Shakespeare calls for hautboys. How did he pronounce the word, more than 500 years after Hastings (think of it!)? ohBWHA? ohBOYZ? Or what?

  • See: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hautboy or thefreedictionary.com/hautboy for pronunciation with audio
    – aedia λ
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 3:32
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    The hautbois was a 17th century invention, probably in France. Since Shakespeare only used the word in stage directions, we cannot be sure how he pronounced it (unless from Coriolanus V4, you see sackbuts).
    – Henry
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 4:08
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    Probably more "ohBWHAz", which is the French pronunciation with an extra "z" for plural (the singular is hautboy) and would explain the later phonetic spelling "oboe". The OED has all these historical spellings: "Forms: 6 hautboi, halboie, hawboy, (howbowe), 6–7 hoeboy, 6–9 hautbois, hoboy, 7– hautboy, (6–7 ho-, how-, haut-, haugh(t)-, hoa-, hout-, 7 hault-, heaut-, -boie, -bois, -boy(e, hoybuck, hobo)." Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 6:06
  • @Alain Pannetier: +1 for mentioning the modern form "oboe". I think a problem with asking for historical pronunciation is that it's hard to be sure
    – user10893
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 6:25
  • @simchona, ;-) this is why I just added this as a comment. Also note that the British English and the American English seem to differ. Merriam-Webster clearly pronounce it "-boy" whereas English sources have /ˈoʊboʊ/. Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 6:35

2 Answers 2


/ˈəʊbɔɪ/ (oh + boy)

I have no direct information, but let's reason this out. The most modern pronunciation, as recorded in current British dictionaries, is /ˈəʊbɔɪ/ (hoe + boy), with the first syllabe being the same as that of oboe (/ˈəʊbəʊ/), apart from the initial h. This matches the pronunciation of other words or expressions from French beginning with haut: haut monde, haute couture, hauteur, … It actually matches the French (and Middle French) pronunciation of haut.

The second syllable, which sounds like boy, is also quite close to how Middle French boy sounded like (and very unlike the Modern French bois, /bwɑ/, like in bwana).

Now, would it be pronunced the same in Shakespearean times? Given that it came from Middle French, and in its most modern form still sounds like Middle French, I don't think it evolved in-between (and then went back to the French-like pronunciation). Also, the hits I could find for words of Middle French origin in Pronouncing Shakespeare's words: a guide from A to Zounds (like this hit) all seem to indicate pronunciations rather close to the Middle French.

Furthermore, etymonline says of hautboy that it is “frequently nativized as hoboy”. It seems to me that this support the pronunciation I put forth above.

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    +1, Ok for pronouncing the final "y" /ɪ/ (like in "roy", still present in royal, royaume). Following a suggestion from a (now deleted) comment I looked into the original spellings used by Shakespeare himself as visible in the earliest editions and the result is that the hoboy (sing.) and hoboyes (plur.) spellings are ubiquitous. Could you possibly point at some material about how French shifted from /ɔɪ/ to /wɑ/? Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 16:40
  • @Alain: the only reference I can offer right now is a shorter on Middle French, written in (Modern) French. It says the pronunciation shifted in the 13th and 14th centuries.
    – F'x
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 17:55
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    +1 Nice answer. Being extremely finicky, the Wikipedia page on the Great Vowel Shift says that the vowel today pronounced /əʊ/ was pronounced /oː/ in Shakespeare's time, so /ˈoːbɔɪ/ (still oh + boy, but Shakespeare's pronunciation of oh). Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 18:49
  • @Peter: actually, this is a very good remark. I'll try to refine my answer accordingly!
    – F'x
    Commented Jul 27, 2011 at 19:16

Depending on whether you're pronouncing it the US English or British English way, it looks like this word may be pronounced any of the following ways:

  1. /hoʊtˈbɔɪ/ (ie. with the leading 'h' sound and pronouncing the 't')
  2. /hoʊˈbɔɪ/ (ie. with the leading 'h' sound)
  3. /oʊˈbɔɪ/ (ie. without the leading 'h' sound)

For the record, pronunciation #3 is the closest of the three in pronouncing the 'haut' part of the word the same way as the French do ('haut' comes from the French 'haut', meaning 'high').

Shakespeare is obviously more likely to have pronounced it the (modern) British way; either #2 or #3.

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    The question is about Shakespearean English. There was no "U.S. English" in the Bard's time, and the term itself as spelled is now archaic: English-speakers today use the term oboe and British and American speakers alike pronounce it ˈōbō.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 9:49
  • It's still all useful context. I've added how Shakespeare is most likely to have pronounced it.
    – Jez
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 9:51
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    How can you know that? It is certainly not obvious. Do you have a citation for your assertion?
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 9:56
  • He was English.
    – Jez
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 10:01
  • That is no proof of the pronunciation of the time. In fact, you offer no evidence for any part of this answer.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 10:16

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