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Historically Informed Pronunciation

Throughout history, poetry and music have shared an intimate bond, so much so that some have argued that poetry is, in essence, music crafted through language. Such musicality is captured through linguistic elements such as phonaesthetics, rhythm, and sound symbolism that, collectively, form the crux of the aesthetic experience. To fully immerse oneself in the aesthetic experience of historical poetry, one must undertake a journey back in time to the realm of the original pronunciation.

Consider Chinese poetry. Its recorded history spans three millennia. Owing to the predominantly logographic nature of Chinese characters, the evolution of their pronunciation has not been directly recorded. Consequently, Chinese poetry today is recited in the contemporary pronunciation of the speaker, be it Mandarin, Cantonese, or Shanghainese. This practice alleviates the potential difficulties in comprehending historical poetry, effectively bridging the gap between the ancient and the modern, and breathing contemporary life into age-old verse.

However, with the passage of time and shifts in pronunciation, many poetic devices have inadvertently faded. A possible ideal scenario would be that we would recreate every phonetic subtlety of the original pronunciation, immersing the audience in the poetic experience as originally intended. Yet, such an ambitious endeavor often proves practically challenging, especially for pronunciations that require reconstruction. While rigorous efforts can be made in reconstructing historical phonology, the actual phonetics of its spoken performance are invariably shaped by a variety of factors—the performer's accent, aesthetics, and ability. Thus, the performance of a phonetic reconstruction emerges as much an art form as it is a linguistic achievement.

In this context, I introduce the term "historically informed pronunciation" (HIP) (历史参考发音) to describe such performance. The primary aim of HIP is to enhance the aesthetic experience of classical poetry by minimizing the undesirable side effects of historical phonetic evolution. This label acknowledges the inherent limitations of the practice, refraining from over-promising absolute accuracy.

It's worth noting that achieving absolute accuracy may not always be the most coveted goal. The importance of aesthetics in this endeavor is paramount and cannot be overstated. Aesthetic preferences in language are not universally consistent, either historically or regionally. Sounds that were considered pleasing in a particular era or region may not appeal to the modern listener. Therefore, employing HIP as part of an aesthetic experience should also account for the tastes of a contemporary audience. This perspective allows for necessary artistic license, suggesting that HIP is a delicate balance between aesthetics and audience engagement, not solely about linguistic accuracy.

June 6, 2023

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