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Mind your language

The dirty jokes that tell us how Shakespeare spoke

The rise of ‘original pronunciation’, and the way it’s worked out

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

7 May 2016

9:00 AM

Sir John Harington told a story in 1596 about a lady at court asking her gentlewoman to inquire which Mr Wingfield was asking to see her. On being told that it was Mr Jaques Wingfield, the gentlewoman blushed and came back with the genteel answer that it was Mr Privie Wingfield.

The story depended on Jaques being pronounced in those days like jakes, meaning ‘lavatory’ or ‘privy’. Harington took the joke to extremes, writing a whole book on lavatories called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, a punning title. Shakespeare might have been making the same joke as Harington’s when, in As You Like It, he had Touchstone referring in front of Audrey to Jaques as ‘Master What-ye-call-it’.


A whole linguistic world is anatomised by David Crystal in his new 600-page Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation. It comes with a password to an online audio pronunciation dictionary. Jakes/Jaques sounds something like a Bristolian saying jerks in a Morningside accent.

There’s a movement to put on productions of Shakespeare in Original Pronunciation (OP), such as the Romeo and Juliet at the Globe in 2004 that Professor Crystal worked on. It is a bit like authentic instruments among early music fans. They get used to the sound and return to modern versions dissatisfied. How different from the predictions of the pioneer of OP, Alexander Ellis, in 1871: ‘It is not, of course to be thought of that Shakespeare’s plays should now be publicly read or performed in this pronunciation.’

How do we know the way in which Shakespeare’s contemporaries spoke? By spelling, rhymes, puns and comments at the time. So, in Romeo and Juliet, Queen Mab is said to have a whip with a ‘lash of film’, which in the quarto and collected folio is spelt philome, indicating two syllables.

English has changed enough since Shakespeare’s day to make only a third of his sonnets rhyme perfectly. I think that before you try reading the sonnets in OP, you should get your ear in. The British Library publishes a CD of speeches and scenes called Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation. At least it cuts through the modern false friend of class.


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