Thursday 16 August 2012

On pronouncing Shakespeare (the name)

A correspondent has written to the Shakespeare's Words website to ask how the name of Shakespeare would have been pronounced at the time.

This is a tricky one, as proper names often don’t follow the general spelling/pronunciation rules of the language - think of Cholmondley pronounced 'chumley', for instance! And there are many variations of the spelling of Shakespeare's name. According to David Kathman, who collated them all, we have the following:

Non-literary references (1564-1616)

Shakespeare 71
Shakespere 27
Shakespear 16
Shakspeare 13
Shackspeare 12
Shakspere 8
Shackespeare 7
Shackspere 6
Shackespere 5
Shaxspere 3
Shexpere 2
Shakspe~ 2
Shaxpere 1
Shagspere 1
Shaksper 1
Shaxpeare 1
Shaxper 1
Shake-speare 1
Shakespe 1
Shakp 1

Literary references (1593-1616

Shakespeare 119
Shake-speare 21
Shakspeare 10
Shaxberd 4
Shakespere 4
Shakespear 3
Shak-speare 2
Shakspear 2
Shakspere 1
Shaksper 1
Schaksp. 1
Shakespheare 1
Shakespe 1
Shakspe 1

For the first syllable, there are clearly two types, with an -e and without an -e, and this is an important difference, as the presence or absence of an -e was one of the signals of the contrast between a long and a short preceding vowel (you can read more on the spelling background in my new book Spell It Out).

The Shakespeare spelling is overwhelmingly the predominant one. Shake rhymes with make, take, and quake in the canon, which clearly suggests a long vowel, and this would in original pronunciation be a mid-open front vowel, approximating to a long version of the modern vowel we hear in RP pet. On the other hand, the Shak, Shack, Shax series clearly suggests a short front vowel, as in RP back today. How to reconcile the difference? There are many spelling variations which suggest that the OP short vowel of back was higher at the front of the mouth than it is in RP today, closer to the short /e/ of bet: we see, for example, acts written as ectes, and there are several other instances. There are also many rhymes which show that the short /a/ vowel must have been close to short /e/, such as back rhyming with neck in Venus and Adonis.

If we start with Shake, this would have had a long /e/ vowel, but - as with all long vowels - it would sometimes be pronounced rapidly, and be heard as a short vowel, and spelled accordingly. If we start with Shak, this would have had a short /e/ vowel, but - as with all short vowels - it would sometimes be pronounced slowly, and be heard as a long vowel, and spelled accordingly. Either way, we end up with the same result - a vowel sound which is roughly what we hear in share in RP. (Phonetic symbols don't always come across easily in blogs, but the relevant symbol for this vowel is the mid-open front one - /ɛ/) There's also the option that a Warwickshire regional pronunciation would have affected the length, but there's no firm evidence about that.

For the second syllable, the main point to note is that the /r/ would have been pronounced at the end. All sources agree on that. As for the vowel, the spellings suggest a long vowel, as in spear. But when we look at spear (and similar words) we find it could rhyme with there (in Lucrece and Venus, for instance) and similar-sounding words, and it this which doubtless motivated such spellings as -pere, -berd, and so on in the name. The vowel may also have had a shortened and centralised form, being in an unstressed syllable. So it would have been roughly what we would hear today in (long) spare or (short) spur.

In short: I would say the evidence points to something like /shɛ:kspɛ:r/, with /shɛksper/ or /shɛkspur/ as more rapidly said alternatives.


  1. It's important to emphasize, for the benefit of people who find this posting by search, that the final /r/ was certainly pronounced in Shakespeare's day.

    Blogger blogs and blog comments handle IPA fine: cut and paste ɛ from an IPA page like this one (which I prefer because it looks like an IPA chart, though YMMV), or type "ɛ", using the Unicode scalar value, and you'll get ɛ. And most Windows and Linux systems have fonts with IPA characters in them; I don't know about Macs.

  2. Thanks, John. This works on my Mac too, as can now be seen above.

  3. On a Mac there's a much easier way to input IPA. At least, there has been in recent versions of OS X.

    1. Go into System Preferences and click Language & Text.

    2. Click the tab Input Sources and check Keyboard & Character Viewer.

    [These first two steps may not be necessary, depending on how your computer has been set up.]

    3. Whenever you want to inert an exotic character,
    pull down the Language Keyboard menu. (In my case that means clicking on the Union Jack followed by the word British) and select Show Character Viewer.

