On Christmas Eve last year, a 22-year-old student called Simon Roper posted a video on YouTube in which he reconstructed the development of the London accent from 1340 to 2006 in a single monologue. In whispered tones, Roper voiced men from 12 generations of the same imaginary family, speaking at 60-year intervals. Their vowels flattened and their monophthongs shifted as they talked of their daily life – of cooking and horses and cold winters – transforming from barely decipherable Chaucerians to cheeky 1930s Cockneys over the course of 16 minutes. His speech was faltering, full of human reality and strangely intense. He wrote the piece in his bedroom during lockdown, and it has been watched two million times.
The internet is full of people performing obscure and difficult activities for your entertainment. There is great pleasure in watching them go about tasks you could never hope, or think, to attempt yourself. Alongside the lip-syncers and dancers on TikTok are language nerds presenting Old English or Norse “as it really sounded’ and parroting dead speech. The digital journalist Sophia Smith Galer – one of her videos explained the etymology of the word etymology – amassed a quarter of a million followers on TikTok for her word-work in 18 months, much of that during the pandemic.
But no one is quite doing what Simon Roper does. Now 23, and with dozens of short films on his channel, he is emerging as a new kind of digital historian, using the mysterious psychologies of social media to make the past 3D. He has produced a conversation between an Anglo Saxon and a Norseman (his most popular video, with nearly four million views), researched “how much English people really swore in the past”, and recreated an imaginary pub chat from “1960s south-eastern England” complete with all the right idioms. The pieces are often light, like student skits in places. The effect of listening to his lost voices is meditative, a kind of intellectual ASMR.
I met him on a wet day in the summer, in the grounds of Guildford castle (he lives nearby with his father). He was dressed in an army jacket and Crocs, with painted nails – a hint of the goth about him, and a lot of the shy academic. He sat cross-legged on the floor of the bandstand with the castle, built shortly after the Norman invasion, rising out of the rain behind him. Roper is not very interested in ruins. During university holidays he worked at two “living museums”, the Weald and Downland museum in Chichester, and the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire. A reconstruction, he explains, in a soft voice, is “more immersive than seeing an actual thing which has decayed – it’s a different kind of interesting”. In his language work, he finds a parallel: “It’s an area where you can be a bit scientific, but also imaginative.” His interest in dialects began as a teenager, when he started to notice the ancient words and inflections preserved in the speech of his Cumbrian grandparents.
As the pandemic took hold, Roper and his peers at the University of Central Lancashire, where he was studying archaeology, were sent home, where he completed his master’s: on ancient pig foddering.
It took him two months to write his audio-drama of London accents through the ages. He used no historical sources for the content: “I wanted it to be like someone telling an anecdote, tripping their over words.” He looked at rhyming evidence from Renaissance sonnets, and parallel rhymes across German and Dutch. He turned to the work of some linguist heroes, Roger Lass and David Crystal. And then – this is the bit where the mind boggles – he “made a phonology and started practising saying lines in that phonology – basically, learning a language that I would then be able to ‘talk’”.
On social media, amateurs can become academics, and the accuracy of your work is never scrutinised if your audience is a bunch of enthusiastic laymen. Roper does not claim to be a linguist: throughout his films are constant notes and corrections. Beneath a video of him speaking Old English, in which he appears dressed in a sheet, someone has written “this is fake”. (“I was not claiming to have gone back in time,” he tells me.)
“The question is, do you want to visit the past as a time-traveller, or as someone who lives there?” he says. “We see it through a certain lens, as if it’s not a real place. How do you get the most immersive experience of the past? Is it even possible?”
Much of what Roper does is guesswork, but academics are following him. Ardis Butterfield, professor of medieval English and French at Yale University, will be using his videos with her degree students. “In terms of whether he is ‘correct’,” she tells me, “even to ask the question is a bit misleading. The huge challenge for anyone trying to speak reconstructed sounds is to make them consistent over a whole speech. He is having a go at turning dry theoretical reconstruction into a current, present, ‘knowable’ voice. What he is doing is fabulously educational.”
Like most 23-year-olds, Roper has no clear plans for his future. For the moment, YouTube sustains him. He watches TV footage from the 1970s and focuses in on the people strolling about in the background. The pandemic enhanced his sense that the most mundane parts of life are what will make the past come alive in the future. “Someone in 60 years’ time would cut their arm off to come back and see how people are coping, walking around in masks.”
In a recent video about nostalgia, Roper suggested there was enough footage made on social media to document every minute of everyday life of the last fifteen years – and before that, nothing. He is slightly tormented by the thought. He was born in 1998 – in the dark ages – and asks me: “Did the Nineties really feel like a period of stability? Or does it just feel like chaos now because I’m an adult?”
[see also: “Society is ableist”: Alice Hattrick on gender, chronic illness and long Covid]