Out of the mouths of Lords: Smack Talk on Downton Abbey

Like just about everyone else in America this winter, we have been watching Downton Abbey, mourning over the death of Sybil, relieved at the release of Mr. Bates, and simply loving the dowager countess played by Maggie Smith for every slight lift of her eyebrow. But we also view Downton as a guilty pleasure, one that isn’t quite worthy of the enjoyment we get out of it, like eating junk food. Until recently, we haven’t known exactly why we think Downton equates to a big Mac. Then, we heard UC Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air.

DowntonAbbeyNunberg says that Downton writer/creator Julian Fellowes made no effort to get the dialogue right for the time period. He says spotting modern-day expressions in the early 19th-century series is “as easy as shooting grouse in a barrel.” For instance: Lord Grantham says, “I couldn’t care less,” Thomas, the footman, complains that “our lot always gets shafted.” Cousin Matthew announces he has been on “a steep learning curve.” (Wikipedia cites “early” uses of the learning curve metaphor in 1998 and 2000.) Nunberg also says that Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to step on it since early cars did not have accelerator pedals.

Not only are Downton characters speaking in modern language, Nunberg says they are thinking modern 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…

“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.”

In other words, Fellowes doesn’t hear it when he writes a bit of dialogue that isn’t true to the Downton era. But this is something for writers of historical fiction to pay attention to because audience members, often do hear the clinkers even if they don’t know what they are hearing exactly. Something just registers as wrong or even a bit inflammatory, hence, smack talk.

We live in an era of relentless fact checking. Getting the facts right didn’t matter so much before the internet, but now, it does. The web makes it easy to check up on the use of language. But it also makes it relatively easy for historical writers to get the language right in the first place.