Literatur | Philosophie | Sprache


Bérénice Lezon, 2003 | Basel, BS


William Shakespeare’s writings are among the most highly regarded works of literature. However, in the time since they were created, the English language and its pronunciation system has changed. Considering that a significant part of Shakespeare’s work was meant to be spoken out loud, it is worth investigating how the changing pronunciation has affected it. This paper focuses specifically on Shakespeare’s sonnets, applying David Crystal’s reconstruction of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (OP) to them and comparing the results to the corresponding versions in present day English Received Pronunciation. This is done both on a formal level, exploring how figures of speech have been affected by sound change, as well as in a more content-oriented manner, finding links between the formal changes and the sonnets’ content. Finally, the significance of these issues is discussed and assessed, in terms of both how consequentially the sonnets themselves have been impacted and how strongly our perception of their content might therefore have changed.


How significantly has sound change over the last 400 years affected the perception of Shakespeare’s sonnets?


On the one hand, I approached the research question from a more descriptive point of view, to get a concrete idea of how influential sound change is in the sonnets by looking at clashes in the rhyming scheme. This also included a comparison of the prevalence of assonance between the OP version of an example sonnet and its RP equivalent. On the other hand, I focused on the effect of the aforementioned changes, notably by linking them to the sonnets’ content. I looked for ways in which content is reflected in the formal aspects of the sonnets and whether changes in the latter had an influence on the former. To achieve this, I narrowed my focus to a subset of all sonnets. Lastly, I looked at Shakespeare’s use of homophones for puns and ambiguity. My aim was to find words that used to be pronounced the same, but no longer are, and to see if segments of Shakespeare’s humour had been lost to time. Here, I ventured away from the sonnets and also looked at plays, as comedies presumably featured more relevant instances.


Among phonological figures of speech, I found rhyme and assonance to be the main ‘victims’, whereas alliteration and consonance remained largely unaffected. The findings of the formal examination show a change in the flow and melody of the sonnets. The first 17 sonnets (procreation sonnets) are especially impacted, as their theme of beauty is no longer reflected in figures of speech as clearly. This directly opposes Shakespeare’s intention of preserving beauty through his sonnets, which he explicitly refers to in several instances. Finally, both in the selected plays and sonnets, there are instances of double meanings, in particular sexual innuendos, that would have been relatively apparent to the audience in OP but are obscured to users of RP today.


For the formal analysis, I concluded that sound change has certainly affected the intended phonological figures of speech, albeit some more than others. That is, there is a clear impact, but the degree of its presence varies. Regarding the effect of sound change on perception, I found a particularly strong impact on the first 17 sonnets, due to their central theme of beauty. The fact that figures of speech have disappeared directly influences the sonnets’ beauty, and thus the form’s reflection of the content. Furthermore, there is a degree of irony to be found in the premise that despite Shakespeare’s assumption that his sonnets would be eternal shrines of beauty, some of it has escaped over the years. As for homophones, pronunciation has changed to a point where the interpretation of the sonnets’ contents is different from what it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. Likely intentional cases of wordplay are no longer discernible, and both humour and literary ambiguity are affected by this. Although such cases are overall not too frequent, they constitute another layer of Shakespeare’s writing that has been lost over time.


While the sonnets remain highly valuable pieces of literature, sound change should not be neglected when analysing them. Its effect is substantial, impacting the sonnets not only on a formal level, but going as far as changing the way the sonnets are perceived and how certain words are interpreted.



Würdigung durch die Expertin

Dr. Eva Zehentner

Die grosse Bedeutung von Shakespeares Werken ist unbestritten – trotzdem stellt sich die Frage, inwieweit Veränderungen in der Aussprache des Englischen im Laufe der Zeit unsere Wahrnehmung der Texte beeinflussen und uns sprachliche Aspekte unzugänglich machen. In ihrer Arbeit protokolliert Bérénice Lezon systematisch und detailliert ebensolche Effekte – von unrein gewordenen Reimen bis zu ‘verlorenen’ Sprachspielen. Darüber hinaus hebt sie hervor, wie diese Phänomene einen fast schon ironischen Kontrapunkt zu Shakespeares Streben nach unvergänglicher Schönheit seines Schreibens darstellen.


sehr gut




Gymnasium Bäumlihof, Basel
Lehrer: Samuel Kradolfer