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February 13, 2012


I remember being favorably impressed by what at least seemed like linguistic authenticity in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. It's probably better to use a term like "attention to liinguistic difference" than "authenticity," of course, because the actual speech of early 19th century British sailors would likely have been hard to comprehend even in print. Still, O'Brian apparently read many actual military reports, newspapers, and other documents written at the time, and the books are therefore full of odd verbal artifacts that sound "off" to a modern ear, but that fit together to present a unified front of consistent archaism.

I'm surprised that "black market" is an anachronism. My parents, not quite of Downton Abbey vintage but not many decades younger either, used the phrase, albeit not in English.

Could it be a term that was used in other places, where perhaps black markets were more common than in England, and then snuck into English along with the institution?

It turns out black market is a WWII-ism. I'm pretty sure it's in Casablanca (1942), but apparently not much earlier.

Another thing very difficult to detect is the shift of meaning. A thing can be a common phrase both today and in the past but with a different meaning attached. I found 19th century British novels to be quite difficult to read at times because of that. The example that one can find most often, I think, is the sexualisation of terms that were once not so connotated. 'to have intercourse with' (same with German 'Verkehr haben mit') carried no sexual meaning not that long ago unless a 'sexual' was explicitly added. I remember a scene from a girl school novel quoted in an essay that reads today like the girl has a steamy carnal affair with an adult while the actual meaning is that she had an agitated conversation with that person. The paragraph had quite a number of terms that today are used almost exclusively in connection with sex but were completely harmless then.

I seem to remember Mary mentioning the "Nazi governess" in the episode concerning the heir pretender Patrick Gordon. Wikipedia includes the information that the name "Nazi" was around pre-Hitler as a nickname for "Ignatius", and that for a while it was a term for a country rube, but I tend to think that this isn't what the "Downton" writers had in mind.

Cadence changes over time, too. For example the way women talk in thirties movies--rushed, breathless, with pauses in odd places. Their voices rise and fall differently than ours do now, too.

I am not put off by an author's failure to recreate the language of the time provide the use of current idiom isn't too incongruous. It bothers me more if the author includes values or attitudes that don't match the cultural setting of the book. I read Doc back around Christmas time and I think the author did a fairly good job with the dialog. She didn't try to recreate late ninetheenth centruy speech. She just made the dialog sound a little differetn and a little old fashioned. The real problem and failing of the book is the modern liberal attitude about race she injects into the characters.

make suggestions about historical novels that have particularly good language.

The Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser. Not politically correct, which is the point, I think.

Crap, I'm going to drive myself crazy trying to remember a recent instance of watching something "period" in which someone used some phrase or expression that sounded totally 21st Century to me.


I like to use not just the printed word but recorded language as well. Archive.org has got a huge trove of *accessible* stuff that goes back into the late 19th C. and may very well capture speech patterns which originated further back than that (given that people recording in, say, 1898 didn't learn how to talk in 1898), and can be cross-referenced and interpolated with period writings to give a more authentic feel.

This is a great topic, and totally on my home turf!

The word I have coined for this is "isochronism": a word or phrase that seems anachronistic but isn't:
"He's as tall as a skyscraper" (the highest sail on a clipper ship).
"It's a holographic document" (in the author's own handwriting).
And a couple of others I have collected, but I can't find that file just now....

Dr. S., my first thought when reading in the OP that "black market" was an anachronism was, "but Sydney Greenstreet uses the term in Casablanca, in 1942."

I've had many discussions with the people in my survey classes about language and history and the need to match speeds not only with a text's moment of production (when and where it was written) but also with its moment of representation (the location and time that is being written about) and its moment of reception (when and where it is being read or reviewed). How 'real' a realistic text feels to the reader depends a lot on a funky and imprecise individual algorithm that the text and the readers work out together.

I think that a modern text that aims to faithfully reproduce details from an earlier period can sometimes be too faithful to its moment of representation to communicate some of its truths to an audience in its moment of reception. There's an intuitive translation process at work and no sure rules for when to substitute new for old and when to leave something old untranslated and allow the context to convey meaning, except to say that habits of mind are more important than words and names for conveying the difference of ages. Cadence and vocabulary are important, but if you get the cultural worlds the characters inhabit wrong there is nothing you can do to make it work.

