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Taking a break from my usual techno-drama to share an article I wrote for the Minnesota Mayflower Society’s Pilgrim News.

I am going to talk about how the Pilgrims talked. Not the words they used, a subject on which lots has already been written, but how they actually sounded when they spoke. If you had walked up to one and said “How be you, Myles?” and then closed your eyes, what would you have heard?

First let me point out something we often forget, and which I can assure you that very many people in our country apparently never knew, that all the English settlers in the New World spoke with an English accent, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and John Adams. Every one of the great patriots spoke just like London. The settlers in Virginia did not say “y’all.” They spoke English English, or at least the English of the time their immediate immigrant ancestors, which, of course, changed some over the 150 years between the Mayflower and the Revolution. But they didn’t talk American, they talked English, and they sounded English, because they WERE English.

But what English did that sound like? Well, one thing they didn’t sound like was modern “BBC English,” or like Sir Lawrence Olivier doing Hamlet. That vocalization pattern (officially called “Received Pronunciation,” as if it had come from on High) is pretty much a late-19th, early 20th, century convention. And they didn’t talk with what we would recognize as the New England accent of today, because that accent didn’t come here with the Pilgrims; it came much later with other English immigrants. The Pilgrims’ accent was a reflection of where in England they came from, and especially when they left there.

Here’s a good example of what we think of as an “English accent:” the Prince of Wales discussing rain forests.  If you would like a kind of intellectual discussion of the origins of RP, this link will give it to you.

Now you may ask, how on earth could anybody figure out how people in the past talked, since we have no recordings of them speaking? Linguists actually have some ways to reconstruct pronunciation, starting from a known point and then mainly relying on spelling and rhyming. Spelling is the more direct way. Post Renaissance, the number of people who could read and write expanded greatly, but spelling was not at all standardized. People tended to write down what they heard, not what they might have been taught. This preserved their own dialect. There are also examples of writers’ phonetically quoting other people from some other area, often mocking their “rustic” accent, but at the same time preserving it for us.

Analysis of rhyming is much similar. If words are in a poem with a defined rhyme pattern in place, then with only a few exceptions, required rhyme words can be assumed to be pronounced the same way. Puns can be a rich source of hints about pronounciation, too. Through these and a few other tricks, scholars have managed to extract a fairly good idea of how the spoken language sounded at certain points in time.

As to the point in time we care about, we are in luck, for conveniently who was active as a playwright and author right at the time of the Pilgrims but William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). Not only that, many of Shakespeare’s actors, and indeed many of his audience, were from areas in England not far from the Pilgrims’ origin, so in effect Pilgrim-speak was not at all far removed from Shakespeare-speak. And again in our great luck, there are a lot of people who have studied every aspect of Shake-spears’s language and recently even his vocalizations, and we are some of the beneficiaries of this study.

So in studying Shakespeare we are linguistically studying our Pilgrim ancestors; remember that the next time you haul off to see a Shakespearean play. But the words they use are only part of the equation. We still want to hear them speak, as they heard each other.

Some of the best and most accessible work on Shakespearean vocalization has been carried out by Dr. David Crystal, a Professor of Linquistics at the University of Wales. He and his students have painstakingly extracted an “early modern English,” ca. 1600, sonic grammar if you will, and have applied what they’ve learned to actually producing Shakespearean plays in their original pronounciation. These plays have been put on at the rebuilt Globe Theater in Stratford and in the US by the University of Kansas, among others.

Hearing these plays, or even snippets of them, is like hearing Mozart or Beethoven played on period instruments and with a period disposition of the orchestra. The piece is familiar but the sound — and the feeling — are totally new. Of course you have to listen more closely to completely understand them. For exam-ple:

  • “Loins” was pronounced more like “lines”
  • “Doom” was more like “dumb”
  • “Proved” was more like “loved.”

Well, then, let’s hear some of this. This clip is of a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Original Pronunciation.

Some words and phraseology are different, but how greatly different is the sound! In this, you are hearing as closely as linguists can determine, your Pilgrim ancestors conversing.

If you are interested in some more detail, here is an interview with David Crystal, discussing more about uncovering Original Pronunciation:

And another one talking about the production of the play at KU:

One final thing we should address is why the Pilgrims’ accent doesn’t sound like the stereotypical “New England” accent of today: as in “pahk the cah in Havahd yahd.” This dropping of the /r/ sound is called “non-rhoticity.”

The Pilgrims were almost certainly rhotic speakers — they pronounced their /r/s. Shakespeare was rhotic; he and they came from an area more or less in the middle of England’s east coast, which was solidly rhotic. Most of the post-Pilgrim New England settlers came from the English southeast, an area that had started to shift to a non-rhotic pronunciation shortly after that time, a trend that continues in England to this day. These later settlers — both during the “great migration” that ended in about 1650, and later immigrants during the 18th century — were non-rhotic, and their numbers just completely swamped the rhotic Plymouth speakers.

Here’s a good example of a non-rhotic speaker: Margaret Thatcher discussing a point in the Falklands War.

I should note that the other great literary document produced around this time was the King James Bible. There are clearly spelling and pronunciation keys that have come from the KJV, but the actual language in it was very artfully refined. It didn’t mimic the common conversational language of the people, as much of Shakespeare did. Even to the people of the time, the KJV sounded “majestic” and “monumental.” Shakespeare, as exemplified in the Midsummer clip above, aimed his language at the common people standing “in the pit” in front of the stage. His characters spoke as the people spoke.

Human language never stands still, it evolves in both form and sound in often unpredictable ways. Most linguists would say that the sound of the language in England has actually been evolving more rapidly than it has in America. We, away from the Mother Tongue, have been more conservative and so preserved aspects of the English we came over with, and many of the regionalisms in our national pronunciation hark back to where in England our fore-bears came from. Unfortunately, our Pilgrim pronunciation was not so preserved. But then neither was Shakespeare’s.

So there you have it.

Editor Jim Mirick studied natural-language linguistics and the history of English while doing graduate work in Computer Science at the University of Hawaii. The purpose of that study was to learn how to develop better grammars for computer programming languages by studying how humans communicate.

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