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Table of Contents

What Is a Dialect? Why Use Dialects? Style Syntax
Thou When to Use "Thou" How to Use "Thou" Conjugation
Contractions The Dreaded Letters Forming Negatives Forming Imperatives
Reflexives Inversions Aye and Nay Pray and Prithee
Dropping "To" Adding "Do" Double Comparatives Florification
Wordiness and Embroidery Greetings and Farewells Oaths and Swearing Insults
Putting It All Together Sound Changes Other Resources

What Is a Dialect?

One of the most challenging portions of the actor's preparation is the mastery of some sort of dialect. Dialect consists of two parts: sound changes, or accent, and structure changes, or syntax.

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Why Use Dialects?

Dialect is essential for a number of reasons:
  1. The audience expects to hear us speak like Englishmen. What's the most common complaint about Kevin Costner in Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves? No accent!
  2. The different dialects that we use will help establish our class-based society. Nobility will talk differently from the villagers, and the lower-class characters will sound different from both.
  3. For those of you with non-English characters, dialect provides another way to set yourself apart from the English.
  4. It's fun!

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My first Dialect teacher told me that "the Elizabethans made love with their language." The language of the Period is certainly more romantic than modern English. English was in a state of constant change in those days. Words were flowing in from all over Europe, and an increase in literacy and education brought the classical Greek and Roman authors into the popular imagination. Further, the rules that we are taught as hard and fast mandates in high school were much more flexible. When students studied Grammar, it was Latin, not English, and no one studied spelling in any language! English as we know it today did not become codified until the mid- to late-Eighteenth Century.

The result of all this is that what we call Early Modern, Elizabethan, Shakepearean, or simply Period English produced some of the greatest poetry in the history of the language, and allowed for an atmosphere of boisterous public discourse.

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So, our challenge is to learn how to re-create that atmosphere for our festival day. We'll do this by learning a number of tricks and twists to apply to our speech. You do not have to use all of these, but the more of them you can apply, the better off you'll be.

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Let's start with the hard stuff, and get it out of the way.

Most western languages have two forms of the pronoun "you," a familiar and a formal. German has "du" and "Sie," French has "tu" and "vous." Only English today has but one form of "you."

But it was not always so.

English used to have two forms of "you." "You" was the formal, and "thou" was the informal. Over the centuries, we dropped the informal form, and came to rely on the formal form alone. Our first task is to restore "thou" to its place in the language.

"But wait," you say, "'Thou' sounds so formal to me. Now you're telling me it's informal? What are you smoking!?" I promise, I'm utterly sober. "Thou" sounds formal to us because the only time we ever hear it is in church, which is a formal setting, and in Shakespeare, which is considered high-culture. Trust me, it's informal.

When to Use "Thou"

Use "thou" with the following:
  1. Those below you on the Great Chain.
  2. Those to whom you are especially close (family members, best friends, lovers, etc.).
  3. Those of your own rank whom you wish to insult.
  4. God, because in Period thought, there is nobody closer to you than God.
Use "you" with the following:
  1. Those above you on the Great Chain. Always call the King and Queen "you!"
  2. Those with whom you are doing business.
  3. Those to whom you wish to show respect for any reason (admiration, personal threat, etc.)
Exercise: What pronoun would your character use to address:
  1. a beggar
  2. the miller
  3. the local priest
  4. the King
  5. God

Make sure you check your answers against the Great Chain. If you are unsure about any of the answers, ask me. Be sure to include your character's occupation and social status in your e-mail.

How to Use "Thou"

Pronuns often have several forms. For example, the pronoun "I" has three forms: "I," "me," and "my." These are used as different parts of speech. "I" is a subject, "me" is an object, and "my" is a possessive.

Similarly, "thou" has three forms: "thou," "thee," and "thy."

A final note, just to add a bit more confusion: "thy" and "my" have two forms, "thy" and "thine," and "my and "mine." Use "thy" and "my" when the next word begins with a consonant, as in "thy pear" or "my horse." Use "thine" and "mine" at the end of a sentence, or when the next word begins with a vowel, as in "thine apple," "mine elephant," "it is thine" or "the fault is mine." This is the same rule you apply to "a" and "an." Confused yet? Try the following:

Exercise: Fill in the blanks in the following sentences:

  1. ____ art fair of face.
  2. How may I find ___?
  3. Didst ___ lose ___ way?
  4. What sayest ___?

