Original Pronunciation

How true do your vowels have to be? I often pick my students up on their ‘non-English’ vocalisation, where they approximate English vowels to whatever seems closest in their native tongue. I can be quite hard on them. I point at the phonological table with a solemn face, like some wise old alchemist pointing out why their spoken production does not meet the C2 gold-standard.

But what am I asking them to approximate to? Received standard pronunciation? For clarity (or out of desperation) I will frequently allow certain ‘non-standard’ pronunciations under my radar, for example if they come close to what I understand as ‘American’ pronunciation. But this is ludicrous. There are perhaps not as many ‘American’ variants as there are English, but there are plenty; and of English, there are innumerable accents and regional tweaks and micro-dialects.

And these things change over time. English is the language of Shakespeare, and as we saw in a post last week Shakespeare stands at the centre of the language in many ways, providing innumerable citiations in the Oxford English dictionary. And yet the contemporary pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English was in many ways wildly different from our own.

David Crystal and his son Ben have for years been consulting with the Globe Theatre in staging ‘OP’, or original pronunciation, productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Among other things, a great many puns come to life in OP, and a great many rhymes (in the sonnets, for example).

So perhaps I should just back off. Even clarity might be a false goal, since pronunciation is so Protean; we are trying to nail down a slippery fish at the best of time. Techniques for negotiating meaning and clarifying understanding might be a more realistic target, and, in the matter of pronunciation, let each find his or her own level.

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