we think of as characteristically African-American are actually closer to old and Shakespearean English than the "standard" American pronunciation.

Jul. 18 2012 11:38 AM
Randy from Stamford

My Father's family had roots in the northern coast of Newfoundland (Nfld), Canada (Twillingate). He was a professor with colleagues who studied linguistics. They would do field research in Nfld where they would find unique English dialects. This was due to the very early migration patterns. Their dialect was not impacted by the vowel shift that occurred when George took the throne and changed polite speech.

Jul. 18 2012 08:37 AM
Susan from New York

I would like to ask Patricia O'Conner her opinion of how the phrase "I feel like" has come to replace "I think". As in "I feel like there are Starbucks on every corner". That kind of thing.

Jul. 18 2012 08:14 AM

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