Doing what I do, walking around and looking at a London that in parts doesn’t even exist today there has to be an element of imagination to try and conjure up what a particular area, street or building might have looked like. There are usually enough sources out there for you to put an image in your mind and work with that.
The written word is even more prevalent and can be a tremendously useful source when trying to piece together a scenario from a description or a document. The one that has always challenged me is what did the people sound like that walked London’s streets. While writing some of my audio tours I usually have to say the name of a medieval street or place name. I’ve never been really sure if I’ve got anywhere near the correct pronunciation. In most cases street names ended in “Straat” very similar to the word street in northern European languages. So in every case so far I have adopted what I hope is a rather Germanic, Scandinavian accent with a bit of a French twang.
Recently I was in the process of writing and recording a couple of new tours. Having written them I found that there were quite a lot of Medieval Londoners who’s voices needed to be heard, for example someone reading a proclamation by Henry II or a description of a marketplace by a scholar. These were beyond me, so I turned to a friend who is something of an Amdram thespian and asked if he could do some generic voiceovers for me. This he said he would do and I submitted the texts for him to record. A week or so later I asked how he was getting along with the project and he admitted that he hadn’t started them as he was still in the planning stage. At the time I thought, “How hard is it to bash a few of these out in a spare five minutes” until he showed me what he was doing. Like me he had struggled with the authentic sound of a Londoner down the ages and had undertaken some research on the subject. Below is a YouTube video from a Archaeologist who researches texts in old books and manuscripts to try and piece together a genuine London voice throughout the ages. I found it fascinating and dispelled a few well held beliefs.
It seems if this is correct that even in the 1880s nobody was going about saying “Gord blimey Guv’nor, God bless the Prince o’ Wales” in a Dick Van Dyke Cockney patois. It doesn’t seem as if the harsh guttural tone of a London voice is prevalent until the turn of the century. The 1946 version was interesting and is recognisable from hearing my Grandparents generation speak, however the tone used in the clip, to my ears sounds a lot softer, and makes me think of South London, rather than my home turf in the north.
And as for my attempts at pronunciation of medieval street names, well, I’m pretty happy with my stab at it, but I will try and introduce a little bit of a Norfolk accent into it for future use.