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ACCENTS: DO THEY MATTER? March 23, 2012

Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment.
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Starting with the admission that I know nothing about sociolinguistics, nonetheless the topic strikes me as more important than I had imagined.

I can remember at the time when television was introduced into New Zealand, the announcers spoke in a “la de da” English. I was alienated. This was perceived then by me not as a class accent, but a false accent. It probably had some advantages in terms of communication, because there are some varieties of spoken English, there, most notably that of Barry Crump, and elsewhere, that can only be understood among a sub group.

Then recently with the death of Margaret Whitlam the comment was made to me to the effect of dislike for her accent. Sometimes people from certain suburbs have affected voices. I took the trouble to listen to Margaret Whitlam. To me her accent socially locates her, so I am comfortable with that. Professor Higgins could, he claimed, and he was probably correct, locate any accent within London. Even linguistically sophisticated foreigners – about every native speaker, but not exclusively – often cannot do easily.

Amy Walker goes into some detail. I think her Australian accent is stereotype, because I do not hear it, or perhaps I am not listening. How to learn an accent:
Part One:

Part Two:

I suppose that is why we accommodate and adapt, because either we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves, or we do. Accent does not seem to be completely under conscious control. Accent is a form of identity politics, but it goes further than that it can be a way of alienating  or reframing of content.

With that out of the way, I can now turn to  William Shakespeare, putting aside the elocution of Laurence Olivier.  So the question here becomes how to develop an authentic, 400 year old accent. Charlie Cooper wrote in The Independent:

Far from the haughty clipped vowels we are used to hearing from a thousand actors since Laurence Olivier, the “real” Shakespeare sounds more like a West Country farmer, with a dash of Irish and even a hint of east coast American.

“People from all over the country were coming to Elizabethan London and their accents were fusing,” said Ben Crystal, an actor, director and expert in OP (original pronunciation) Shakespeare. “Not long after Shakespeare’s time people started getting on the boats to America, and later Australia. Some sounds in modern accents from these places, are the same sounds that would have been heard on the tongues of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.”

Attempts to get back to the original sounds of Shakespeare have been made before, most notably at The Globe in London, and in a performance of Hamlet in Reno, Nevada in which Crystal played the lead role, with an accent reminiscent of a Devon farm labourer. Now, working with his father, the linguistics expert David Crystal, he has produced an extensive recording of some of Shakespeare’s best known speeches and sonnets for the British Library, all in the original pronunciation.

The result is a more muscular Shakespeare that sounds harder and much closer to the common man than we have become accustomed to. “Romeo, Romeo,” becomes “Rohm-yo, Rohm-yo”; two short syllables that sound like Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings saying “Frodo, Frodo”. Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach” becomes “Ons moar un-tuh thuh braych”, which, when roared out to an imaginary army, makes King Henry sound more like a bar-room brawler than the prim aristocrat that Olivier portrayed in the 1944 film.

The original pronunciation also makes the language move faster. Crystal’s OP version of Hamlet, though abbreviated no more than most productions, was about half an hour shorter than most. “When we hear original pronunciation used in relation to Shakespeare, we enter a new auditory world,” said David Crystal. “Rhymes that don’t work in modern English suddenly work. Puns missed in modern English become clear.”

The Crystals are “95 per cent sure” of the accuracy of their method. Taking as their sources the archaic spellings used in Shakespeare’s First Folio and an early grammar textbook written by his contemporary Ben Jonson, they were able to trace the sounds of Shakespeare in the rhythms and rhymes of his plays and poems.

Rhymes that do not work in modern English, such as “love” and “prove” suggest an older pronunciation. As Ben Crystal puts it, “no-one other than Elvis Presley ever extended the vowel sound in love”, the rhyme must be on “prove” – so “love” for Shakespeare sounded like “loove”.

And sometimes we can hear what all this sounds like:

The short answer appears to be affirmative, that accents do matter, which if nothing else is an identity statement. To quote Emily Terkell:

Behind every language lies a fascinatingly intricate structure, which contains much more than a simple set of symbols. Language is not merely a code used to switch a text from one idiom to another, but an entity with its own complex, intriguing characteristics. In fact, exact translations do not even exist from one language to another because every dialect possesses unique aspects that have come about from centuries of social change and interaction. In return, language, through everyday speech, as well as literature, shapes society. Therefore, “language is one of the most powerful emblems of social behavior.”[1] From this idea emerged sociolinguistics, one of the most important fields of study in today’s world of increasing international relations. Sociolinguistics studies the relationships between the way a society functions and its language. Areas of the field include, but are certainly not limited to, pidgins and creoles, gender relations, economic status, and age. Researchers examine both the effects of social factors on language, and the effects of language on society. The contemporary world is bringing many people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds together, perhaps more than any other period of history. Thus, the study of fields such as semiotics, linguistics, and sociolinguistics is crucial to gain a better understanding of how languages are created and how they bring meaning to the world.

POSTSCRIPT:

Let’s not forget, our speech should not divide us. We can attune. We can recognize our common humanity. This is illustrated by, for example, these conversations.

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