Reading 18th-Century English

This is some text about the ECEP database.

Reading of an extract from Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer in reconstructed 18th-century pronunciation.

This reading was part of a presentation in the University of Sheffield's HRI Catalyse Series on 4th December 2017. The presentation was intended as a launch of the Eighteenth-Century English Phonology Database (ECEP) project. We decided to do this reading in order to 'bring to life' the database, to indicate possible applications, and, frankly, for light relief.

  • Live representation of 'She Stoops to Conquer', by Oliver Goldsmith (1773), Act 3, Miss Hardcastle and Marlow -- with Joan C. Beal and Ranjan Sen. Listen here! and read the transcript here.

We chose this play for several reasons. It was and still is a popular comedy and continues to be widely performed. The author, Oliver Goldsmith, was Irish, as was Thomas Sheridan, one of the authors of pronouncing dictionaries used for ECEP. This play, and the scene chosen for the reading in particular, also sheds light on issues of social class in the late 18th-century that are implied in the evaluative comments on 'polite' versus 'vulgar' pronunciations found in the pronouncing dictionaries and registered in the database. Marlow is a young gentleman who is very inhibited in the presence of young ladies of his own class, but has no such inhibitions in his dealings with women of a lower social class. He has been sent into the country by his father, who hopes he will make the acquaintance of Miss Hardcastle with a view to marrying her. However, due to a mischievous trick on the part of her step-brother, Marlow is led to believe that the Hardcastle's house is an inn. Miss Hardcastle, seeing how tongue-tied Marlow is when introduced to her, takes advantage of this and masquerades as a barmaid in order to loosen his inhibitions, with more success than she had bargained for.

Immediately before this extract begins, Miss Hardcastle confides in her maid about her plans. When her maid asks whether Miss Hardcastle can successfully imitate a barmaid, the latter replies 'I know the bar cant'. In other words, she has an idea of how barmaids talk and is confident that she can imitate this. So, in this extract, we have two styles of 18th-century English pronunciation: the upper-class accent of Marlow, and Miss Hardcastle's performance of what she considers to be that of a lower-class woman.

We chose to base our reconstruction of these two styles of pronunciation on two main sources. For Marlow's pronunciation, which would have been the type recommended by the pronouncing dictionaries of the time, we used the dictionary whose date of publication was in the same year as the first performance of She Stoops to Conquer: William Kenrick's New Dictionary of the English Language (1773). For Miss Hardcastle's pronunciation in the guise of a barmaid, we used the comments from all the dictionaries in the ECEP database which marked pronunciation variants as 'vulgar' or associated with the lower classes. Such comments indicate that these pronunciations would have been known at the time to be markers of lower-class speech, so that a character like Miss Hardcastle would be likely to use these in order to pass as a barmaid.

Examples of these lower-class features are:

  • The dropping of /h/ at the beginning of words like Hardcastle, and, conversely, the adding of /h/ to words of French origin where the written letter would be silent in upper-class speech, such as honour. This was just beginning to be recognised as a stereotype of lower-class speech, and Cockney speech in particular, and the fact that Miss Hardcastle uses Did your honour call? as an example of bar cant when reassuring her maid, and repeats the phrase several times in this extract, suggests that she is aware of this. By contrast, Marlow pronounces his aitches exactly as recommended in the pronouncing dictionaries.
  • Another example of the contrast between the pronunciation of Miss Hardcastle as barmaid and Marlow is in the pronunciation of the words servant and service. The pronunciation used by Miss Hardcastle /sa:vant/, was formerly acceptable (and is still used in British English today in a few words like clerk, sergeant, and place names like Derby, Hertford). However, comments in our database sources make it clear that, by the late 18th century, such pronunciations in words other than these few exceptions are distinctly vulgar. The fact that 'servants' would be the very people using this 'vulgar' pronunciation would have drawn more attention to it. When Marlow later says at your service, he uses the pronunciation recommended in Kenrick's dictionary.

