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Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?

Linguist Geoff Nunberg finds that in the film <em>Lincoln,</em> screenwriter Tony Kushner oscillates between old and modern meanings of "equality."
DreamWorks/Twentieth Century Fox
Linguist Geoff Nunberg finds that in the film Lincoln, screenwriter Tony Kushner oscillates between old and modern meanings of "equality."

Has there ever been an age that was so grudging about suspending its disbelief? The groundlings at the Globe Theatre didn't giggle when Shakespeare had a clock chime in Julius Caesar. The Victorians didn't take Dickens to task for having the characters in A Tale of Two Cities ride the Dover mail coach 10 years before it was established. But Shakespeare and Dickens weren't writing in the age of the Internet, when every historical detail is scrutinized for chronological correctness, and when no "Gotcha!" remains unposted for long. Photographers using flashbulbs in 1919 in J. Edgar? Trans-Atlantic twin-engine jets in Argo? Really — it totally took me out of the movie!

In a climate of insistent authenticity, there's nothing harder to get right than a period's vocabulary. The past speaks a foreign language that even those who grew up with it can't recover. The producers of Mad Men take pride in fitting out their characters with the correct ties and timepieces. But as the Boston Globe's Ben Zimmer observed, they can't seem to keep anachronisms out of the scripts. Were we already saying "keep a low profile" in 1963? Actually, no — it didn't catch on until 1969, but who can remember these things?

Other writers don't even seem to make an effort to get the dialogue right. Spotting linguistic anachronisms in Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey is as easy as shooting grouse in a barrel. "I couldn't care less," Lord Grantham says. Thomas complains that "our lot always gets shafted." Cousin Matthew announces he has been on a steep learning curve, a phrase that would have gotten a blank reception even in the Sterling Cooper boardroom.

Those clangers are just too weirdly modern to ignore. It's not that Fellowes lacks an ear for the speech of the Edwardian age; it's that he doesn't seem to have much of an ear for the speech of this one. But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don't jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn't have said "when push comes to shove," and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to step on it. But that isn't the problem with Downton's vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren't using them to express authentic period thoughts. The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia — those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a drawing-room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they'd be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

The modern obsession with authenticity can be deceptive; it can make a narrative sound superficially plausible even when it's deeply false to its moment."

The modern obsession with authenticity can be deceptive; it can make a narrative sound superficially plausible even when it's deeply false to its moment. Those are the movies that remind you of Civil War battle re-enactments, and all those optometrists and computer programmers with their impeccably accurate uniforms and their rows of perfect teeth.

The stakes are higher when dramas render actual events. We understandably cut less slack to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln than to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner by and large got it right. There are some minor anachronisms — people back then didn't talk about hometown newspapers, and Mary Todd Lincoln would have worried about sharpshooters, not snipers. But there are no clunkers like the ones that populate Downton Abbey.

But avoiding the words that people didn't use back then is ultimately just a mechanical problem. A Princeton history graduate student, Ben Schmidt, has actually written a program that tags all the phrases in a script that don't appear in the books of its era. The bigger challenge is to convey the meanings of the words that people did use, especially when they resonate differently now. "Equality," "prejudice," "race" itself — how can you have mid-19th-century characters use words like those without anachronistically evoking the connotations they have for us? To many of Lincoln's contemporaries and even his allies, "equality" still evoked alarming echoes of the French Revolution. To speak of "race equality" implied not just that people should all be treated alike, but that the races really were morally and intellectually equivalent. That seems self-evident to us, but it was an extreme and dubious proposition to all but a few radical Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln himself almost certainly didn't believe it, nor did the prominent scientists of the age. In fact, the phrase "race equality" was the phrase the defenders of slavery threw at Republicans to charge that they wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation — charges the Republicans indignantly and sincerely denied.

It's discomfiting to read the accounts of those debates in Michael Vorenberg's Final Freedom, the book that Kushner chiefly drew on in depicting them. It's hard for us to adapt our understanding of words like "equality" to a 19th century moral frame. And it's to Kushner's credit that there are some overtones of those attitudes in the screenplay. In fact, if you listen closely to the movie, "equality" oscillates between its old and modern meanings, between authenticity and anachronism. It could leave you a little off-balance, particularly if you ignore the urgings of John Williams' incessantly exalting score.

Actually, the linguist in me wouldn't have minded more of that unsettled feeling. A historical novel or screenplay should give us a translation, not a transcription. And a great translation allows us to hear the alien language rustling in the background. What would it be like to have a Lincoln we couldn't so comfortably and easily make our own?

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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