What’s in an accent? Episode 7

Scouse? Cockney? Received Pronunciation? Do you speak with an accent? Why does our accent change when we speak to someone with a different accent to us? Have British accents always been the same or does the English accent change over time? How do we know what people sounded like in London hundreds of years ago, and what will a London accent sound like in the future?

It was my great pleasure to be able to ask renowned linguist Professor David Crystal and his son, actor, author and producer Ben Crystal, some of these questions for episode 7 of The Language Revolution Podcast. Accents have always intrigued me as at different periods in my life my own accent has been a source of shame, pride, or bemusement. I don’t exactly sound like the people I grew up around, nor the people I went to university with, nor my first teaching colleagues and students. I have collected a bit of each place (Redditch, Oxford, Glasgow), and wound up with a sort of hybrid accent that misbehaves and sometimes sounds more Welsh, or more Scottish, or posher. It just won’t sit still.

Apparently this phenomenon is called accommodation, and as David explains, if you like someone you talk like them. Great news, fellow accent chameleons: we’re not being fake, just friendly! But politicians be warned. It is not always acceptable to slip into the same accent as your interlocutors. 

Ben Crystal and David Crystal in conversation about accents.
Does an accent pass from parent to child?

What kind of accent did Shakespeare have?

Since I first heard David and Ben talking about the accent of Shakespeare’s London, original pronunciation or OP, at Cheltenham Literature Festival a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the way it opens up the plays and sonnets in new ways to me, and to audiences around the world. I also wanted to know how they know what Shakespeare sounded like. How did they make this linguistic time machine and travel back 400 years to declare, with 80-90% accuracy, what Elizabethan accents were like? Their answer is a fascinating insight into what historical linguistics is, and as an added bonus David does his ‘party trick’ of speaking in Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English, like a true linguistic time-traveller.

What is the point of accents though? Did cavemen have accents? Indeed they did, and accents served quite an important purpose in protecting our ancestors from enemies or intruders to the cave. We can still observe this in linguistically diverse cities (rather than caves) today, as we explore in the podcast.

Sometimes accents are a source of amusement for one group at the expense of another. Have we always told jokes that mock (not always that gently) a particular accent? Apparently we have, and even Shakespeare did it. Listen to find out which accent Shakespeare mocked the most often!

Accent of the future

Then on to the future. Will English accents eventually merge into one ‘standard’ accent? How did Received Pronunciation arise and how did it gain so much momentum around the world? Will teenagers be disadvantaged if they speak in a non-standard variation of English, and will adults ever keep up with teenagers’ accents?

Come and join us (and some seagulls flying past us on the coast of Wales) as I talk about talking with David and Ben Crystal.

This is the second episode in a three-part series with Ben and David Crystal. Listen to Ben talking in more depth about Shakespeare and oracy in Episode 6.

Public speaking and Shakespeare: Episode 6

If Shakespeare were alive today, would he be a public speaking coach helping business leaders and professionals ‘talk like TED’? Certainly the art of public speaking and speaking with confidence are subjects that he could advise on. It’s not uncommon to find entrepreneurs who experience fear of public speaking or anxiety about speaking in front of an audience. In the sixth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, Cate talks to actor, author and producer Ben Crystal about oracy and the art of speaking in public, and whether the works of Shakespeare could be a route into helping us reconnect with the very human activity of storytelling and speaking to each other from the heart.

Let’s talk about talking!

Black and white photograph of Ben Crystal, Shakespeare and public speaking expert, standing next to a brick wall with vintage Green Street sign.
Episode 6 guest Ben Crystal, actor, author, producer. Often a bit Shakespeare-y.

Where do we even begin to find the words to express our thoughts and opinions, let alone our feelings, about the subjects we care about? Should public speaking be taught in schools? With budget cuts and the arts in general being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum, there are fewer opportunities for children to stand up and speak from the heart, and this leads to adults who are subject experts feeling inhibited when we need to explain our findings, or declare our feelings, to an audience large or small.

