Did Austen Speak Posh?

In our last blog, we heard how Shakespeare’s English much more resembled the accents of the provinces than the “proper” English favored today by actors and newscasters, the latter being an accent called “Received Pronunciation” or “RP.”

Jane Austen had knowledge of and appreciation for Shakespeare. There are parallels between her social comedies and his, Willoughby reads “Hamlet” in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Edmund Bertram discusses Shakespeare in “Mansfield Park.”

Austen has other passing references to the Bard, one of which, Sonnet 116, is given prominence in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility,” as explained  here (with some additional theorizing).

Seeing that Austen, like Shakespeare, is considered one of the masters of impeccable English, the question naturally arises as to whether the speaking language in her sitting rooms was closer to RP or to the “Original Pronunciation” or “OP”–a rich, earthy, older dialect similar to Scottish, Irish, and American English.

Austen’s novels are set in different counties in south England. Each dialect would have varied somewhat, but there would have been many similarities. To pick one county to stand for all, let’s use Hampshire, Austen’s home for most of her life.

Tony Grant, a scholar from Hampshire, says the county’s sound “is a warm, gentle sort of accent with a soft burr to it … You could not mistake somebody speaking with a Hampshire accent … as coming from anywhere else but Hampshire.”

According to Grant, the famous first proposal by Darcy to Liz in “Pride and Prejudice” would have sounded much different if rendered in the Hampshire speech that Austen herself likely used. First, here is Austen’s graceful prose:

“In an unhurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. … He came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began: ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ ”

Once she overcomes her astonishment, Liz responds:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. … If I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. … ”

Darcy’s plea and Liz’s response is transformed thus:

“Ize a bin struggling wi meslf, Lizzie. It won’t do nay more. Me feelins will not be [reprezz’d] nay mar. Yee mussle allowz me t’ tell yee ’ow, wi some power’ul emotion me admires and loves ee.”

“In sich as this, it is ’stablished thing t’express a sense a obligati’n fer the sen’imen’s avowed, ’owever unequalz they be. … If ay could feel grat’tude, I’d now thank ee. But ay can’t – I’ve ne’r wannered yer good thoughts like, and yee’ve cert’nly bin unwillin’ aven’t ee.”

Grant admits that this accent is exaggerated; he says he mixes in other accents from farther west. In addition to changing the pronunciation he also modifies much of Austen’s formal language to Hampshire colloquialisms. Even so, the dialog should make it clear that Liz would have spoken much differently than most of us assume. If she were to break into that dialect in a BBC episode, we would likely be as astonished as Liz was at Darcy’s unexpected proposal.

It does not appear that anyone has done a recording of Austen’s work in a Hampshire dialect. For comparison, though, here is a recording of a local Hampshire man born in 1898. The Austen accent, from eighty to a hundred years earlier, would have been at least as thick and likely thicker (one might say, “richer”).

Here is another one from the county, a woman born in 1920. In just one generation, the accent has become less distinct, but it’s still noticeable. To an untrained American ear, the woman’s accent sounds like the maid Rose from the series “Upstairs Downstairs” rather than from one of the gentry upstairs.

It would be fascinating to hear how the use of Austen’s native tongue might change the speed, rhythm, and emphasis of the dialogue. There is a very noticeable difference in Shakespeare plays, as comparison. The original accent is faster, spoken from the belly rather than the vocal cords, and brings out more puns in the text.

The International Dialects of English Archive includes accents from other locales in which Austen set her scenes. None of the accents resembles the posh English of today’s Shakespeare plays and Austen movies.

Both Austen and her characters would have been immediately recognized as being from the country when they went up to London, which then as now has its own distinct sound. Locals would not necessarily assume they were bumpkins; the country had too many regional accents to allow discrimination by sound; one could tell the “right sort” of people by their wealth and manners.

It was, however, during this time that the speech of the well-to-do in and around London began to assume its modern form. A major change was the loss of ‘rhoticity’—the ‘r’ sound after a vowel, so that “park” became “pahk.” There’s a chance that Londoners—and perhaps Darcy—would have begun to pick up the distinct RP accent that the modern listener associates with upper-crust England.

That accent is relatively easy to learn, according to a young woman who promises to teach us how to speak like Hermione from “Harry Potter.”

But what is posh is a matter of fashion rather than linguistics. At least one young London woman considers “RP”—as spoken by Dowager Countess Grantham in “Downton Abbey”—to be an accent that can be used credibly only by old people. She distinguishes between old-fashioned RP and modern “standard,” in which people are allowed to maintain their natural accents.

Under this definition, Jane Austen’s Hampshire accent would be perfectly acceptable because she always wrote proper English, no matter how she spoke it.

