View Full Version : Anachronistic language and Downton Abbey

02-16-2012, 08:02 AM
I get the Downton Abbey love, I do, but there's something that rings a little false about it. The relationships between the characters and the things they say to one another seem preheated for millennial TV viewers and don't seem really Edwardian.

At the blog Sapping Attention, there's apparently a kindred grump who feels the same way. (http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2012/02/making-downton-more-traditional.html) He's an historian who uses a lot of text mining, and he used Google Ngram to look at phrases used in Downton Abbey scripts compared with what time periods they actually came into most frequent usage. He also remarks on the 90s filmed version of Pride and Prejudice. Anyway, the results are interesting.

02-16-2012, 11:25 AM
There's also a nice post about this very thing (http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2012/02/anachronism-by-commission-and-omission.html) over at Obsidian Wings, which links to a version of the same post by Ben Zimmer. He cross-posted it at Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3767).

So you're very au currant, Diane.

I think the issue is making it intelligible to us moderns while still maintaining a sense of strangeness. One of the comments at ObiWi makes the good point that, if authentic downstairs servant-speak of the time was used, we'd not understand it at all. The result is a hybrid that reflects speech neither then nor now. Outright anachronism does grate on the ear, though.

I commented myself about how well Larry McMurtry does this with Lonesome Dove.

02-16-2012, 01:57 PM
There have been some news articles (don't have links at the moment, they were from earlier last year) discussing this same issue. There were actually some issues noted in terms of words being used that didn't actually exist at the time but I can't remember what they were.

To my mind, it is ok so long as it is not blatant. Someone writing in text speak or rapping like a 1970s Harlem resident would definitely be wrong but a couple of words here and there and a style of speaking which is anachronistic is not an issue. Frankly, I doubt the majority of people noticed (as you say it took an historian to notice and he had to use software to spot it). Small, subtle and obscure mistakes are fine, especially as many people enjoy it when they manage to find an anachronism (I am sure some writers put them in deliberately, I know I would :) )

02-17-2012, 07:16 AM
One of the comments at ObiWi makes the good point that, if authentic downstairs servant-speak of the time was used, we'd not understand it at all.

That's a very good point and I didn't think of that--different slang, almost certainly different accents, perhaps a different form of verbal sarcasm. You certainly can't watch TV with a glossary in hand.

But that clip on Obsidian Wings has some good examples, the most blatant one for me being "You've been taking your logic pills again." Blergh. That's modern snark if I ever heard it.

Mad Men covers this territory better. It may be easier for the writers as the period is closer in time to the present.