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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 10. Elizabethan pronunciation

With regard to Elizabethan pronunciation, certain differences, as compared with the sound-values of earlier and later times, may, perhaps, be noted. By 1600, Caxton’s pronunciation had undergone certain changes, but it has also to be remembered that the sound of a given word might vary even within one and the same period, and this was due not only to the existence of doublets and dialectal variants at an earlier date, but, also, to the survival of sounds which were becoming archaic alongside their later developments. The Middle English open [char] (seen in “leaf” and “heat”) retained the fifteenth century sound (heard in “pail”), which prevailed down to the eighteenth century, but it was frequently shortened in closed syllables, particularly before dentals, though no change was made in the orthography (cf. “bread” and “death”). The Middle English close [char] (seen in “deep” and “bleed”) also retained its fifteenth century sound (heard in “pail”), but, at the same time, it was adopting a more modern value, namely, the sound heard in “peel”: before r, however, an open value might still be retained (cf. “hear”). In the spellings “indide” (indeed), “quin” (queen), “bin” (been), the classical [char] stands for this later sound of the Middle English close [char]. Middle English open [char] (seen in “goad” and “stone”) also retained its fifteenth century value (heard in “pole”), and, to this, the word “one” is no exception. The modern pronunciation of this word, as if with an initial w, was certainly not usual in Elizabethan times, and this is plainly suggested by such forms as “such an one,” “th’one,” and, also, by Shakespeare’s rime of “one” with “Scone.” It seems, however, to have been general in the seventeenth century and may have been a provincialism in the sixteenth; the form “wholesome,” with the w, appears in 1550. The Middle English close [char] (seen in “doom”), while it retained its fifteenth century sound (heard in “pole”), also approximated its modern value (heard in “pool”); and, about this date, Middle English [char] and [char] (ou) seem to have developed diphthongal values. The earlier value [char] (heard in “he”) moves on towards the modern sound heard in “while”; and, similarly, the earlier sound of [char] (heard in “boot”) approximated the modern diphthongal value heard in “house.”

With regard to consonants, the differences between Elizabethan and modern pronunciation are comparatively slight. It would appear that r was strongly trilled, for “fire” and “hire” appear in Shakespeare as dissyllabic, “Henry” and “angry” as trisyllabic; and, again, the pronunciation of gh (as f) seems to have been more frequent than at a later date, when, however, we have it in words such as “laugh” and “draught.” In Chapman, “wrought” and “taught” appear with this sound-value; in Shakespeare, “after” is found riming with “daughter.”

The task of ascertaining these sixteenth century sound-values was one of some difficulty, owing to the fact that Caxton’s spelling was no longer capable of representing any changes in pronunciation. Fortunately, however, these values were preserved as a result of a series of attempts made by certain scholars to denote the current pronunciation with the help of phonetic symbols. The works proceeded from various motives: one aimed at amending English orthography, another at teaching the pronunciation of Greek; but, whatever their objects, their phonetic systems have preserved sixteenth century sound-values. The most important of these contributions was due to William Salesbury, who, in 1547, compiled A Dictionary of Englishe and Welshe, and, subsequently, wrote a tract on the pronunciation of Welsh (1567). In the dictionary, he had transcribed into Welsh characters some 150 English words; and, since he had clearly denoted in his tract the sound-values of Welsh letters, the pronunciation of the transliterated English words may thus be easily inferred.