Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter? We're living in an age obsessed with authenticity, says linguist Geoff Nunberg, but we often choose to nitpick the wrong details. Whether it's Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Lincoln or Argo, Nunberg argues, a historical novel or screenplay should give us a translation, not a transcription.

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

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In the Internet Age, it's gotten easy to detect historical anachronisms in the language of movies and TV shows. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg spots a lot of them himself, but sometimes wonders if we end up choosing the wrong things to nitpick over.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Has there ever been an age that was so grudging about suspending its disbelief? The groundlings at the Globe Theater 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. Reporters using flashbulbs in 1919 in "J. Edgar," transatlantic twin-engine jets in "Argo," it completely 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 which even those who grew up with 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 till 1969. But who can remember this stuff?

Other writers don't even make much of 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."

And cousin Matthew announces he's been on a steep learning curve, a phrase that would've gotten a blank stare 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 for 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 what's problematic about "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 period 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. Those are the movies that remind you of Civil War battle reenactments, with 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 naturally cut less slack to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" than to "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

And the screenwriter Tony Kushner, by and large, got it right. There were some minor anachronisms - people back then didn't talk about hometown newspapers, and Mary Todd Lincoln would've 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. There's a history graduate student named Ben Schmidt who's 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 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, race equality was the phrase the defenders of slavery used to charge that the Republicans wanted to raise Negroes to the same status as whites and encourage miscegenation, charges that most 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 his 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 promptings 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 should allow us to hear a stubbornly alien language rustling in the background. What would it be like to have a Lincoln that we couldn't so comfortably and easily make our own?

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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