Professor profile: The art of pronunciation

Paul Meier, professor of theatre

People who can do a variety of accents may be a hit at parties and get laughs, but actors with a mastery of accents and dialects can be a hit professionally.

In a new KU YouTube video, Paul Meier, professor of theatre, discusses teaching accents to students, researching Shakespeare, producing plays in original pronunciation and why he came to KU.

“To be able to switch from one accent to another is just a wonderful party trick, and a very, very important credential for an actor,” Meier said.

His classes that teach acting with an accent and using dialects are always among his most popular. He trains KU students to adopt accents for stage productions but has also coached actors in Hollywood productions and stage performances across the country. He also frequently consults with actors by videoconferencing.

Meier’s research focuses on his passion: Shakespeare. Recently he’s studied the pronunciation of the great writer’s plays in the time they were originally produced.

“These plays are very fresh, even 400 years later,” Meier said of Shakespeare's works. “But the language has moved on and the sound of the language is quite different.”

As there were no video or audio recordings of plays in Shakespeare’s day, many wonder how they can know what the pronunciation sounded like. There are several clues. First, people of the era spelled phonetically, as there was no such thing as “correct” spelling.

“People spelled just any way they wished,” he said. “Shakespeare himself spelled his name seven different ways. So when you got a letter from someone, you could hear their accent. When we get a letter from someone, we cannot hear their accent, because spelling has been regularized.”

The evidence is also in the plays themselves. In plays such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the lines were written to rhyme. Although words such as eyes and fantasies wouldn’t rhyme if spoken today, they did at the time. Researchers can then cross-reference those rhymes to others found throughout writing of the period. Perhaps most fortunately for the researchers, there were early phoneticians documenting how things were pronounced at the time.

A native of England, Meier said he was drawn to KU because it gave him a chance to teach, research his passion and work with great students.

“There was this amazing job at a research university,” Meier said. “You get to teach 40 percent of the time, you get to research, you get to travel, you get to teach fantastic students from all over America. It’s a really wonderful job and it’s kept me enthusiastic for a little over 20 years now.”

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