by Doctor Science
Ben Zimmer of Language Log noticed some anachronistic expressions in Downton Abbey [may include slight spoilers for Season 2]:
[Zimmer's method] resembles what historians do nowadays; go fishing in the online resources to confirm hypotheses, but never ever start from the digital sources. That would be, as the dowager countess, might say, untoward.In addition to the anachronisms Zimmer spotted, Schmidt's analysis uncovers a number of others, from "realistic prospect" to "black market".
I lack such social graces. So I thought: why not just check every single line in the show for historical accuracy? Idioms are the most colorful examples, but the whole language is always changing. There must be dozens of mistakes no one else is noticing. Google has digitized so much of written language that I don't have to rely on my ear to find what sounds wrong; a computer can do that far faster and better. So I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.
Every episode has dozens of lines that are just slightly off, and it's in these that the patterns really look funny. In addition to the 60 phrases above, there are another 260 that are at least 10 times more common in the 1990s than in the 1910s. These are phrases like "at long last," "from scratch", and "act fast"--maybe a few could be spoken in the teens, but all of them together?Schmidt's work is a good way to pinpoint anachronisms of commission, but it makes me wonder about the more difficult issue: errors of *omission*, expressions people of the period would have used but which you, the writer, didn't think of.
From time to time I beta (=edit and critique) fanfiction, and I've done a fair bit with stories set in eras before the present, especially the 19th and 20th centuries. Catching specific anachronisms like the ones Zimmer noticed is difficult enough, but the really hard thing is when the prose as a whole just sounds ... wrong. Sometimes it's the choice of words -- Schmidt points out that
Characters in Downton Abbey say "I must" 24 times, three times as often as they say "I need to." Books from the period, on the other hand, say "I must" three hundred times as often; going by the printed literature, the Abbey's residents should "need to" do something about once every ten seasons, not once an episode.But sometimes it's the sentence structure or rhythm, and I don't always know how to even convey that to a writer I'm editing. Or, as in my review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it's hard to move beyond "it feels wrong".
Works like "Downton Abbey" have an extra degree of difficulty, because they are showing different social classes which would use different vocabulary, slang, and sentence structure, as well as different accents. Frankly, I suspect that an authentic depiction of the servants' speech would be occasionally incomprehensible to a modern audience, between their accents and their slang. You could also show the servants code-switching in an entertaining and interesting way.
So, make suggestions about historical novels that have particularly good language. Better yet, what do you think are a useful techniques for writers? I generally recommend, if the writer has time, that they soak their brain in novels of the period, especially very popular ones. Reading through newspapers might be useful, too. There are still real problems, I think, when you're writing about people in the less-educated classes, whose speech is likely to be "cleaned up" by the wealthy & educated people who leave records. I don't even know where I'd look to get the flavor of how the housemaids in "Downton" would have talked to each other when no-one they wanted to impress was present.