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Now we come to the bane of every grammar student, conjugation. This is something most of us do correctly without thinking about it, which is fine as long as we don't have to make changes to our speech. Now that we do need to make changes, we have to know how it works.

Simply put, conjugation is adding endings to verbs to match certain pronouns. We do this in Modern English all the time:
I play
you play
he/she/it plays
we play
you play
they play
Notice that the only form that changes endings is the "he/she/it" form (third person singular, for those of you with a grammatical bent).

In Early Modern English, there are only a few slight changes:
I play
thou playest
he/she/it playeth
we play
you play
they play
Here, we see that "thou" is substituted for the first "you," and gives its verb an ending of "-est."
Memory hint: "Thou" begins with "t" and "-est" ends with "t."

Also, the "he/she/it" form of the verb changes its ending from "-s" to the famous "-eth."
Memory hint: "He" begins with "h" and "-eth" ends with "h."

That's about it for conjugation. The rest is just practice.

Exercise: Conjugate the following verbs:

  1. to run
  2. to shout
  3. to be
  4. to have
  5. to do

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Avoid using modern-sounding contractions: Not that these contractions were not used, but they sound very modern. Use instead the un-contracted forms ("do not," "can not," etc.)

There are some other contractions that can be used, however:

So 'tis something of a trade-off.

Exercise: Rewrite the following, using Period contractions wherever possible:

  1. It's cold today.
  2. I can't see a thing through this helm.
  3. If you fall, it will be fatal.

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The Dreaded Letters, and Other Things to Avoid

WARNING: Rant Begins Here! Speaking of things that sound modern, there is a single common phrase that sounds more modern than any other, and will snap our patrons back into the Twentieth Century faster than any other. I refer, of course, to the phrase "OK." This bit of modern jargon is completely unsalvageable as a period term! Nothing sounds more American. To make things worse, we use this term so much in our daily speech that we are unaware of using it. It just slips out. Nevertheless, it must be eradicated from our speech if we are not to shatter our illusion beyond repair. Here Endeth the Rant.

Seriously, the "Dreaded O-and-K" is a big problem. It reminds the patrons that we are actors, when we want them to forget that very fact. But how to eliminate such a useful phrase? I suggest substituting a Period term, such as "'tis well," "most well," "very well," "goodly then," or even "all right." Any of these will serve the purpose and maintain the illusion. We all slip from time to time, so don't beat yourself up when you do. Just be aware of your mistake and resolve to do better in the future.

There are a few other modern-sounding words to avoid: the word "fun" (use "merriment" or "merry" as a replacement), the phrase "you guys," and all "-up" expressions ("put up," "clean up," or especially "shut up").

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Forming Negatives

So, all right, we want to avoid using contractions like "don't" and "won't." How the heck do we form negative sentences, then? There are two ways. The first is simply to "explode" the contraction to "do not" or "will not," etc. But better by far is the second method: simply insert the "not" into the sentence almost anywhere after the verb. Thus, "Don't give me a beer" becomes "Give me not an ale" or even "Give me an ale not." Why you would say this is past all comprehension, but if you did, that is how you would do it.

Exercise: Transform the following sentences into their negative counterparts:

  1. I dance well.
  2. The Duke is a fool.
  3. Thou art a fine gentlemen.

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In Modern English, an imperative (or command, as you prefer) has what is known as an "understood subject." For example, the subject of the command "Give me that" is understood to be "you," even though the word "you" does not appear anywhere in the sentence.

In Period English, we include the understood subject in the actual sentence, directly following the verb. Thus, "Give me that" becomes "Give you me that," or "Give thou that unto me," depending on whom you are speaking to.

Exercise: Add the subject into the following:

  1. Leave that rubbish behind.
  2. Know that I shall have mine eye on you.
  3. Go unto the hall, and tell me what thou findest there.

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Reflexives are common in period speech. This is more easily explained by example, than by definition.
"I will go to the privies." becomes "I will take me to the privies."
"He went to court." becomes "He betook him to court."
"She drank an ale." becomes "She drank her an ale."

