Trevor Nunn on American Accents

Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the RSC Trevor Nunn, former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wants to do a production of Shakespeare with an all-American cast, reports Nunn says, “There is a different energy and a different use of language.” This is certainly true: Americans and Brits have very different rhythms and sounds to the way they speak; I imagine that any dialect will bring something new to a character or play.

But the rest of the article chooses not to report on the challenges of staging a play in a dialect or examples of how differences in dialect in equally-talented and trained actors can yield different readings and interpretations of text. Instead, there are a few comments about Nunn’s statement,

“…it is almost certainly true that today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

You can read the article to see what Professor Stanley Wells has to say about it.

I want to talk about the above quote. It is a common (what I believe to be) misconception that American English is more like Shakespeare’s than British English. Firstly, there are several dialects of English in both the US and UK that vary a great deal from each other. If we’re talking about the perceived “standard” dialect from each country (General/Standard American and British RP/BBC English) I still don’t think American English is any more closely related to Shakespeare’s speech.

English, regardless of where it is being spoken, has been evolving for over 400 years since Shakespeare began writing for the theatre. Language and its dialects change a great deal, especially among super-social societies. There are certainly parts of the US and UK whose dialects have evolved more slowly due to isolation over the past centuries, but there has still been 400 years of dialect evolution.

Perhaps the misconception comes from the idea that British RP is an “invented dialect.” Even so, American English pronunciation has been heavily influenced by our friends across the pond. Remember all those movie stars from the 1930s? Theatre, Film, and Radio in the US had a notably “British” sound for a long time.

So you see why I disagree with Trevor Nunn when he says it is “almost certainly true” that American English is closer to Elizabethan English than modern British English.

David Crystal, world renowned linguist and co-author of Shakespeare’s Words, has done a lot of research on what Shakespeare’s English may have sounded like back in the day. His book, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment, tells the process of researching this and using the pronunciation in a production! You can also hear David Crystal reading of Sonnet #1 in “Original Pronunciation.” Listen, then decide whether you think modern American or British English “is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.”

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  1. Kent Richmond Oct 16, 2009

    Here is a post I submitted on the same discussion topic elsewhere. The discussion had been initiated by comments by actor, Nicholas Cage, who felt American accents had the wrong rhythm to perform Shakespeare.

    Of course, Americans are perfectly capable of giving great performances in American accents. So what motivates Nicholas Cage to make such a claim?

    Cage, who was born in Long Beach, California, my hometown, speaks a dialect that has sometimes been called “broad,” “General American” or “North Midland.” This North Midland dialect has spread in a long, expanding swath from a narrow band running from southern New Jersey through the center of Pennsylvania and through states north of the Ohio River and below the Great Lakes. It expands its geographical reach across the Midwest, widening steadily until its range extends along the entire Pacific Coast. Because of its coast-to-coast reach, this dialect does not allow easy identification of the speaker’s place of birth. As a result, it has become the least marked of all the dialects in the United States and seems geographically and socially neutral (meaning middle class). Although most Americans do not speak it, it has the impression of being “the” American accent. This neutrality should make it comfortable for the Shakespeare stage because it gives away little about the actor’s geographic origin. Much like the Received Pronunciation of England, North Midland tells us more about the speaker’s social class than place of origin.

    I wonder if this feature, its neutrality and middle class feel, is what bothers Cage. Americans who enjoy Shakespeare still find Shakespeare a bit exotic (and British) and therefore expect to hear an accent different from what they hear every day. So American actors will often affect a British “stage” accent to add an element that places the play in a different time and place. In other words, it is not the rhythm of American English that is the problem. American English is entirely suited to iambic pentameter and verse. We Americans simply expect something a bit more foreign and exotic. Many Americans also find British accents, even the stigmatized ones, more proper. We see Shakespeare’s language as quite stylized and supposedly proper, so we expect a stylized, “proper” accent even if that accent is not Received Pronunciation.

