The voices of Chaucer and Shakespeare - as they would have sounded to their friends and relations - may soon be heard again on the south bank of the Thames.
The British Council has put in a bid for Pounds 8 million of Millennium Commission funding to support a Pounds 20m "world of language" centre near Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London. It would be a cross between a multimedia tourist attraction and a centre for academic research into the nature of language and changes in word meanings, dialects and accents. As the first such centre in the world, the British Council says it would fill an "extraordinary void in our cultural heritage".
Roger Bowers, the British Council's consultant on the project, admits that the nuances of the English language caused problems in naming the centre. A "museum" of language would have marooned it in the past, and he wanted to avoid "naff" words such as "heritage". "A 'language experience' probably comes closest," he says.
The central aim is to bring academic research into language within reach of visitors. The centre would be linked to universities and be accessible via electronic links to schools at home and abroad.
Visitors will see and hear the story of language unfold through interactive displays. They will be able to pick a word, trace it from its root and watch it acquire new layers of meaning over the centuries, or touch a spot on a globe and hear the language of that region and even pick up a phone to talk to Shakespeare or Chaucer. These last are, says Mr Bowers, based on extensive research into how the dead poets would have sounded. "The west country accent of today, with its emphasis on the 'r', probably comes nearest," he says, "although you will find some academics who think this theory is rubbish. "
As the centre will act as a single point of access to databases around the world, the British Council hopes that it will be used by academics monitoring changes in grammar and accent. The emphasis will be on English, but not exclusively. "The general view is that while modern communications are standardising English, this is counterbalanced by the diffusion of English around the world," says Roger Bowers.
If everything goes well, the centre would be open by 2000. Bids for millennium funding closed in November and the council should hear within the next two months if it has been successful. If not, it hopes to seek money from other sources. Roger Bowers adds that the centre would also have strong local links with Southwark, where 30 languages are taught in school and more than 100 spoken in the community. "The centre would be a local resource to improve performance and literacy among schools here."