Thursday, 4 November 2010

On shellacking

A correspondent (from Radio 4's 'World At One') rings up to ask me about the origins of shellacking, which has received a new lease of life thanks to President Obama's use of it yesterday. How did shellac develop the meaning of 'thrashing, beating'? There's no obvious link, she said.

True. To see what happened, you have to know the intermediate stage in the development of this word. The original meaning of the verb 'to varnish with shellac' (a type of resin) is known from the late 19th century. Anything that had been 'shellacked' would have a nice rosy tinge. By the 1920s, in the USA, this effect had evidently been enough to motivate a slang use of the word meaning 'drunk'. Rosey, illuminated, and plastered show similar developments - all early 20th-century slang.

At the same time, drunks were also being described using such words as busted, bombed, crashed, and thrashed. So it's not surprising to see these words sharing their associations. The connotations of thrashing transferred to shellac, which then developed its later slang sense of 'badly beaten'. I've only every heard this used in US English - but all that is about to change. I predict it will turn up in the House of Commons within the next few days.

So, drink is the link.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

On plays, parrots, and plurilinguals

A correspondent has just sent me details of a new play on endangered languages. In fact, two. It's like London buses. None come for ages, and then two come along at once.

Kamarra Bell Wykes has written Mother's Tongue, being staged this month by the Yirra Yakin Aboriginal Corporation in Perth, Australia. And Julia Cho has written The Language Archive, currently being staged in New York. You can see the post, from Peter Austin, here.

It's great to hear of these initiatives. I last posted on this subject on 8 January 2007, when I continued to bemoan the lack of arts projects presenting the theme of endangered languages and language death. My own play, Living On, was on its own then. Happily, no longer.

And another correspondent has added a fresh dimension to the famous story about the parrots speaking an extinct language, the inspiration behind Rachel Berwick's living sculpture that I mentioned in the 2007 post. You'll find that here.

And while on the subject of language diversity, another two-bus situation. Bilingualism, this time. Despite bilingualism being the normal human condition, a huge mythology has grown up around it, with monolingual communities being a bit scared of it and certainly not understanding it. Earlier this year, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira wrote a lovely little book, aimed at the general public, about the myths and realities of being bilingual, called Multilinguals are...? (Battlebridge Publications). And now she has started a blog on bilingualism. So has Fran├žois Grosjean, whose fine book Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard University Press) also came out earlier this year. His blog is here. It seems to me that we are seeing a new climate slowly being formed.

Monday, 1 November 2010

On Shakespeare being Irish

A correspondent writes to ask what I think of Rod Liddle's piece in this week's Sunday Times. It was headed 'Irish bard? You're taking the mick'. I'd put a link in here, except that the paper now charges you a pound for the opportunity to read something you've missed. I can't believe their journalists are happy with that, as it must lose them so much readership, but that's another story...

Anyway, Rod says that 'A brilliant American academic called Paul Meier has decided that William Shakespeare spoke with an Irish accent', and he then develops the theme in his inimitable way, referring to earlier claims that Shakespeare 'had initially entitled his plays As You Like It, To Be Sure, To Be Sure; A Midsummer Night's Craic; O'Thello; and The Merry Wives of Windsor Park. Not to mention the famous Merchant of Ennis'. I love it.

But I don't love the new myth that's developing here. Paul Meier hasn't said any such thing. I know, because I've just returned from Kansas University, where I've been working with Paul on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in OP ('original pronunciation') - a reconstruction, as close as we can make it, of how the play would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's time. I've posted earlier about this (see 2 January 2010), and you'll find some of the relevant history of OP in my post of 10 January 2007, as well as articles on my website, such as in Around the Globe, which is where you'll get answers to the usual questions that arise in relation to this topic - like 'how do we know?'.

Note, first, that this isn't anything to do with how Shakespeare himself spoke. I speak with a British English accent, like millions of others do. It's possible to describe the main features of this accent without saying anything at all about the idiosyncrasies of one of its speakers. When foreigners learn, say, Received Pronunciation, they are learning a system of sounds. They aren't learning to speak like any one individual RP speaker. In technical terms, they're learning the phonology of English.

It's the same when we work on OP. It's Early Modern English phonology, and it allows all kinds of phonetic variations, reflecting the individual speakers who must have used it. Shakespeare probably spoke it with a mixed Warwickshire/London accent. Robert Armin, one of his fellow-actors, probably spoke with a mixed Norfolk/London accent. When we did an OP Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe in 2004, the actors came from various parts of the UK. All were taught OP, but this was tinged with their regional backgrounds. So you could hear traces of Scots in Juliet, Northern Irish in Peter, Cockney in the Nurse, and so on. It would have been like that in Shakespeare's day.

So where has the Irish myth come from? Mainly from YouTube. A clip of the OP production and its background has been receiving thousands of hits. You can see it here. Several people who have watched this have said that in their opinion it sounds like Irish. And before we know where we are, this cluster of opinions has become a fact.

Certainly there are some features of OP which are like modern Irish (such as the pronunciation of any like Anny), but there are also features of OP which remind the listener of the West Country of England, or Scotland, or Virginia, or virtually anywhere. When we were doing the Globe production, I used to walk around the audience in the interval and ask people what they thought of the accent, and everyone, without exception, said 'We speak like that where I come from'. There are echoes of most modern accent phonologies in OP - which is hardly surprising, as this is the phonology that lies behind them. It went across the Atlantic in the Mayflower, and to Australia, and elsewhere. If you asked me which modern accent is closest to OP, I'd have some difficulty saying. It's easier to identify the differences. No modern English accent, for example, says words like musician as 'mjooziseean'.

If you don't get your OP exactly right, then it's easy to slip into a modern accent. This is one of the things I have to focus on, when working with a company. The word for 'I', for example, is pronounced with a central opening to the diphthong - with the vowel sound of the word the. If you inadvertently lip-round that vowel, it comes out as 'oi', which is a classic feature of Irish English, often spelled that way in representations of Irish speakers ('Oi'm sure'). I think a lot of the YouTube listeners are reading that in.

OP isn't Irish. If you use or are familiar with Irish accents, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Ireland. If your background is Scottish, you'll notice the bits that remind you of Scotland. An Australian homed in on the pronunciation of yet as 'yit'. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? If so, OP is partly in the ears. But not entirely, as the many examples like musician illustrate.

I'm delighted to see that the Kansas OP project has generated such interest. It's the first full-length production of a Shakespeare play in OP since the Globe experiments of 2004 (Romeo) and 2005 (Troilus). I hope there will be more. Each time a play is done in OP, I discover fresh insights into it - new puns, new rhythms, new possibilities of expression. In Dream, for example, suddenly all the rhymes work. We've all been used to such painful modern dissonances as here, where the lines by Puck don't rhyme any longer:

Thou coward, art thou bragging to the stars
Telling the bushes that thou look'st for wars,
And wilt not come.

But they did in Shakespeare's day. The vowel in wars sounded like that of stars. Multiply this by the dozens of cases in the play where lines now rhyme, and you can begin to sense the cumulative auditory effect of an OP production.

Paul Meier is planning to make recordings of the production in due course (its first night is 11 November at the university theatre in Lawrence, Kansas), which will add immensely to the still rather limited database of OP available online (at Pronouncing Shakespeare). There may also be a live stream of a performance. I'll keep readers of this blog posted.