The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

by Ken Jennings

Put on a purple hat and rent some Corgis: Queen Elizabeth II is turning 87 years old this month! (Actually, the queen celebrates her official public birthday in June, because the weather is likely to be nicer then. That is a true fact. But she was actually born in April.) In honor of Her Majesty, we’ve asked Jeopardy! smart-arse Ken Jennings to spend the month debunking misinformation about the monarchy. Apparently we’ve been royally misled for years.

The Debunker: Did Elizabethans Really Talk Like Americans?

The great Shakespearean stage director Trevor Nunn opined a few years ago, after directing Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic theater, that he’d like to see Shakespeare done only in American accents from now on. “Today's American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing,” he said. Specifically, it’s been claimed since the late 19th century that parts of Appalachia still speak in an accent that’s a virtual time capsule of Elizabethan English. Gadzooks! Hillbillies talking like Hamlet? Can this in truth be so?

can't touch this

Well, no. It might be romantic to think that isolated pockets of Appalachia are still talking like Sir Walter Raleigh, but there’s little evidence for it. It’s true that certain speech patterns in the “Southern Midland dialect” of the Appalachians have clearly been retained from different parts of the British Isles. The prefix “a-” before a verb (“I’m a-comin’!”) is from South England. Phrases like “might could” and “young’un” are Scotch-Irish borrowings. But Elizabethan vocabulary is very rare in Appalachian speech, and Shakespeare’s London was the part of Britain that influenced colonial American speech the least.

So what did Shakespeare’s English sound like, if not Appalachian? By studying internal evidence like rhymes and meter, as well as reading accounts from Elizabethan linguists, the British Library has come up with their best guess as to how the Bard actually spoke, and has recorded 75 minutes of Shakespeare in that accent. Take a listen.. It’s certainly not the posh BBC accent of modern Shakespearean actors. It seems peppered with bits of many British regional accents, and even some American ones. For example, the Elizabethans used a rhotic “r” sound at the end of words, the way American or Irish English does but Brits today don’t. But I don’t hear much Loretta Lynn in there.

Quick Quiz: Which of the thirteen original U.S. colonies was actually named for Queen Elizabeth?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.