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What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

21 March 2015

From The Week:

Let’s hop into a time machine and go back to the England of yore!

If this were a movie, no matter when we got out of the machine, we could walk up to people and start talking. It could be medieval times or the age of King Arthur’s round table, and they’d just say, “Who art thou, varlet?” and we’d reply with something like, “We, uh, would-eth like-eth some beer-eth,” and we’d all party. Yeah, no.

I mean, of course they have to do that in movies, because we need to understand them. But this is reality. We’re going to hear what they reallytalked like. Ready? Buckle up!

. . . .

First stop: the early 1600s. The time of Shakespeare! Of course the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible may seem flowery, but it’s basically just an older version of what we speak now. In fact, it’s what linguists call Early Modern English. But the way they spoke it was not quite what we probably expect — or what you hear in the movies. Do you imagine some Queen’s English accent? Or perhaps Cockney for the lower classes? Guess what: the way they spoke it would sound to us more like a mix of Irish and pirate. Here, listen to Ben Crystal (son of linguist David Crystal) perform a sonnet in the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time:

. . . .

Old English is a bit of a misleading name. It’s not understandable at all to modern English speakers; you’d have an easier time learning Dutch or Danish. Some people prefer to call it Anglo-Saxon, since it’s the language that was brought over by the Angles and Saxons, invaders from northern Germany who took over Britain in the 600s.

The most famous bit of literature from the Old English period is Beowulf. I’m sure we all know the beginning of Beowulf, right? No? Well, if you don’t, here it is:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

We’re not with Bill and Ted anymore! Come on, step out of the time machine and let’s listen to the words recited by Benjamin Bagby, who sounds like he grew up then:


Link to the rest at The Week and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Books in General, Video

38 Comments to “What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like”

  1. Forget the time of Shakespeare. I have trouble with modern films from England. 🙂


    • I call up subtitles on everything british.
      Especially on shows with “lower class” street characters.

      Jive is closer to standard english than that. 😉

      • Another vote for captioning. Back in the day, I thought i had a hearing problem with rock music. Then I heard pop songs and realized that it wasn’t me, it’s them.

        Now, actors are encouraged to slur their words. It’s more dramatic and “natural”, but it plays hell with the script.

        So, on with the captioning!

    • We have trouble with modern films from the US! I thought it was just me getting old, but a straw poll of young people revealed they feel the same. I suppose it makes sense – our two languages are to some extent drifting apart, even though you’d think modern media might ameliorate the effect. Recently I’ve been researching a novel set in 18th century Scotland and was intrigued by correspondence from a single family covering the years from the early 1600s to the early 1800s. The changes in the Scots language over those years – when seen all of a piece like this – was fascinating and quite dramatic. And since I’m writing about Scottish poet Robert Burns (well, his wife really!) I’ve got my ear in for the language – but the early stuff was still challenging.

    • You mean like “Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun To Re Ro?”



      USA Today says: “I thought they were speaking a foreign language…I don’t think I heard a single consonant.”

      Time Magazine says: “Is there a way to turn on subtitles for a movie in English? If so, which button is it?”

    • I used to have little or no trouble figuring out what they were saying. Then I got older and my hearing got worse. Yeah, I put on CC as well.

  2. The Beowulf video is absolutely amazing. I felt like that must be what it was like to listen to a court bard or something. Sent shivers up my spine. I wasn’t even paying attention to the words, his delivery was too captivating.

  3. Very nicely done! Especially Beowulf. I recall having to read with an approximation of what it must have sounded like. Same with Chaucer. Where Beowulf sounds Germanic, Chaucer sounds very French.

  4. Brilliant! I caught one word in ten of the Beowulf, probably due to some scoping out of Anglo-Saxon poetry. It almost seemed as though I should understand more, but could not.

    I closed my eyes while it played, though the body-language of the performer was wonderful. I envisioned listening in a dim hall, the central hearth sending smoke to the carved rafters, the women clutching at their wide-eyed children. Quite an experience poetry must have been for the folks of the time.

  5. Erm… how do they know what old English sounded like? In the absence of meeting the people who spoke it?

    • Sounds shift in regular ways in language (which is why it’s “pater” (Latin) vs “father” (English)), and can be verified by tracking spelling over time in systematic ways across many specimens and dialects/languages. Our unnaturally early frozen Eng. spelling reflects genuine pronunciations, e.g., “enough” vs “enuch”. Example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grimm%27s_law

      The hardest things to confirm and, in my opinion, to adjust the ear to are the sound changes in vowels and diphthongs.

      • And for that, linguists can turn to current pronunciation in (relatively) isolated populations with roots dating to the earlier times. Very small towns in Newfoundland and Appalachia (for example) might share certain pronunciations in common, which then suggests the english of the common root was pronounced that way.

        It’s a lot like genetic surveys, where common genes imply a common heritage.

        One study of recent vintage I saw suggested Shakespearean english sounded closer to today’s american english than modern british accents, which is reflected in the video above.

        Here’s a more detailed explanation:


        • When listening to earlier BBC programs, esp. Kenneth Clark, I used to be fascinated to hear so many examples of emphasis shift. American English tends to shift the stressed syllable to the head of longer words, while British English typically stops one syllable short. I haven’t looked this particular issue up, but American English usually adheres to older pronunciations, while British English innovates.

          Example (Amer / Brit)

          RE-nais-sance / re-NAIS-sance

          (Yes, I know this preserves some original French, but I’m just having trouble coming up with some of the numerous other examples, many of which do NOT have this excuse.)

