New study reveals how Shakespeare’s actors (probably) sounded: How different was the Elizabethan accent?

Well, first of all, they sounded Scottish. I’m no expert in speech development, or linguistics, or the origin of language, but I can say with some certainty that something happened over the last 400 years to change the accent (outside influence, societal influence, etc.).

This is a pretty cool story, and I give lots of credit to the researchers for so painstakingly studying the sounds of words and determining the appropriate pronunciation. They did it by looking at Shakespeare’s rhyme schemes and finding anomalies with the patterns. Of the word pairs that don’t rhyme, one of those words must have been pronounced differently than the way we pronounce it today in order to create the rhyme.

For example, Helena’s conversation with Hermia from Act I scene 1 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is supposed to rhyme. This passage – and there are more – seems to deter from the pattern:

Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.

It would appear that the rhyme is broken with “eye” and “melody” because of the way we pronounce each word. But this is supposed to rhyme, which begs the question: was “eye” pronounced like “ee” or “ay”, or was “melody” pronounced like “melo-die”? It would seem the former (“eye” like “ee” or “ay”) makes the most sense. In that case, the rhyme is preserved.

Kick off Shakespeare’s birthday weekend and check out the story here.