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French Pronunciation and Accents in Shakespeare
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
(I wrote this up in an email to a list of folks who've just started working on a _Henry V_ production. It occurred to me that some people who read this LJ might have useful/interesting input as well.)

I noticed at the read-through that lots of us have lines in French, but
are unclear on how to pronounce them. Certain other cast members offered
helpful corrections, but the more I think about it, the less convinced I
am that those corrections were, necessarily, correct.

There are at least three different 'French accents' we could consider:
A) How a modern Frenchman pronounces French
B) How a Frenchman in Shakespeare's time pronounced French
C) How a typical Englishman of Shakespeare's time pronounced French

I'm quite sure that A and C are very different, and I suspect that A and B
are pretty disjoint as well. I'm no expert on French in any period, but
I've read lots of period primary sources which mention French city names,
and they are clearly quite different from modern French pronunciation;
"Calais", which is now pronounced Call-ay, shows up in period English
books as "Callis" or "Callice".

In the scene with Pistol and the French Soldier, Pistol mistakes "moi" for
"moy" and "bras" for "brass". These mistakes are not very plausible if
the FS's pronunciation is in accent A.

I don't currently have a facsimile of Henry V handy, but I'm really
curious how Shakespeare spells the French dialogue therein. How much is
phonetically spelled (as he does with the funny-accent English), and how
much is 'correct'? Have 20th century editors 'corrected' his French to be
consistent with modern spelling?

Finally, of course, there's the question of what *we* are going to do
about French pronunciation in our production. Would researching and using
period pronunciations of French be worth the effort? Would it alienate
the audience, or be a cool educational element?

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There is a text for singers that addresses the question of historical pronunciation of different European languages, and certainly includes Early Modern French. (I also think the Riverside is a pretty decent transcription of the original spellings of "dialect".) It's Singing Early Music, and if Vis doesn't have a copy to hand (and is interested in embarking on the project), I can work out a way to get a PDF to you all. (I have it.)
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There are two things at work simultaneously in Pistol's "mistaken identity pronunciation." One is that some words really WERE pronounced differently then--notably the "oi" or "oy" diphthong, which today is "Wah" (as in Mwah-ha-ha) and back than was closer to "Way" (as in Way-hey-and up-she-rises). When Louis Quatorze said "L'etat c'est moi", the vowels were near-rhymes (e, c'est, moi).

But the bras/brass (remember, the English "A" was BRAHss) was also part of a Monty Python-esque deliberate mishearing of the funny foreigners. There was an early TwenCen American vaudeville routine, in which the Frenchman said "je t'adore" and the American replied "The Door is shut." Doesn't mean the French was really pronounced like that. . .

But all that aside, you may not want to obsess about correct Renaissance French pronunciation unless you're also using correct Elizabethan English (see the Brass/bras reference above). And there's no scholarly agreement over what consitutes Correctness in all of Shakespeare's dialects! Not to mention interfering with intelligibility.

As for the singers' text--that's quite a different story. Singers are used to singing words that few in the audience can understand, whether it's opera or lieder or even traditional ballads. That's why they hand out libretti or translations of lyrics. Not possible or desirable for spoken drama.
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Likewise, Falstaff has a lovely pun on reason/raisin in one of the Henry 4's that no longer exists, to pluck out another example. I would cheerfully conduct a whole play in the proper pronunciation, but I think that it would have a vanishingly small audience - I've done scenes in EME pronunciation before and it really is a specialist's kind of geekery.

(It is my kind of geekery, to be sure, especially since it cuts both ways - French spoofing English, English spoofing French or German.)

It is indeed also true that the questions for singing are different for spoken drama - however, the text I reference above is one of the standard and easily accessible resources for period pronunciations of various languages in any circumstance, and I assumed that some of the question-posing was rooted in just wanting to know what an answer might be, even if it never made it to the stage.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

but I think that it would have a vanishingly small audience - I've done scenes in EME pronunciation before and it really is a specialist's kind of geekery.

It's a good point -- while I thought the period-pronunciation plays at Pennsic were fascinating, they were also not at all easy to follow. (And I *do* understand the period English accent passingly well.)

So I would guess that period pronunciation, while very educational, is in some tension with the desire for the audience to have an involving theater experience...
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Not to mention that nagging, niggling doubt about the accuracy of all our guesses. We can be pretty sure about individual words, and maybe individual vowels and consonants, but the overall intonation--not every scholar agrees with the theory that the average Elizabethan sounded like a North Carolina mountaineer!