          • There’s probably a bit of 19th century geopolitics at play there: for decades after the revolution, britain was *the enemy*, not to be consorted with. (Pirating british literature was of course just fine.) Britain didn’t help matters by supporting the confederacy in the Civil War.

            And as the colonists spread west and south they consorted more with the french and Spanish, especially the latter. American english has loads of loan words and place names from spanish and, spanish bring strongly syllabic if a letter is present then by jove you pronounce it. (The occasional silent H notwithstanding. 😉 )

            If anything, dropping syllables and sounds came to be seen as a sound of poor diction among the US language police. No shortcut innovation for them!

          • IMO Kenneth Clark was the most pompous speaker of the English language in history, and Civilization was a waste of film. His pronunciation was atrocious and left me scarred for life. ‘ca-PIT-al-ism’ — that is how he pronounced capitalism while standing in a row boat in the middle of a stream.

            The only thing good about Civilization is that it spurred Jacob Bronowski to make The Ascent of Man. TAoM stands as such a sterling accomplishment that by itself it makes television worthwhile.

        • Indeed, the modern dialect of the outports of Newfoundland is closer to Jacobean English than any dialect now spoken in England. This should come as no surprise, for the English began to settle in Newfoundland in the early seventeenth century, and the fishing villages remained largely isolated from the foreigners and fashions that have changed the speech of England since.

          For much the same reasons, the language of the ancient Danes and Norwegians is preserved almost unchanged (except for the invention of new words) in Iceland, because Iceland was left largely to itself until the last century. I have on my shelf a grammar of the Icelandic language, a good fat book; and the summary of all the changes between Old Icelandic and the Icelandic of the 1940s (when the book was written) takes up all of two pages.

        • Actually a reply to your later contribution…

          Another reason is that the majority of colonists were from the middle and lower classes – which was also the primary “target” for Shakespeare. Come the Revolution, we ran out the majority of the upper class English speakers, and largely replaced them with people that were from the more general population, and did not speak the pure “King’s English” in everyday life.

    • They have to make assumptions. I.e. Anglo-Saxon, being derived from a Germanic language, will pronounce words more the way Germans do. Since Middle English was an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon (the common words since the peasants spoke that) and Norman French (the rulers and overlords provided words for the finer things), Chaucer would have been pronounced the French way in many instances.

      The class distinctions of Middle English still exist today. Language can be fascinating.

      Shakespeare, by the way, is considered Modern English. 🙂

    • Thanks everyone for answering my question.

  6. We use Old English rhetoric all the time. For example, any old alliterative phrasal pair of monosyllables (wrack and ruin, time and tide, tit for tat (this for that), kith and kin) * usually goes back to Old English or Middle English originals, where it formed a fundamental part of poetic meter, and a backbone of the English language itself. We still like a good alliterative pair of monosyllables, newly coined or otherwise.

    Think of these like the formulae in oral formulaic poetry, because that’s what they are — one subset of the building blocks for assembling poetic diction.

    * The advent of the Normans spawned a different sort of early fossilized phrase, still present in our legal system, a sort of “one of each”, often using an English and a Norman term as a pair. Some of those are alliterative, too, since that’s how English likes it. Example: first and foremost. Yes, these are usually called plenoastic (overfull), but these particular instances are more than that — they’re a recognition of a particular historical linguistic accommodation.

  7. I guess perhaps I’m weird then because I had no trouble at all with the Ben Crystal reading and got every word.

    The Beowulf less, only some words (maybe 20%?) but his delivery was awesome performance art.

  8. Saving / Bookmarking this. Gonna need more time than avail at the moment to absorb this, sounds super interesting to hear; thanks!

  9. The Beowulf is available to buy, with teaching materials and other goodies. http://bagbybeowulf.com/dvd/index.html

    I get about 50% of the words, but I read a lot of old German stuff that’s not all that far from Old English in some ways.

    • My only complaint about the Bagby Beowulf is that, well, he’s a bit of a ham. The performance is so mannered, so self-consciously dramatic, that one easily loses the flow and rhythm of the alliterative verse. The Beowulf-poet was a master of his form; he nearly always composed his lines so that the words that were stressed because of the metre were also the chief words conveying the sense. Bagby seems to like throwing the stress around to unnatural places in the line, like a comedian doing an impression of William Shatner.

  10. For Australian English, try Star Wars Downunder. Change your Subtitle setting to ‘On’ and ‘English’. You will need English subtitles!

  11. Tom, if you’ve heard a performance of the Beowulf you like better than Bagby’s — can you provide a link? I’d love to hear an alternative rendering.

  12. I am ashamed to admit, but every time I read the first line of Beowulf in its original language, I have this overwhelming urge to swish and flick and say, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

  13. Prof. Michael Drout has recorded the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and made many of the audio files available online:


    He also sells CDs of some of the longer works (e.g., Beowulf).

    While I have no expertise in this area, his readings don’t seem to be as dramatically over the top as the Bagby sample.

  14. I did a short story on this about some renaissance fair nerds who thought it’d be great to go back in time and experience the renaissance fair for real. They thought throwing in a bunch of “thees” and “thou arts” would suffice. Needless to say, it didn’t go well.

    More comedic than anything, but a fun way to remember that language evolves. 🙂

  15. Nolwenn Leroy now has a new fan. Gorgeous song!

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