There is of course also the T.H.White school of deliberate anachronism. In the first 'the once and future king' book the author even dicusses that. Paraphrased: Of course they did not say X but Y. But X is the modern equivalent that can be understood and transports the mood correctly while Y sounds strange*.
The BBC adaptation of Graves's 'I, Claudius' also deliberately drops any pretense of being 'authentic' as far as language patterns are concerned. In essence: this is a soap set in ancient Rome and in soaps people do not talk stilted but like noraml people. The 'authenticity' does not come from the language in this case but from a faithful adherence to the source material (like not using toilet paper and thus never eating with your left hand to give just one example).
But everyone knows that Romans speak with British accents anyway ;-)

*I leave out the true anachronisms brought up by Merlin for whom they were none since he lived through the future time.

There was also Deadwood. From wikipedia

From its debut, Deadwood has drawn attention for its extensive profanity. It is a deliberate anachronism on the part of the creator with a twofold intent. Milch has explained in several interviews that the characters were originally intended to use period slang and swear words. Such words, however, were based heavily on the era's deep religious roots and tended to be more blasphemous than scatological. Instead of being shockingly crude (in keeping with the tone of a frontier mining camp), the results sounded downright comical. As one commentator put it "… if you put words like 'goldarn' into the mouths of the characters on 'Deadwood', they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam."

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 speech isn't prose. what authors want their characters to sound like is not usually what real life people sound like.

for example, i'd bet that few people in Boston speak in the same dense, knotty, hyper-educated manner that everyone in Infinite Jest speaks.

I object to The Walking Dead because they're not speaking as people would in a real zombie apocalypse. Firefly, OTOH, was dead on.

I think Larry McMurtry does a good job with Lonesome Dove (the book), although not as well with the sequels (and prequels) in the series.

I also think McMurtry also did a fairly good job, within the constraints of what's allowable in movies/TV, with the language of his screenplay for the 4 part miniseries.

I do admit to some partiality, though. It was filmed mostly around where I live, and I recognize most of the grand scenery shots, which is fun. But it also spoils a little of magic. For example, the scenes set in Montana are preposterous upon close observation; there are clearly New Mexico cactus plants and grasses in the pictures, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the background don't look at all like Montana mountains.

OK, so, a couple of asides from me about Downton Abbey that don't have to do with anachronisms.

Can someone explain to me the American fascination with BBC costume dramas?

And, why don't we see good quality dramatizations of American literature? On public TV, or commercial TV?

Wallace Stegner. Bellow. Grace Paley. Pick your own personal favorites. The list of American writers whose work would translate well to the TV drama format is basically endless.

But we get Brit costume dramas. And Austen, Austen, Austen, and more Austen.

I like Jane Austen. But enough is enough.

My wife love love love love loves Downton Abbey. Whenever I watch it, I want to say, "Can't you freaking dress yourself, you lazy prat?" So, she watches, I read a book.

Different strokes.

My guess is it has some intersection with the propensity for building subdivisions full of culs de sac named Mews, Commons, Lane, Field, Marsh, etc. We separated from the British more than 200 years ago but never got over our Anglophilia or the idea that their culture is "high" and ours is not.

My guess - not incompatible with Phil's, by any means - is that part of it has to do with the visibility of class and social roles. Even though many characters, among them the most interesting, may fret at their roles and struggle against them, virtually everybody knows what he or she is *supposed* to do (wear, think, etc.). By contrast, in real (American) life, most of us have a vague sense of contradictory expectations and so wind up muddling through life. Mind you, our lives are probably better than those of most of the Brits in costume dramas (except a few gilded lordlings), but they're also messier.

In point of fact much of womens clothing is designed to this day so that it is impossible to get dressed by ones self. Women who live alone take this in to consideration when choosing a frock.
I just watched the Downton Abbey shows this week and found both the language and the tone out of character for the period. Had they been accurate we would have not only been bored but would not have understood what they were saying a goodly bit of the time.

My dear departed Mom's Webster's dates the term "black market" to 1931.

More than anachronistic dialog, what tends to jar more for me is British mystery writers' attempts at dialog that supposedly takes place in the US between real USians.

I think one reason for the fascination with Brit costume drama is that the American novel is a little too late to really give you a feeling of a different time. You've got Scarlet Letter and The Last of the Mohicans, stories which don't really merit multiple productions (and probably wouldn't work has a multiple episode series) and Moby Dick, which has it's own problems for filming for broadcast.

