Linguistics-God and Sporter of Excellent Beard, David Crystal, and his son Ben discuss the original pronunciation of Shakespeare – the Early Modern English that was in use around the turn of the 16th/17th Century. And it sounds very familiar to the Somerset ear. The highly rhotic pronunciation (where ‘r’ is pronounced quite heavily and can also affect the vowel sounds too) is very similar to the accents in the South West of England, including our own fair Somerset. The vowels are also interesting, with a mixed bag of sounds in some cases that might be found in Norfolk, and others that would be more typical around the Devon/Somerset border….
It also shows (partially) at what stage particular accents started to fracture off and change, and at what stage certain accents were prominent throughout England. Theories of English Language change indicate that each of the accents within England are indicative of the prestigious form of English that was around at a particular time in history. So while northern English counties such as Yorkshire, Lancashire and Lincolnshire may have similar (but still quite distinctive, let’s not offend anyone here!) accents due to them being under Danelaw for a couple of centuries, the counties within the South West of England, generally within Wessex, would have cultivated a style of speech that was favoured within the Wessex houses of power. These differences would have been in place, despite constant change in all the accents, right up until the time Shakespeare was dreaming of Ass-headed players and star-crossed lovers.
The ‘r’-heavy accents were obviously still much in favour around this time, which is also supported by the ‘r’-heavy accents within America, and the general ‘pirate’ voice that is often mocked. Many pilgrims were setting off to the Americas from even before Shakespeare was writing, and were settling there. Over the centuries the accent continued to change, but they maintained their ‘rhotic’ accents.
The shift in favour of the prestigious accents within England is further supported when you listen to the Australian accents. Australia was discovered and settled by the British a couple of centuries after the Americas. The Australian (and New Zealand) accents do not have a strong rhotic presence. Their accent is much more similar to accents found in the South-East of England today. This indicates that the rhotic-accent had fallen out of common use in England by the time Australia and New Zealand were settled.
Language change research is often about joining up the dots, but often there are no dots to join. Which makes it all the more exciting when you find a dot. And this is why I love Linguistics!