Exercise: Give reflexive verions of the following:

  1. He took up his sword.
  2. I will find a wife.
  3. She cut a branch from the thorny tree.

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In Modern English, the order of the words is pretty fixed: subject - verb - object. Not so in Period English. You can flip-flop the order of your words in a number of different ways. Let's start with a basic, strightforward sentence:

The dog barked loudly all night long.

Now, we can flip the words about in a number of different ways.

Exercise: Try it yourself. Come up with a sentence and invert it. It's fun, once you get the hang of it!

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Aye and Nay

By now, your brain probably hurts from all the linguistic contortions, so this one's a simple substitution: use "aye" for "yes" and "nay" for "no."

Aye, my lord, I will most readily follow you.
Nay, thou rogue, thou wilt not have my purse!

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"Pray" and "Prithee"

Either of these words can be used in place of "please." Use "pray" or "pray you" with a person with whom you would use "you," and "prithee" with any person with whom you would use "thou."

To the King: "Your Majesty, I pray you pardon me. I surely meant no harm."
To a beggar: "Prithee, begone! Thy stench offendeth me."

Exercise: Substitute "pray" or "prithee" for "please" as appropriate.

  1. Please give me your hand.
  2. Wilt thou remain at my side, please?

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Dropping "To"

When the word "to" comes between the word "it" and an objective pronoun ("me," "thee," "him," etc.), the word "to" may be dropped.
"Give it to me." becomes "Give it me."
"I will show it to thee." becomes "I will show it thee."

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Adding "Do"

You can add the word "do" before just about any verb to make it sound a bit fancier. Make sure you conjugate "do" in such cases, rather than the main verb.
"We find it to our liking." becomes "We do find it to our liking."
"Thou playest well." becomes "Thou dost play well."
"He hath a fine leg." becomes "He doth have a fine leg."

Exercise: Add "do" to the following sentences:

  1. I like apples.
  2. Thou hast but little wit.
  3. It liketh me well.

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Double Comparatives and Superlatives

This one is fun. Not only does it sound great, but you get the thrill of flagrantly ignoring everything your grade-school English teachers taught you!
"more lovely" becomes "more lovelier"
"most gentle" becomes "most gentlest"
"more kindness" becomes "more better kindness"
It's a simple technique, so go nuts with it!

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Right, this is where we really start tweaking words, and making new ones. Florification is the adding of suffixes (or, in one instance, a prefix) to a root word in order to change the usage or meaning, or simply to make it sound nifty.

What follows is a huge list of suffixes (plus the one prefix) that you can use for this technique. Pick at least three or four that sound good to you, and work them into your speech. You can use them individually, or combine them in whatever way falls nicely on your ear. Don't worry too much about the technical rules. Remember, Period English is pretty loose in the rules department, so it's really more about what sounds good!
Affix:What it does:Example:
be-This is the only prefix in the bunch. It is often used with reflexive verbs."The whiskey was bestrewn about the room."
"She did bepick her a goodly apple."
-mentA suffix used to make a verb into a noun. This is often used with "be-"."There was great bemournment at the death of the Lady."
-ifyA suffix used to make a verb sound more Period."We must needs bowify to the Queen."
-someA suffix used to make an adjective sound more Period."The uglisome hag was convinced of her beauty."
-ificationAnother suffix used to make a verb into a noun."Our rejoicification did reach unto the heavens."
-ificariousA suffix used to make a noun into an adjective."His quickificarious walking earned him a post as a messenger."
-iferousAnother suffix used to make a noun into an adjective."His woodiferous face ne're changes expression."
-ificariousnessA suffix used to make a noun, adverb, or adjective into a noun."Her beautificariousness blinded every man in the room."
-fulA suffix used to make a noun, adverb, or adjective into an adjective."My blueful cloak is much coveted."
-lyA suffix used to make an adjective into an adverb."She was feeling greenly."
-lysomeA suffix used to make an adjective sound more Period."His smoothlisome speech was disdained by the wenches."
-linessAnother suffix used to make an adjective, noun, or an adverb sound more Period."Thy rudliness shall provoke a duel."
-ulentA suffix used to make a noun or an adjective into an adjective."His twigulent arms had but little strength."
-issitudeA suffix used to make an adjective into a noun."His stupidissitude was rivaled only by that of the village idiot."
-iculousAnother suffix used to make an adjective sound more Period."Her blondiculous tresses were the envy of the court."