On the other hand, Brit costume dramas, supplied by the BBC, are easier to film and can be redone every couple of years, so the risk involved is a lot less. In a sense, it is like those UHF channels from my childhood playing Speed Racer and Ultraman, except without the dubbing.

A rare example of trying to sound really 'period correct' with resulting difficulty to understand (even to some British film critics) was Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, not the Errol Flynn version).
There are some scenes where it is pure 'that character obviously speaks English, his voice is clear but I cannot understand a word he is saying'

And then there is stuff like this:

Lord Cardigan: All this swish and tit gets my sniffing nose up! I shall have to fetch it off, tonight, Squire, had me Cherrybums out today, always makes me randified!


Lord Cardigan: Lucan, you're a stew-stick!
Lord Lucan: Fetch off!
Cardigan: Poltroon.
Lucan: Bum roll!
Cardigan: Draw your horse from 'round your ears, and bring your head out of his arse!

I still use the word "poltroon" now!

Women who live alone take this in to consideration when choosing a frock.
frock mid-14c., from O.Fr. froc "a monk's habit" (12c.), of unknown origin; perhaps from Frank. *hroc (cf. O.H.G. hroc "mantle, coat;" O.N. rokkr, O.E. rocc, O.Fris. rokk, Ger. Rock "coat"), from PIE base *rug- "to spin." Another theory traces it to M.L. floccus, from L. floccus "flock of wool." Meaning "outer garment for women or children" is from 1530s. Frock-coat attested by 1823.

¿Que? A frock sounds rather easy to get in and out of; so easy, a man can do it.

I haven't watched Downton Abbey yet, but I tried the clip in the post. i was, fo coruse, listening to it to hear anachronisms.

I don't think I would have noticed the anachronisms had they not been brought to my attention becauuse of the English accents. To my American ear English English is almost incomprehensible anyway and the accent makes all of the words sound ...exotic.

It's something to do with intonation, I think: the way the run their words together and go up and down in places my ears are not programmed to expect. The anachromisms might show more in a written text.

Si here I am reading a Georgette Heyer Regency novle and drinking coffe and suddenly it occcurs to me that i am reading a text that could contian anachronisms.

But probably doesn't. Heyer was an acknowledged expert onthe Regency period and was especially respected for her grasp of the language of the times. She's consistant within each novel and across the range of her novels, which helps a lot to give the impression of authenticity. I have no way of dertermining for myself if her dialog is authenitic or not but it seems authentic since she never breaks her patterns.

I've always wodered why one or tow of her books haven't been made into miiseries. Too broad? The humor in some of them verges o slap stick and might not paly as well visually as it does in text.

Anyway she's an example of an author who has a reputation for having recreated the dialog of a previous era accurately.

Firefly, OTOH, was dead on.

Except that the characters' Mandarin is atrocious. If they actually spoke and listened to enough Mandarin to litter it into their language the way they do, they'd presumably be able to speak it with something approximating the correct tones. Instead, it's flat and sounds completely wrong.

Russell: The list of American writers whose work would translate well to the TV drama format is basically endless.

Agreed. Similarly to Stegner, Ivan Doig's written more than 10 books focusing on different periods of Montana's history that would translate very well to television. Except that none of them would work with all the quick cuts or massive CGI'ing that seem to be a requirement.

I think the issue is that it's cheaper to just buy programming from the BBC than to pay the production costs of generating new content.

Which makes me sad, because it demonstrates how little we value our own culture and history.

Sometime before I die, I'd love to turn on PBS and see "Henderson the Rain King" in five hourly installments.

"Bottling out?"
"As if!"

...say two cavalry officers to each other in Spielberg's War Horse, in a scene set in 1914. Ouch. Quite a lot in that film grated in one way or another, but that was the most obvious anachronism.

Not being a native speaker of English, I'm somewhat out of my league here - but I'd go for period novels - eg Dorothy Sayers mysteries - they were written in the 20s and 30s and should give a good overview for almost contemporary language use.

Although he wasn't precisely writing historical fiction, I think P.G. Wodehouse did an exceptional job of capturing the dialect of the early 20th century upper-class twit.

George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman books use language that sounds to me as if it should be authentic. And Frasier himself was of an age to at least have spoken to aging Victorian gentlemen-cads like Flashy in his own youth.

Georgette Heyer writes Regency-era dialect that sounds as if it ought to be authentic and probably mostly is; she did for the early 19th century upper-class twit what Wodehouse did for Bertie Wooster.

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