American and Shakespearian English

I have often heard that American English is closer to Shakespearian English that modern British English. Can any of you linguists and/or historians provide any information or proof that supports or disproves this assertion?

Interesting question, do you have any cites for it?

Generaly, linguists say that the pronunciation in the US (or in some sections of the US) is more like Shakespeare’s prounciation than the current standard UK “RP” pronunciation.

See for a discussion.

I’m going to generally leave this for the professional linguists on the board. I do know one factoid related to it: There is a bit of folklore that claims that the Outer Banks here in North Carolina (together with the Eastern Shore in Virginia and adjacent Maryland) preserve the English dialectal pronunciation of Shakespeare’s and King James’s time.

In point of fact, there’s truth and falsehood to this. Some of the archaic speech forms preserved by the native OBX people do remain close to Southern-England Jacobean English – others have diverged greatly.

Blaster Master, are you talking about the syntax, or the pronunciation, of American English?

It’s not really the words or speech forms that they mean when they make the claim: it’s just the pronunciation.

Modern English has diverged from Shakespeares Early Modern English, and is different from it in both the US and the UK

I’ve heard this before. It’s hard for me to see how it could really be established. One major, noticeable feature is the same between Shakespeare’s English and American English - both retain Rs at the ends of syllables, whereas most modern dialects in England drop them. Other than that, I’m not positive how one could make such a determination. There’s no particular way to quantify how similar two accents are (since we’re dealing with pronunciation, I use the term ‘accent’). And besides, which British and American dialects are we concerned with? Both countries have their share of diversity in their dialects; in fact, England has an enormous amount of variation. Playing the odds and counting the number of distinct accents present in both places, it seems like England would be a better bet, since there’s simply more variation there. Either way, the dialects of both countries (as with everywhere else in the world) are different than what was spoken four hundred years ago. If any particular dialect happens to be a little more similar, it’s not going to be an enormous difference anyway.

I’ve never seen this statement made by anyone with any particular expertise in the history of English (or for that matter, any linguist at all.) So I can’t say on what basis - if any - those claims are made. Supposed reconstructions of Shakespearean-era English that I’ve heard don’t sound much like American English at all, though.

Well, it was made by my English Prof in graduate school, George Hastings, a pretty well known scholar of English, with credits for articles in the MLA Journal. IIRC, he said the sound was similar to an Eastern Virginia accent. And Shakespeare sounded nothing like Received Pronunciation (RP) – which is what people think of when they think of a British accent.

And pronunciation in Elizabethan times can be determined by rhymes and puns; Shakespeare had plenty of both.

I can believe that someone, such as the above mentioned professor, authoritatively stated that the sound of Shakespear’s English and a particular dialect today are similar. But to jump from that and say that modern dialect is closer to Shakespeare’s English is overstating the case, or simply misstating it. There is, after all, a lot more to language than just pronunciation.

Sorry, no cites. I remembered hearing/reading it a few times some time ago. It came up in a conversation yesterday and I was unable to provide a cite, so I turned here.

Apologies, I believe what I heard/read was with regard to pronunciation as opposed to syntax.

Reality Chuck, thanks for the good link.

This article is a rather good discussion on where the idea came from, why it has proved to be so enduring and why it doesn’t make much sense.

Just How “Old” is Ozarks English?

One widely-cited source for the “some American dialects sound just like Elizabethan English” thing was the 1985 PBS series The Story of English.

Speaking of Shakespearian rhymes and puns … rhyming hour/whore and cold/could suggests that modern Eastern Virginian English actually sounds quite a bit different than Elizabethan English, even if some Elizabethan features happen to be preserved (e.g. the syllable-final /r/, as Excalibre pointed out).

The Tangier Island accent is usually mentioned as being particularly archaic, but like **Excalibre **said, I think it’s hard to quantify-- especially since there are so many different accents in both countries.

The answer is “No.” No modern dialect is substantially closer to a dialect of Shakespeare’s time than any other. Any modern dialect contains some archaic features that other modern dialects don’t, but it also contains new features that other dialects don’t contain. There are no archaic dialects. I’ve heard reconstructions of Shakespearian speech, and it just sounds weird. It would be somewhat hard for either an American or a Briton to understand it.