This site is devoted to the production or performance of works from earlier periods of English spoken in original pronunciation (OP) – that is, in an accent that would have been in use at the time.
The present-day movement to perform works in OP began in 2004, when David Crystal collaborated with Shakespeare’s Globe in an OP production of Romeo and Juliet. This was so successful that the following year the Globe mounted a production of Troilus and Cressida in OP. Subsequent interest from American enthusiasts led to OP Shakespeare events in New York, Virginia, and Kansas, ranging from evenings of extracts to full productions. As only a handful of works have so far been performed in OP, interest is growing worldwide to explore the insights that the approach can provide.
I’m sure there must be other OP initiatives around the world, and until now there has been no place where they can be brought together. The time thus seems right to provide a website where people can find out about OP, archive their events, announce plans, and share their experiences of working with it and listening to it.
Although Shakespeare was the stimulus for current interest in OP, the notion is much broader. Any period of English history can be approached in this way, and indeed there have been several projects where people have tried to reconstruct the pronunciation of earlier works in Old and Middle English, notably for Chaucer. The British Library exhibition, Evolving English, which ran from November 2010 to April 2011, had an audio dimension which included OP extracts from Beowulf, Caxton, Chaucer, and the Paston letters, as well as Shakespeare. The 2011 anniversary of the King James Bible also prompted readings in OP, some of which can be found on this site.
More than literature is involved. There are opportunities for people interested in the vocal dimension of early English music, as well as for those involved in heritage projects which present original practices, such as Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Examples from these perspectives include an OP rendering of vocal music by William Byrd and of the songs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s important to appreciate that there is no ‘single’ OP. All periods of English contain many accents, and this allows for variant OP performances. The evidence that allows us to reconstruct what was the case is often mixed, and choices have to be made about which sound qualities to go for. Variations in spelling can point us in different directions. Observations by contemporaries can indicate that some words had different pronunciations (as they have today). Deductions by historical linguists can reach different conclusions about the quality of a sound. Any attempt to reconstruct an earlier period of pronunciation is based on as much scientific evidence as is available, but inevitably involves a certain amount of guesswork. The more OP illustration and discussion we have, therefore, the sooner we will be able to arrive at a consensus about best practice.
This site therefore aims to act as a first point of call for those interested in promoting an OP dimension to their activities. It will include only work that is grounded in a serious investigation of the sound system of a period. There are plenty of comic pastiches of the ‘ye oldee speech’ kind and wild imaginings of how people once spoke, such as the ‘oo-arr’ voices traditionally given to pirates. These will not be found here.