Remember Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, where they send the hapless grad student back to the 14th century with the wrong pronunciation in her built-in translator?
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One of the funniest parts of that book!
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I would submit that Early Modern is vastly more accessible than Middle English - it sounds an awful lot like a strong Northeast Kingdom accent - and that it would be far more accessible than people might fear. I think the issue with Shakespearean English is that it wouldn't interfere with comprehension but would still just be a novelty to the audience and not really worth the time and effort involved in getting the actors to acquire it. Geekery still, but perhaps not quite so rarified.
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Tangential point: nowadays (or at least, in the late 20th c.) the natives of Calais, Maine, pronounce the name 'callous,' even with francophones right across the border. I do not know how the francophones across the border pronounce it (and now I'm mildly curious), but this does at least suggest that English pronunciation of the name in Shakespeare's time is not necessarily an indication of French pronunciation at the same time.

I would not recommend pursuing option C (How a typical Englishman of Shakespeare's time pronounced French) in the play, unless also making a strong effort to pronounce English the way a typical Englishman of the time did. Purely an aesthetic preference: I am not the director, nor even in the production.
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AH, great minds think alike!

I suspect that Calais Maine has been pronounced that way since it was founded in the 18th century, because that's how its English founders pronounced it. I don't know how the pronunciation was received by French-speakers on either side of the border at that time--or now. One website speculates that the founder, Colonel Jacob Davis, named this town and Montpelier, Vermont in tribute to France's aid in the Revolutionary War--but didn't speak French. I think he pronounced the two names as he had heard them.
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Not just great minds, but ours. Here's what I wrote on the actors list, before looking at this thread:

"What's the use of teaching boys to say Kikero when for the rest of their lives, they'll say Sissero, or say it at all?"

Sorry, I couldn't resist. :) But really, I'm for doing an accent that our audience will accept. That is not limited to the French one, btw, but the Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Latin, and for that matter, English accents as well. When we had an English visitor for one of the Lear rehearsals, she was fascinated to hear a Shakespearean play done with American accents. As we're not going to go very far to reformulate our accents into Elizabethan English, I think time should be spent on a period French accent only insofar as it floats the actor's boat, and helps them get a hook into the material.



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"...time should be spent on a period French accent only insofar as it floats the actor's boat, and helps them get a hook into the material."

or, you know, insofar as it is funny... :-)
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"You mean you could speak medieval french at any time?"

"Not at an time, only when it is funny."
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“the natives of Calais, Maine, pronounce the name 'callous,' even with francophones right across the border. I do not know how the francophones across the border pronounce it (and now I'm mildly curious)”

I can't speak to the how the francophones over the border pronounce it, but I can tell you the anglophones over the border think that pronunciation is pretty darn funny. In Nova Scotia, we got our american networks on cable in the form of their Bangor, ME, affiliates. Mentions of Calais were often met with snickering (while at the same time acknowledging that it was correct, in that it was the dominant local pronunciation). If you wanted belly laughs, you had to wait for the community announcements when they mentioned an upcomming ceilidh (which they called a "sell-ih-dah").
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one point about period French: the final consonant was pronounced when the word was standing alone. This is the opposite of how French is taught today -- that the final consonant is not pronounced unless it comes before a word beginning with a vowel. Historically, the principle was that it IS pronounced, except when it comes before a word that starts with a consonant.

Also, the French pronunciation of a word like "moi" was more like "mway", and the English pronunciation of the same sorta rhymes with our modern word "why," except drawn out more so you can almost hear the separate parts of the diphthong.
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Popular rumour has it that Quebecois French is more like EM French - do you suppose the director needs a research team to go to Quebec and come back with some sort of definitive answer? It might take a lot of very diligent and scholarly people...
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Interesting as a historical curiosity, perhaps.

But, as theatre - one must always remember one's audience. Most of the audience probably doesn't know modern French - if you use period French (or worse, period French as you'd imagine it mangled by a period Englishman), you are rather apt to completely lose the audience during the scenes in French.

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Agreed--they are being brave by doing the play uncut--if I recall rightly, it's the French lines and scenes (except for Catherine's with her maid) that tend to be cut, thus dealing with the problem of pronunciation.
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There's scope for cutting even in that scene with her maid, the repetition of "de hand, de fingres," etc. is all too much like listening to a real language lesson--until they come to the dirty jokes (also repeated) about "de foot" and "de coun". I assume gestures will, er, make the point, for those who don't know enough French to laugh at the confusion with foutre and con.
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