Whether that is an entrepreneur explaining a change of direction to their team, or a scientist explaining vital research findings to an audience of non-scientists, we need to be able to find the words to bring people with us on the journey, to create empathy through storytelling so that not only can our audience hear our words, they can relate to the feelings behind them. The speaker is not hiding behind a lectern and notes, but taking the audience with them.

For many, this moment of speaking aloud in front of an audience can feel, as Ben explains, like we are standing on a cliff edge, getting ready to jump. We have a physiological reaction to speaking, testified by our sweaty palms, dry mouth, and sudden need to visit the nearest bathroom. It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable standing up and speaking, and having the opportunity to practice in a safe environment when we are young might make for a much happier generation of adults. A lack of space for self expression leads to increased mental health problems as we ‘bottle up’ our feelings. Oracy is a skill for life, both professional and personal, but how can we encourage schools to prioritise it when there is so much competing demand for timetable space and budget constrictions?

Are we losing touch?

The world would be a different place if we started earlier with genuinely talking and listening to each other. We discuss what the effect of talking to each other online or through texting might be having on people – are we at risk of losing out on making true connections if we chat in a chat room, rather than a physical common room? Ben’s experience of working with younger actors suggests that our emotional repertoire is at risk of being limited by lack of experience in face-to-face communication and, coupled with the lack of oracy in education, young actors may lack the weaponry too. Has ‘emoji acting’ started to seep into our theatres?

Can Shakespeare help us?

Cate posits that Shakespeare might be a route into learning to speak to each other from the heart, and in the second half of this episode we explore how Ben got into acting and producing Shakespeare plays and why he has spent the last decade peeling back the layers of the theatrical onion to discover the original practices of Elizabethan theatre.

With his father, Professor David Crystal, Ben has worked on reconstructing the original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare’s London, and we discuss how performing and speaking Shakespeare’s lines in OP can really open up the plays in new ways, and to new audiences who might otherwise feel alienated from big words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘iambic pentameter’. Shakespeare has been claimed by ‘Literature with a capital L,’ leaving generations of children feeling uncomfortable in classrooms with Shakespeare, as if they do not have permission to speak his words. Is it time to reclaim Shakespeare from the few, and how do we do it?

‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ – Ben Crystal

Ben is quite clear that, ‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ and by tuning Shakespeare’s language back a few hundred years, removing the influence of Received Pronunciation productions and Literature, it’s as if you’re tuning in a radio correctly and getting rid of the ‘fuzziness’, hearing the plays as they are supposed to be heard.

Double page image of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, with engraving of William Shakespeare.
First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623.

What effect does original pronunciation have on the actors? Well, Ben explains how it changes how the actors move, how they use their voices, and even how they feel and access the emotions of the characters they are playing. OP has been known to change the overall performance time because it is faster, and perhaps more dynamic than declaiming the lines in RP.

Do we need a time machine?

Ben describes the fascinating journey that OP takes you on as an ensemble of actors, but does this mean that we should be focusing on performing plays or exploring the works of Shakespeare only in OP in our classrooms? Is original pronunciation and practice a time machine or bridge back to the past to help students cross over several centuries? Can OP make the plays ‘more accessible’? How does working with OP crack open the plays in new and interesting ways, in particular making sense of famously enigmatic speeches in Hamlet that have puzzled many an actor or director?

Ultimately, is Shakespeare the answer to our ever-increasing aversion to speaking in public, which is at odds with our human predisposition to feel empathy (as proven by the discovery of mirror neurons, of which more in the podcast) and to connect with each other through oral tradition?

Because talking and storytelling are, after all, just what humans do.

Why do humans have an emotional and social predisposition to learn to speak? Listen to Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast with psychologist and language acquisition expert Dr Katerina Draper to explore the subject in more detail.

Listen to Episode 6 of The Language Revolution Podcast to hear Ben Crystal talking about talking: