The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation

D Crystal (Oxford University Press, 2016), 704pp, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 19 966842 7

Reviewed by Miranda Bethell

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Caveat: an eminent linguist once explained to me that, as a translator, I was an applied linguist and so viewed things differently from theoretical linguists (such as astronauts and string theorists, I suppose), but I am also a lover of Shakespeare, and acted and directed Shakespeare at university. This review, therefore, comes out of my interest in the English language and Shakespeare, and I gladly leave the expert review to the experts.

For non-experts, open the following before reading: – this is a link with audio to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Now you are ready to use the excellent combination of the IPA version of each dictionary entry and the online index of original pronunciations of Shakespeare words that comes with the book. (The headwords are taken from the plays of the First Folio and all the poems.)

You can also have fun by opening an extra window for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and looking up, say, ‘incarnadine’ and then playing the OED pronunciation before listening to it in David Crystal’s online index. In this way you can quickly contrast received pronunciation (RP) and the deduced original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare.

As I familiarised myself with the book, in true editing style – after not chucking away the slip with the online code on it – I was glad to glimpse in the introduction that by acting Shakespeare, or just reciting a speech or a sonnet to ourselves, we are already almost instinctively reverting to the word-stress of Shakespeare’s time, in order to fit the metre. Four hundred years have not cut us off from him.

I needn’t have worried: there are no ‘modifiers’ in the ODOSP, and Crystal announces particularly that this is applied linguistics, so for all wordsmiths and especially actors. (Dentals and fricatives are nevertheless available.) The introduction quickly draws you in because the context of all this painstaking research is the live theatre. A detailed explanation of the system for using the dictionary then follows, together with a brief reference to the methods for establishing the pronunciation, or various pronunciations, of words in Shakespeare’s time. You will find yourself trying to rhyme ‘war’ with ‘bar’, and to pronounce ‘voice’ like ‘vice’ and ‘haste’ like northern English ‘past’. However, Crystal is keen to explain that OP cannot be associated with any one dialect of English, and to point out the mixture of accents to be found among actors in London at the time.

This book is a manual for actors and directors, demonstrating another path away from the standardised RP (and standardised feminine behaviour) used, for example, by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1960s (, and, to be fair, already made much more flexible (and realistic) by Redgrave herself when I saw her playing Viola in the 1970s (riveting and utterly memorable). Yet the point of all this, for modern theatre and for all of us, is to let the poetry speak. As Crystal puts it, with reference to Empson, OP makes new room for ambiguity, so new meanings take flight, and can take characters and whole scenes in new directions. Then, there is the sheer pleasure of authenticity.

To encourage anyone who might like to invest in this book, or just for fun, on the same BBC web page cited above is a father-and-son clip of the Crystals giving the opening speech of Henry V: Crystal is demonstrating OP, and his son seems to be reproducing 1960s RP.

I heartily recommend the book – a good birthday present for actors and directors, for bookish people who are difficult-to-find-things-for, for everyone who wants to be sure the sonnets rhyme, and for scholars of all kinds.  

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