I just a video of a guy who delivered the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet in the modern received pronunciation of (British) English and then the same lines in what he claimed was the original accent of Shakespeare - which sounded close to a Celtic or a "Pirate" accent.

But since we don't have any recordings of the period, how can we make any statements at all of what people's accents were like at the time? Or are they just using social and historical conjectures to estimate what the accent might have sounded like?

Written records allow us to trace the evolution vocabulary, but I don't see how we can trace the evolution of sounds and pronunciation in any objective way.

2 Answers 2


Oftentimes we have documents that talk about how things were pronounced, especially when they criticize people for how they talk (the Romans were rather famous for that). Texts like poems are also very helpful for knowing where words would have similar pronunciations or stresses, and can even help demonstrate sound evolutions despite spelling being the same. On a similar note, inconsistent spellings that suddenly crop in after years of consistency may represent a sound in flux, especially if they later stabilize with the innovated form. Many of those sound changes are relatively consistent across languages, which help confirm those observations (in the sense that we know condition A has resulted in innovation B in unrelated languages due to some known principal C). Finally, we have documents where someone from one language reports on a word from another language and talks about how it sounds in relationship to their language, or more simply a word that gets imported and brings its pronunciation along with it.

Taken together, there are generally enough pieces to put together to demonstrate how a language may have sounded with pretty high certainty. If there aren't enough pieces, though, there may be several pronunciations that are consistent with the evidence, and absent more evidence, it may be impossible to know which is the most accurate.


I gather that Romeo and Juliet was written near the end of the 16 c., and John Hart was describing some facts of English in that time (Hart was an orthoepist/spelling reformer). There is a discussion of what we can learn from Hart and other orthoepists about English pronunciation of that time in The Sound Pattern of English.

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