Exercise: Take the lyrics to your favorite popular song, and re-write them, using as much florification as you like.

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Wordiness and Embroidery

The average modern sentence is about nine words long. By contrast, the average Early Modern sentence contains something on the order of twenty to thirty words. This effect can be achieved by using lots of description and hyperbole. For example:

"The dog barked all night" can become:
"That most foul cur, whose coat is lined with fleas, as the field of battle is lined with fighting men, did give forth with such a clamor that Luna herself was forced to stop her very ears for the entire duration of Hyperion's rest."

Here we have an extreme example, weighing in at 44 words. However, it does illustrate two very important principles. First, the use of simile, the comparison of two objects using "like" or "as." In this case, the dog's coat is compared to a battlefield. Second, the use of classical metaphor - "Hyperion's rest" for night, and "Luna" for the moon. Let it be said that if you embroider as much as this, you may have a hard time being understood, but even a small amount of embellishment can go a long way towards convincing the patrons that you are of a different time.

Exercise: Embroider the following sentences. Use a minimum of twelve words per sentence and as many of the dialect techniques above as you can.

  1. The sky is blue.
  2. His tongue is sharp.
  3. The Queen is beautiful.

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Greetings and Farewells

A simple way of adding a Period flavor to your speech is the use of a proper greeting. Period greetings include: The term "hello" is not a greeting in the Period, but rather an experession of surprise, as in "Hello! What is this?"

A proper farewell is also useful. Remember, this is the last thing the patrons will hear from you, so it is always good to leave them with a Period phrase in their ears!

Pick a greeting and a farewell for your character. You can use one of the above, or create one that reflects your character's profession (for example, a tavern maid might open conversation with "'Tis a good day for drinkin'").

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Oaths and Swearing

Of course we must refrain from modern profanity, but there's no reason we can't indulge in a little Period swearing! First, some generic oaths: You can swear by any of God's various and sundry body parts, just keep the sensibilities of your audience in mind.

The other swearing technique is to arrive at a suitible oath based on your character. For example, a tailor might swear thusly: "Pins and needles!" or "Pins to you!"

By the way, most women don't swear much, other than by their virtue or maidenhead.


The art of the insult is a truly noble pursuit. Coming up with the perfect put-down can be a daunting task. Thankfully, for those of us who are not gifted in that area, there is the insult matrix. Try it a few times and see how much fun it can be!

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Putting It All Together

Now that you have all these tools, pick the ones that best suit your character. Have fun with the language, and remember, why use three words when thirty will do just as well?

Exercise: Write two letters in your character's voice (if your character cannot write, imagine he or she is dictating to a scribe). The first should be a love letter, addressed to the person, place or thing that your character most adores. The second should be a "loathe letter" to that which your character most detests.

Another great way to sharpen your dialect skills is to play Games of Wit.

Still having trouble? Try reading Shakespeare aloud. This will help to get the feel of the words into your head. Who knows? You might even find yourself speaking in verse!

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Sound changes are here! The links below will take you to pages that explain the peculiarities of each dialect, including sound changes and extra syntax. Sound changes are described through both text and simple sound files. If you have the bandwidth to spare, click here for downloadable mp3 files of several of the dialects.

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, all of the English dialects (except for Pirate) presented here are based on the work of Katheryn Aaronson. All non-English dialects are based on the work of David Allen Stern. Much better versions of Mr. Stern's work are available in his series, Acting With an Accent. If anyone knows of published works by Ms Aaronson, please let me know.

English Dialects Celtic Dialects Continental Dialects
Middle-Class, or "Country"

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Other Resources

There are a few other pages on the Web you might want to take a look at:

A Shakespearean Grammar - This is rather academic in tone but it is a great comparison of Modern and Period Syntax.

Glossary - from the "Surfing With the Bard" site. Lots of neat Period words to pepper your speech with. Pick five that your character can use. The rest of the site is pretty cool, too!

Elizabethan Names - Stuck for a good Period name for your character? This is the place!