Note and tip of the hat: I came to the article about Austen’s accent through a long interest in Shakespeare’s tongue, which led to the previous blog post here. As I was working on both of these blogs, Vic at Jane Austen’s World published the blog by Tony Grant, which I cite here. I independently came upon several other links included in that blog. Jane Austen’s World is a lovely website, and I encourage everyone to visit it.


‘To Bay or Not to Bay’: Did Shakespeare Talk Country?

When I was in college, the drama department at the University of Arkansas wanted to do a bang-up job on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Over the summer, they sent the actor playing the lead role off to study proper enunciation.

He returned with an impeccable rendition, but no one anticipated the disconnect for the audience caused by Hamlet speaking “proper” English and the rest of the cast speaking in their usual Arkansas accents. At times it sounded like a mashup of “Masterpiece Theatre” and the country comedy show “Hee-Haw.”

What’s ironic, though, is that the UA had it backward. Years later, I learned that Shakespearian English was not BBC English—known as the “Received Pronunciation” (RP), as if it had been handed down from God on high. Shakespeare’s English sounds like a regional version of English similar to Scottish and Irish, as well as Southern dialects in America.

Consider these lines from “Henry IV,” as Prince Harry challenges Falstaff for lying about his cowardice when set upon by “robbers”—one of whom was the Prince.

PRINCE: Why, how couldst thou know these men … when it was so dark thou couldst not see thy hand? Come, tell us your reason. …

FALSTAFF: … Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

This is a pun, shown with my emphasis, that works only if “reason” rhymes with “raisin.” Where does this happen? In a thick American hillbilly accent.

Not convinced? Anthony Burgess, author of “A Clockwork Orange,” linguist, and Shakespeare scholar, describes in his novel “ABBA ABBA”–the rhyme scheme, not the rock band–what must have been his own epiphany about Shakespeare’s dialect.

“ABBA ABBA” is about the life of the poet John Keats as he’s dying of consumption in Rome. Keats receives a present–an English-Italian dictionary from 1611, edited by John Florio, a known friend of the Bard. In explaining the pronunciation of Italian words by comparing them with English, Florio also ends up showing the pronunciation of English words in Shakespeare’s day.  Here is Burgess describing Keats’ reaction:

“He was being given a vision … of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman. … He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now [Keats got] the joke in Falstaff ‘s words: ‘reasons are as plentiful as blackberries.’ Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt that he was being instructed by … poets dead and gone.”

That’s not all. According to David Crystal, an expert on the Elizabethan tongue, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy begins, “To bay or not to bay,” which is straight out of the Appalachians or the Ozarks.

If it seems outlandish to suggest that elements of Shakespeare’s tongue might show up among rustics in the U.S. South, remember that most of the early settlers in that region were English, Scottish, and Irish. A number of them headed into the hills and didn’t talk to anyone outside their small communities for hundreds of years.

The mainstream dialects continued to evolve on both sides of the Atlantic. Many linguists believe England’s English has changed more than American English. In particular, most Americans still pronounce the “r” after a vowel (“rhoticity”), as in “park the car,” whereas RP English tells us to “pahk the cah.” Linguist Gretchen McCulloch flatly states that the majority of British settlers “spoke much more like current Americans than current Brits.”

In short, Shakespeare’s English is not the RP accent Ben Trawick-Smith speaks of as heard “among Oxford professors and in Jane Austen films.” Instead, it is a rich, earthy tongue spoken from the gut rather than the vocal cords. When Shakespeare is performed in “Original Pronunciation” (OP), many more rhymes and puns materialize, the rhythms change—and the play moves faster. “Romeo and Juliet” is ten minutes faster in OP.

Controversy has emerged as to whether Shakespeare should be done in RP or OP. Traditionalists vote for RP because it’s what they know, though it’s a Johnny-come-lately accent. Nor can they get their heads around the idea of doing the glorious Bard’s soaring pentameters in what they perceive as a downhome country twang—Scottish, Irish, American–even Australian.

OP supporters believe it’s important to hear Shakespeare as he spoke it. The Globe theater in London has done several productions both ways. See what David Crystal and his son, Ben Crystal, an actor and writer, have to say about the difference. The main discussion begins three minutes in.

In a separate segment, Ben explains why OP resembles so many varieties of English—including “pirate”!

What are your thoughts? Should Shakespeare be played in modern RP tongue, the language of the aristocrats of our own day, and of the movers and shakers of modern London? Or should we take the Bard back to his roots?

Does Shakespeare belong to the posh or the people? Does democratizing Shakespeare mean dumbing him down?

As for the other famous and proper English author, we’ll talk about Jane Austen and her actual accent next time around. Watch this space!

The history of the English language is rich and varied. Here is just a sampling of information on the topic.

British accents.

How English has changed.

For no reason except fun, here’s actor Robin Williams doing a host of accents.