Shakespeare’s Tongue, Dog Listeners, and Gregarious Cockroaches

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February 17, 2015 by libroshombre

David Crystal’s book, “Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language,” has been on my reading table lately. The section on phonology, “the study of the pattern of speech sounds used in a particular language,” has been of special interest. How did Shakespearean actors pronounce the Bard’s words back then? That’s the sort of question that can be difficult to Google, but if you’re in the public library, it’s much quicker to look up “pronunciation” in their copy of The Oxford Companion to ShakespeFeatured imageare.

“It is often said, usually by Americans,” that article notes, “that the spoken English of Shakespeare’s day was closer in sound to present-day American English than it was to the current British ‘received pronunciation.’ There is some truth in this with regard to certain vowel sounds: most 16th-century English dialects, for example, even at court, were still rhotic, i.e. they pronounced the hard ‘r’ in ‘hard,’ … for Shakespeare as for present-day compatriots, clerk rhymed with ‘bark,’ … for many the ‘k’ and ‘g’ in ‘knight’ and ‘gnaw’ were still enunciated.”

“Received pronunciation, or RP for short,” according to the British Library website, “ is the instantly recognizable accent often described as ‘typically British’ … RP is probably the most widely studieFeatured imaged and most frequently described variety of spoken English in the world, yet recent estimates suggest only 2% of the UK population speak it … It should properly, therefore, be described as an English, rather than a British accent.” It’s “based loosely on the local accent of the south-east Midlands, roughly London, Oxford, and Cambridge.” It’s a recent phenomena; linguist A.J. Ellis coined the phrase “received pronunciation” in 1869, but it didn’t become widely used until its inclusion in the 1924 publication, “The English Pronouncing Dictionary.”

This line of inquiry began after I encountered a SeattleShakespeare.org article last December titled, “Who Were those People? Audiences in Shakespeare’s Day,” by Michelle Burce. The Globe Theatre could seat 3,000 people, entertaining Featured imagefrom 10,000 to 20,000 people weekly, ranging from royalty in the expensive covered seats, which cost six pence and up, while the Groundlings, who paid a penny each to stand on the packed earth in front of the stage. “In general,” Burce wrote, “audiences were much more rowdy and directly involved in the show … the audience would move around, buy food and ale in the theater, clap for the hero, boo the villain, and cheer the special effects.”

A series of French teachers will attest to my being somewhat challenged when it comes to hearing and pronouncing that language. However, an upcoming journey to visit the graves of my two favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian and Michel de Montaigne, will entail getting along in French, and that’s inspired my sweetie, a comparatively gifted linguist, to use the public library’s Mango database to learn the language. Mango’s a wonderful, free online resource that even analyzes your pronunciation to help improve that critical element.

I’m shamed by my stubborn unilinguality, especially since my dog might be better at picking up foreign words. “Dogs Hear Our Words and How We Say Them” was a ScienceDaily.cFeatured imageom article from last November. Just as we notice things like a speaker’s gender, emotional tone, and accent, “dogs also differentiate and process those various components of human speech.” In short, “they might not always understand you, but they really are listening.

Cockroaches don’t listen to us at all, but they do have personalities, according to a recent News.Sciencemag.org article by Virginia Morell. Researchers at the Free University of Brussels glued tiny radio frequency chips, like those used in library books for theft protection, onto 304 American cockroaches. Tracking their movementsFeatured imageshowed that some were bold, shy, social, or aggressive, and, when they gather, they develop varying group personalities, too.

Now that cockroach infestations have been reported in Fairbanks, we’ll all probably get to know them better. After growing up with those beasties, I do my cockroach talking with ionized boric acid, and I’ll probably be looking for the aggressive ones. But it’s all relative; a PublicPolicyPolling.com survey found that “Hemorrhoids, toenail fungus, dog poop, and cockroaches all might be a little bit gross- but they’re all more popular than Congress.”

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