    What about Trevor Nunn’s claim? Is this North Midland American dialect closer to Shakespeare’s English than the Received Pronunciation spoken by much of the upper crust in Britain? Probably not. Both dialects have no doubt changed significantly since Shakespeare’s time. But the North Midland dialect had a huge contribution from Scot and Irish immigrants who made up as much as one-seventh of the colonists. Many early colonists who settled outside of New England came from the south and west of England and spoke dialects quite distinct from those in the London area. Also don’t forget the influence of two other groups—African Americans, who were among the early colonists, and millions of immigrants who arrived after the 1840s. Received Pronunciation developed from a regional dialect spoken in the London area before spreading around Britain as a “neutral” accent. Its geographical proximity to London suggests that it would be closer to the accents spoken on a London stage in 1600.

    In the end, though, none of this matters. We have no recordings of anyone speaking English before the 1880s and precise, or “narrow,” phonetic transcription, was still several centuries ahead. We can only guess as to how anyone in the past actually sounded. Go back and listen to American actors in 1930s movies or a president from the early 20th century. Where have those accents gone? In the space of one lifetime, Katherine Hepburn’s accent has gone extinct. Good luck trying to find someone today who sounds quite like Teddy Roosevelt or Calvin Coolidge. (Then, for comparison, listen to Herbert Hoover, who was raised in Iowa, Oregon, and California. His accent seems quite contemporary).

    Kent Richmond

    See David Crystal’s “Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language” for a fun, accessible introduction to English dialects around the world. The book is a wonderful bargain.

  2. Chathan Apr 25, 2010

    If you listen to Daniel Day Lewis’s accent in There Will be Blood (set during the first decade of the 20th century), I think you’ll hear something that’s not necessarily identical but probably very similar to what many Americans were speaking at the time. Teddy Roosevelt surely has a converging accent on many points when you hold it in comparison to DDL’s in TWBB. The West Country accent is quite similar to what we call “Pirate English” and yet given a few decades of development in the New World and perhaps some mixture with other accents (Irish, Scottish, German), you could easily imagine that becoming an American-esque kind of accent.
    Fact is, the American accent is not static. Its been changing, has always been so, and always will. Americans 100 years ago did not all speak like how we do today. And its quite likely Americans 100 years before that (during the Jefferson presidency) had a radically different accent too. I won’t be surprised if 100 years from now we start sounding a bit more like Hispanics (given the growth of Spanish).
    Ben Franklin once said that he feared Germans swamping the Anglo-Saxon base of the US, due to their massive immigration. He turned out to be quite right, as more people in the US have German ancestry than English ancestry. The general American (midwest derived) accent clearly reflects that German-Dutch-Scandinavian heritage. If you hear a polished English speaker in one of the Scandinavian states or even in Holland, you’ll notice some similarities to GA. Not too hard to see how peasants adopted English to something we hear today.
    Likewise, there’s a concern today over the growing numbers of Hispanic immigrants. if there’s a reason why I’m interested in the possibility of living at least to the near-end of the century, its to see how Spanish affects the way we’ll be speaking the English language here. I don’t know about the cynics, but I, for one, am quite excited by the possibilities.

  3. Daniel Nov 4, 2010

    Nice post! I’m out for a good product to learn american accent and found this one is it something you would recommend? It does seem good with the audio book and all but I just don’t know.

  4. Rigel Fuller Jan 3, 2011

    I really like this idea, I would love to see an Americanized version of Shakespeare plays. I think it would add a lot more energy and excitement to the play with an American twist and if everyone had American accents. It may not be original, but it’s always good to put changes on things, I mean, there’s a whole movie of Romeo and Juliet that is Americanized. I think more people would understand it better and it would make the play a whole lot more fun to watch. Good idea Trevor.

  5. Brad Mar 26, 2011

    I think people in Jefferson’s day probably sounded more british….hell, read some of their papers, even though there’s no thees or thous, how they wrote was still similar to “olde english”. …almost like the way Yoda talks. Of course, those were formal presidential papers lol. But even still, the accent (either genuine, or adopted) heard in movies and surviving radio programs in the 30′s sounds more british-like than today….atleast proper educated sounding british.

    …on the other hand, England had the original 13 colonies for a long time….who knows how the british accent of that day evolved in america before they won independence…not to mention immigrants from various other countries speaking, and mingling with their own english accents.

    Someone get to inventing the flux capacitor so we can see!

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