The English language has a long and colorful history, and both the form and the sound of the words have changed over time. If you could time-travel back to the 10th century to hear one of the poets traveling around northern England, reciting long epic tales by the firelight at a hearth in a stone-walled castle, you wouldn’t understand a word the poet said. Even jumping forward a few centuries to Chaucer’s time wouldn’t help if you were listening to a verse from his Canterbury Tales, although if you could have found a rare written copy of the work, it might have been easier. At that time, the language was closer to Modern English in appearance, though still quite different in its pronunciation.
By the end of the 16th century, the essential form of English words was fairly stable, so students reading Shakespeare’s plays in school today don’t have much of a problem. However, anyone going to the theatre to see and hear a play isn’t getting the same experience that audiences 400 years ago had, because a lot of the “word play” that Shakespeare was so good at has been lost with changes in pronunciation. This means that puns and jokes based on the sound of a word aren’t in the text any more, not because the actors forget their lines, but because of the way they say those lines.
While it’s hard to truly know what English sounded like so many centuries ago (after all, YouTube certainly wasn’t around in Elizabethan England!) it is still possible for scholars and historians to make fairly accurate reproductions of the sounds of spoken English from Shakespeare’s day. If you’d like to hear about what one pair of researchers (one a linguist, the other an actor) have come up with, click here to see a video of what Shakespeare’s plays really sounded like.