Oversensitive to anachronism?

My recent phase of oversensitivity started with Downton Abbey, the  generally wonderful costume drama set in the early years of the twentieth century. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of the television series, I was not so sure about the second. Many of the ingredients were the same and there was even more of the guilty pleasure of Cousin Violet’s withering put-downs. But there were things that jumped out at me as just wrong and they interrupted my enjoyment of the episodes. They were mainly language anachronisms: John Bates and Anna Smith would not have spoken about “starting a family;” William Mason would not have used the first name of a member of the Crawley family when speaking to Matthew Crawley; Sybil would certainly not have said “I couldn’t care less” to her father.

Ben Zimmer’s entertaining article on this topic details some of the language that is not quite right.

I may be oversensitive to anachronistic language: certainly, some of the comments that are directed at Ben Zimmer criticize him for nit-picking. (Nit-picking — first known use, 1956.) There are the drearily predictable “get a life” comments. But Zimmer points out very politely that it is entirely possible to enjoy a book/play/movie/television series while at the same time being sensitive to the language used.

Today, a colleague sent me a link to an interesting post by Mary Robinette Kowal. Kowal has written the second of a set of four novels that are set in Regency times but have a speculative fiction twist. During the editing phase of the second book, she rather cleverly created a spellcheck dictionary of language used in Jane Austen novels as a guide to weeding out language not in use at the time. (The list of words and phrases flagged by this process were surprising: yanked, interplay, empathy, hairline fracture, tailgate, wastepaper basket, storefront, gotten into trouble … how did they ever get into the manuscript in the first place? Well, let’s assume it was the first draft.)

In one of her followup comments, Kowal gets to what is for me the heart of the matter. Getting it right is, she says, a question of balance:

The challenge is to find the balance between comprehensibility and anachronism. If readers are thinking, “My! That’s an authentic word” it will take them out of the story every bit as much as an obviously modern word would.

The Regency and the Napoleonic era in general have very staunch fans who know the language. Now I do think that one can be much more relaxed in the narrative than in dialogue, but even so– why not take the trouble? As long as I don’t make reading it harder, it seems to me that it can serve the story.

I like her thinking and I appreciate her recognition that the era she is writing about has fans who know the language. In fact, this applies to other periods of history as well. Julian Fellowes: take note.


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