Trevor Nunn on American Accents

Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the RSC Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wants to do a production of Shakespeare with an all-American cast, reports Telegraph.co.uk. Nunn says, “There is a different energy and a different use of language.” This is certainly true: Americans and Brits have very different rhythms and sounds to the way they speak; I imagine that any dialect will bring something new to a character or play.

But the rest of the article chooses not to report on the challenges of staging a play in a dialect or examples of how differences in dialect in equally-talented and trained actors can yield different readings and interpretations of text. Instead, there are a few comments about Nunn’s statement,

“…it is almost certainly true that today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

You can read the article to see what Professor Stanley Wells has to say about it.

I want to talk about the above quote. It is a common (what I believe to be) misconception that American English is more like Shakespeare’s than British English. Firstly, there are several dialects of English in both the US and UK that vary a great deal from each other. If we’re talking about the perceived “standard” dialect from each country (General/Standard American and British RP/BBC English) I still don’t think American English is any more closely related to Shakespeare’s speech.

English, regardless of where it is being spoken, has been evolving for over 400 years since Shakespeare began writing for the theatre. Language and its dialects change a great deal, especially among super-social societies. There are certainly parts of the US and UK whose dialects have evolved more slowly due to isolation over the past centuries, but there has still been 400 years of dialect evolution.

Perhaps the misconception comes from the idea that British RP is an “invented dialect.” Even so, American English pronunciation has been heavily influenced by our friends across the pond. Remember all those movie stars from the 1930s? Theatre, Film, and Radio in the US had a notably “British” sound for a long time.

So you see why I disagree with Trevor Nunn when he says it is “almost certainly true” that American English is closer to Elizabethan English than modern British English.

David Crystal, world renowned linguist and co-author of Shakespeare’s Words, has done a lot of research on what Shakespeare’s English may have sounded like back in the day. His book, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment, tells the process of researching this and using the pronunciation in a production! You can also hear David Crystal reading of Sonnet #1 in “Original Pronunciation.” Listen, then decide whether you think modern American or British English “is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

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