    4. Select Phonetic Alphabet — or whatever collection of characters desired.

    5. To insert a character in the text you're working on, double click the example in the Character Viewer.

    6. If you're likely to use it again, click of Add to Favourites.

    For really obscure characters, you can search in the Unicode section.

    For characters that resemble more familiar symbols, recent versions of Character Viewer make it easy to search. For example, type z in the search box, and you're offered Related Characters Z Ź, ź, Ż, ż, Ž, ž, Ẑ, ẑ, Ẓ, ẓ, Ẕ, ẕ — and more obscure choices like ⓩ or ��[a character that Blogger doesn't display]. You can even type in names like yogh and get the choice of Ȝ, ȝ.

  4. Thanks, David. This evidently works now. It used not to. I tried it ages ago and all I got were symbols like @ replacing the phonetic fonts - and if something worked in one font (e.g. Times Romand Phonetic) it didn't necessarily work in another. Things have moved on, as you demonstrate.

    And thanks to William Shakespeare for motivating these clarifications.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Gramercy for the wonderful post, Professor!

    Relating this to the fascinating story of how the "e" probably got in there in between the two ICs in printing practice, which You illuminate in Your "Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language" - Shakespeare's beautiful surname seems to provide as much a romantic (and linguistic) anecdote as much else related to him. This would be a delightful heat-up to start the first language class with new groups of students in two weeks!

    P.S. In Armenian, Shakespeare is spelt and pronounced "Shekspir" (with a clearly audible "r"; and stress is always on last syllable in Armenian). My Mum saw "Shakespeare" on a book the other day and exclaimed: "What? Shekspir is that long in English?!".

  7. Of course, there's another explanation that people such as Pulitzer prize winning historian David McCullough, several U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and acclaimed Shakespearean actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance all accept: Shakspere was William of Stratford, and William Shakespeare (or Shake-speare) was the pseudonym for Edward de Vere. Two men, two names, two different pronunciations.

  8. You miss the point of my post, which is that there could have been no real difference in pronunciation supported by the various spellings.

    I'm well aware of the way Oxfordians have tried to use spelling to support their cause. Listing famous names is irrelevant in this case, as none of the people mentioned have any expertise in historical phonology or ortheoepy. If they had, they would soon have seen the weakness in their argument.

  9. DC, You're right. There is great relevance in word pronunciation in the Shakespeare plays. However, the pseudonym (brand name) Shakespeare as used variously in frontmatter printings, etc., is irrelevant. At the time of the original private court performances of the plays, no reference is made at all to the existence of an actual person named "Shakespeare" as well as no posthumous reference. There is a common misconception the plays are intended for the common man and originated from a common man. They did not.

  10. Mr. Crystal, it is not relevant how others pronounced Shaxper, Shakesper et al. It is only relevant how William of Stratford pronounced his name. If you look at every time he "signed" his name (meaning William) it was signed with the phonetic sound short a and at the end, spur, hence the sper NOT spear as you would try to force it.

    He, William, supposedly signed his name six times but each time it was spelled differently. Even on his own will. Yet there was one consistency in each of the spellings...the phonetic sound. Shaksper, Shaxper, Shagsper, Shacksper (rhymes with sack). If you look at the baptismal registry in 1564 the hand of the writer shows competent penmanship and whomever wrote the name spelled it Shakspere. As you know John Shakspere was not literate therefore the name was signed for him. Regardless of whether the scrivner knew John Shakspere or if John told the scrivner his name the name is spelled Shak (rhymes with sack)
    For the past 200 plus years William of Stratford has been given credit for 154 Sonnets, two epic poems and 37 plays, some of the most brilliant works in all of literature and yet this playwright who gave thousands of new words to the English language, was unable to sign his name in uniformed manner? Regardless of how others were spelling that name, this great wordsmith should have been able to use a pen with some dexterity (as he was always writing) AND should have been able to spell his name with some consistency. Shagsper does not equal to Shake-speare.
    Your very blog makes my point and that is that there were many spellings of the name but there was only one William. Go to the source (meaning William) to find your answer.

