Lincoln’s pronunciation: Historical sociolinguistics in the movies


☞ One of the big debates concerning recent American movies is their truthfulness or authenticity. There is much discussion on two of the major movies: Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained, as some of the entries on this blog illustrate: on truthfulness; on authenticity. Spielberg‘s Lincoln is not an exception here, except that the comments and complaints do appear to be usually more innocuous than those directed at the two other movies. In the following article by Mark Liberman, we have another linguistic discussion, like the previous blog entry on Lincoln. But this time, it is not on profane concerns, but on historical sociolinguistics. It is a rather positive take on the movie, with an emphasis on its historical value in the study of language.

[Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portr...

Did the movie get his language right?: Abraham Lincoln, U.S. President. Seated portrait, holding glasses and newspaper, Aug. 9, 1863 (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

“From reader JM:

My son Chris (age 26) e-mailed me to ask which was correct: “younger than me” or “younger than I”.  He had been watching “The Patriot” (the movie with Mel Gibson), and noted the use of “younger than I.”  I assume that this would have been the standard in the late 1700s.  When he and I saw the movie “Lincoln” last weekend, I noted that Daniel Day Lewis pronounced what and which, etc. as [hw].  I gather (from Wikipedia, etc.) that the more common pronunciation in both the U.S. and the U.K. is now [w], but couldn’t find anything about the time course of this merger. Is it known for sure that Lincoln said [hw]? Just curious….don’t know anything about how much effort film directors put into this kind of historical accuracy.

The discussion of than in MWDEU suggests that 18th-century usage of “than I” or “than me” would have been a coin flip. As far as I know, there’s been no empirical work on how that coin was biased over time (and space, and register, and social stratum) — this would be a good term project in a linguistics course, and maybe even a good thesis topic.

With respect to Lincoln’s use of [hw] or [w], there’s a survey of relevant evidence in Donca Minkova, “Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]”,  and Lesley Milroy, “An essay in historical sociolinguistics?: On Donka Minkova’s ‘Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]'”, in Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons, Studies In The History Of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, 2004.”

Labov et al. on contrastive /hw/ and /w/ in the United States (late 20th century)



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