With regard to Marlow's pronunciation, you will notice certain features that differ from those of today's Received Pronunciation.

  • Marlow pronounced the letter /r/ wherever it is written, or, to use linguistic terminology, his pronunciation is rhotic. All the dictionaries in our database recommend this pronunciation, though Walker (1791) does note that in London the /r/ is considerably weakened, even silent, when it is at the end of words such as bar. This is some of the earliest evidence we have for the loss of rhoticity in London English, but non-rhotic pronunciations would be viewed as 'incorrect' well into the 19th century.
  • Where present-day RP has the diphthong /ou/ in words such as repose, hostess, and /ei/ in grave, taste, Marlow has the monophthongs /o:/ and /e:/ respectively. All the dictionaries in our database record monophthongal pronunciations for words such as these. Indeed, the first evidence for the diphthongs we have in present-day RP does not appear until early in the 19th century.
  • You may also think that Marlow's pronunciation sounds rather formal by present-day standards in that he has 'full' pronunciations of vowels even where they are unstressed. The dictionaries in our database recognise that in less formal pronunciation, most unstressed vowels are pronounced as what we would now call schwa (represented in our IPA transcription as /ʌ/, the short 'u' sound in words like cup in southern British English, rather than IPA schwa /ə/, following the practice of the pronouncing dictionaries who generally also use the same symbol for the two vowel sounds), but except in contexts such as word-final '-er', this was not considered to be the best pronunciation, so we have given Marlow 'full' vowels in words such as a and the.

As you will see if you browse the ECEP database, there are many words for which different dictionaries recommend different pronunciations. Even within what was recommended as 'good’' pronunciation, there was change from the middle to the end of the century, and some variation between what was considered correct by different authorities. This is why we chose to base Marlow's pronunciation on just one dictionary. Reconstructing period pronunciation is always a matter of making the best use of the evidence available, especially when we have no audio-recordings to help us. Nevertheless, we hope that our reading of this extract from She Stoops to Conquer brings the voice of the eighteenth century to life for you.

Reconstructing John Keats' London accent.

As part of a special interdisciplinary webinar to mark the bicentennial of the death of poet John Keats, Ranjan Sen has collaborated in an exciting project in order to reconstruct Keats' London accent. The project was commissioned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association from the Institute for Digital Archaeology in Oxford, and the aim was to recite the poem Bright Star, written for Fanny Brawne, from the room where he died beside the Spanish Steps. American Broadway star, Marc Kudisch, created the voice samples that would be used to recreate Keats' synthesised voice.

After some detective work and study of eighteenth-century pronouncing dictionaries, John Walker's (1809) edition of his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary*, and numerous nineteenth-century sources Ranjan identified the following likely features of Keats’ accent:

  • Keats' work was referred to as 'Cockney poetry' at the time, but 'cockney' was used as a value-judgment for 'vulgar' rather than purely a dialectal designation. The criticism explicitly mentions coda r-deletion, but is largely motivated by the social and educational background of Keats and his associates. Keats' accent was therefore likely to have shown London features, without displaying those more strongly associated with lower-class London speech, e.g. no h-dropping.
  • coda r-deletion
  • retraction of the BATH vowel, both before deleted /r/, e.g. in star, but also in other environments, e.g. grass (e.g. grass and farce rhyme in the last stanza of the Ode on Indolence)
  • /ʌɪ/ for the PRICE vowel
  • monophthongal FACE vowel but slightly diphthongised (but still very rounded) GOAT vowel, to reflect the fact that the latter was ahead of the former (but both had started)
  • yod-insertion after /g/ and before a front vowel in gazing

You can watch the webinar here, with Ranjan's contribution from minute 12 to 22, and the CGI Keast reading around 1:04. More on Bringing Keats (back) to life here

*With thanks to the University of Poitiers for giving us access to Walker's (1809) digital edition.