Shakespeare as he woz spoke

The UK Telegraph ran a fun story about the London Globe Theatre’s project of putting on a Shakespeare play using the pronunciation as spoken in Will’s time. They’ve got language polymath David Crystal to advise on the sort of English they would have used to perform Romeo and Juliet in 1590.

“It’s more like West Country,” (…) “with a whirred Scots “r” and vowels colored like those in modern French.”

So expect something like ‘weerrforre arrt thu, Rommio’ I suppose. This will no doubt open up another Pandora’s box of ‘authentic’ performance possibilities, similar to using ancient musical instruments, or old amphitheaters. After Mel Gibson’s cod-Latin/Aramaic J.C., we might expect a more linguistically reconstructed Troy one day or even ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit declamations in original vocal garb. Maybe, as multilinguality slowly becomes tamed into the natural modality of a globalized society, ‘language’ itself will take on a more playful, sensual role, like good food or sightseeing, instead of just a survival medium for meanings.

The Shakespeare gig is of course sheer high jinks plus a little intriguing science, but you could also look at is as a ‘de-localized’ version of the play for those who wish to see it – i.e. it intentionally fails to adapt a product to its natural locale. Which brings me to a minor bête noire. In my recent experience of good theater in Europe, there’s still a long way to go before we can deliver appropriate localized versions to unequally endowed audiences.

For example, I saw a wonderful Catalan version in Paris recently of The Threepenny Opera, performed in Catalan because it was an extravaganza stuffed with local references, but the sur-titles designed for an audience who came to a Paris suburban theater were only in English. No doubt the troupe had traveled round Europe with the show and there was no budget to translate for each locale. But is it so hard to do? Same thing a few years ago with a Bob Wilson production in Paris, sung/spoken in German but with English surtitles. No one around me seemed to complain, mind you, possibly because it doesn’t look cool to admit to not mastering the new lingua franca. But now that this sur-title technology is gradually improving (but frankly, why can’t we expect normal text standards with upper and lower case and accents etc, and capable of handling two languages if necessary?), it seems to be a minimum requirement of a continent ostensibly devoted to improving citizens’ rights to be a bit more inventive when it comes to the virtues of theatrical and operatic localization. If all goes well, there should caravans of traveling shows parading their wares from the Urals to the Atlantic in the years ahead. Let’s put some more money into localizing understandable contemporary versions that everyone can enjoy before we blow it all on the great Barrrd!


Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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