  11. These words are taken from the letters of Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, randomly selected from the years 1569 to 1595. Oxford's spellings are in the left column, modern spellings in
    the right. These spellings in themselves are enough to invalidate any modern interpretations of Elizabethan pronunciation based on applying modern spelling conventions.


    lat = late
    se = see
    amise = amiss
    imput = impute
    ame = am
    her = here
    wares = wars
    arr = are
    pute = put
    loke = look
    ofe = of
    hape = hap
    mad = made
    bad = bade
    thuse = thus
    deme = deem
    tropes = troops
    bene = been
    latlye = lately
    tru = true
    bloke = block
    crose = cross
    bare = bar
    on = one
    hade = had
    abrode = abroad
    costes = coasts
    car = care
    rote = root
    profites = profits
    ode = odd
    ofe = off
    stoke = stock
    estatte = estate
    ratte = rate

  12. Shakespeare aside if I may, Cholmondley isn't really pronounced 'Chumley'. As I say it I can even feel inside my mouth how that initial 'l' is still placed, even though it is suppressed, compared to the instant move to the 'm' if I really wanted to say 'Chumley'.

  13. Been travelling, and not online, so responses to recent posts are in a bundle, and brief. I should perhaps precede remarks by saying that this is a language blog, so I won't be going off topic into general questions of authorship. Readers interested in the psyches of those who, since the 19th century, have proposed the couple of dozen alternatives for Shakespearean authorship should go to James Shapiro's excellent book, Contested Will. However, for the record:

    Greg: I find plenty of evidence of the actual person William Shakespeare in the contemporary record, and don't at all think it a misconception that they could have originated from a common man.

    Blair: my post wasn't about how Shakespeare pronounced his name. It was about the possible pronunciations that the various spellings provide evidence for, in the Early Modern English of his lifetime. If you want to restrict the question to the six signatures, that it is up to you. I was addressing a broader set of data, which suggests alternatives to what the signatures show. It is by no means irrelevant to ignore these, any more than it would be today. The notion of a uniform spelling in signatures is a relatively modern one: there is plenty of evidence from the Middle Ages on to show that people often signed their name with different spellings, and accepted different spellings of their name, in a manner that is inconceivable today.

    Tom: I don't know what you're getting at. There was no application of modern spelling conventions in my post. All the reasoning is based on the historical phonology of Early Modern English. I don't know why you've chosen to select a set of spellings from the de Vere letters, unless you're trying to make some sort of Oxfordian point. The list proves nothing, as many of these spellings are to be found in other texts from the period. They do of course provide one strand in the evidence used by historical phonologists in reconstructing original pronunciation.

    Roger: i imagine there are people who allow the spelling to give them the articulatory sense you mention, but whenever I've heard people say the name there has never been an auditory trace of it. Same with Featherstonehaugh - or would you argue that there is an underlying 'th', 'st', and so on in the pronunciation 'fanshaw'?

  14. David, my list was in reference to your sentence in your original blog post: "For the first syllable, there are clearly two types, with an -e and without an -e, and this is an important difference, as the presence or absence of an -e was one of the signals of the contrast between a long and a short preceding vowel". I don't believe the "terminal e" rule holds up under examination.

    I used the spellings found in Oxford's letter to demonstrate to Oxfordians that their insistence that Shakespeare's (mostly written, mostly non-London) name was pronounced differently has no basis in the orthography of his era.

  15. Ah right, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

    There are of course lots of problems in analysing the use of final e, and several idiosyncratic uses to take into account - not least, those introduced by printers; but the basic use of e, along with consonant doubling, to distinguish between long and short vowels does hold up very well throughout the Middle Ages and into Early Modern English. I devote a lot of space to this in my new book, Spell It Out.

  16. When it is released I'll be sure to check it out. Cheers!

  17. Tom Reedy: I'm afraid your evidence does not stand up to close scrutiny. Let's take your first example, "lat" meaning 'late'. Let's check how *consistent* Oxford's spelling of this word was, shall we? "Love and Antagonism": "bewail thy late done deed". "Doth Sorrow Fret Thy Soul": "O bliss too late" etc. There is nothing surprising here, really - have a look at this, as something to start with,
    On the same website, you can easily find that the form "lat" occurs twice, whereas the form "late" occurs seven times in Oxford's correspondence. You got the idea.

    Professor Crystal, in your book "Evolving English", on page 103, you argue that the original spelling was "Shakspeare" and that e was inserted for typographical reasons. Does this blogpost mean that you have changed your opinion?

  18. One more thing. Shouldn't it be /shɛ:kspɛ:r/?

  19. You're quite right: I've corrected it.

    Re the reference in Evolving English: this was solely in relation to the way the name appears on the First Folio title page - an important consideration, as this text helped to institutionalize that particular spelling. But I didn't mean to exclude the likelihood that the printers were aware of the widespread use of the -e- spelling well before 1623.