What’s in an Accent?

Accents accrue strong connotations over time and qualify speakers as powerfully as other markers of identity, such as gender, class, ethnicity or race.

Very much like attitudes to other markers of identity, attitudes to accents are in a state of constant flux, and phoneticians regularly trace the inevitable decline in the prestige value attributed to standard variations and the rise in popularity of different non-standard varieties.

In the 1990s, for example, David Rosewarne coined the term ‘Estuary English’ to describe an intermediate variation of Received Pronunciation (RP), the accent up until then associated with the speech of social and cultural elitism, and Cockney, the working-class regional variation spoken in East London. ‘Estuary English’ was hailed as one of the most significant phonological changes in the pronunciation of the English language since the rise of RP in the late nineteenth-century. In fact, the spread of ‘Estuary English’ from the South East to the rest of country and, gradually, to other parts of the English-speaking world was closely linked to the increasing perception of RP as exclusive and formal, especially among younger speakers, who came to associate it, at best, with their elders or, at worst, with arrogant self-entitlement and snobbery.

What’s in a Dead Accent?

Accents resonated just as powerfully among past speakers of English. But how does one go about establishing how past speakers spoke and how accents were heard and decoded in periods that precede Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph?

In my recent book Shakespeare’s Accents: Voicing Identity in Performance, I have used two main types of evidence to carry out a historically informed analysis of voices that have long gone, leaving ‘not a rack behind’. Given my interest in the sound of Shakespeare’s language in performance, I focused on two main types of evidence:

Typographical evidence.

The phonetic spelling preserved in the early editions of Shakespeare’s plays and in playbooks by other early modern playwrights suggests what characters speak in a variety of regional, national or class-inflected accents.

Archival evidence.

Tracts, reports, commentaries and reviews by those who remarked on how Shakespeare sounded in performance at key moments in the history of its theatrical reception explain the reasons for their approval or disapproval of how Shakespeare’s lines were spoken on stage.

What’s in a Shakespearean Accent?


Acoustic Diversity of the Early Modern Stage

Among the most exciting discoveries I made along the way was the realization that there was considerable variation even within what historical linguists and phoneticians now refer to as Original Pronunciation (OP) and that variation was used carefully and creatively in order to modulate situation and characterization. So, while the anti-theatricalists objected to the fact that professional actors, who at the time lacked social and artistic status, tended to use an emergent standard of pronunciation associated with the Court, thus sounding deceptively like their social superiors, they also used other accents to achieve nuanced dramaturgical effects.

In a case study about King Lear, for example, I demonstrate that Edgar’s switch to a Southwestern English accent in Act 4 scene 5, which would have sounded rustic and uncouth, but also earnest and wholesome to Shakespeare’s original audience, makes perfect sense as a response to the arrogance of the sycophantic, corrupt courtier, Oswald, who’s threatening to take Gloucester’s life at this point in the play. In another case study about The Merry Wives of Windsor, I argue that we should not continue to assume that Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson, is a comic caricature because of his accent. While Caius, the French doctor, is a genuinely incompetent speaker, Evans speaks with an accent that would not have been automatically associated with rustic clowns. Besides, Evans delights in puns and is linguistically more skilful than many of the native speakers of English in this comedy. In short, I was quite surprised that accents were used self-consciously and creatively both to claim a higher status for commercial drama and those who trafficked in it and to exploit the significance that acoustic diversity carried at the time to flesh out characters and dramatic situations.

Sonic Revolutions in the Age of Reform

A survey of later voices on the Shakespearean stage proved just as interesting and surprising. I became especially engrossed in the polemical debates triggered in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the rise of a veritable national obsession with Shakespeare among amateur and semi-professional actors, apprentices and semi-literate or illiterate members of the labouring classes, who were branded by their detractors as “spouters”. Through “spouting”, non-professional actors and enthusiasts reclaimed the right to speak Shakespeare in their own regional and lower-class accents, at a time when the monopoly over spoken drama limited authorized performance to a handful of theatre companies in the West End of London. What I had not realized before I embarked on this project was that the spouters’ main source of inspiration was the great David Garrick, who, despite becoming the most venerated and successful actor-manager of his generation, was haunted throughout his career by reviewers who criticized him for speaking Shakespeare in his native Midlands accent.

Accents Yet Unknown

Moving on to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I was pleasantly surprised to find that early experiments in OP, far from being scholarly exercises in acoustic archaeology, attempted to develop new audiences for Shakespeare by creating a space for phonetic variation at a time when the dominance of RP on the Shakespearean stage was largely uncontested.
I was also struck by the key role played by the recent increase in the number of non-English productions performed to English-speaking audiences in facilitating a gradual move towards a more tolerant and creative approach to non-standard accents on the Shakespearean stage. Instead of enforcing acoustic normativity as the golden standard for the delivery of Shakespeare on stage, directors are now increasingly interested in and working with diverse voices. These acoustically diverse productions offer original and refreshing approaches to the fictive worlds of the plays and a welcome and long overdue step towards ensuring that the sound of Shakespeare in performance reflects more closely how English is currently spoken by the wider audiences Shakespeare is meant to appeal to.


Sonia Massai is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London and has published widely on the history of the transmission of Shakespeare on the stage and on the page. Her most recent book, Shakespeare’s Accents: Voicing Identity in Performance, was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2020. An online book launch is available to watch here.


Feature Image: Caroline Watson, Garrick Speaking the Jubilee Ode (1784)  CC0

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