Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

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)



The Language of “Lincoln”, by Ben Zimmer | Word Routes | Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus


☞ Another film that has been accused of being inauthentic, at least as far as its use of language is concerned. It must be said however, that one of the vexed problems of writing scripts for historical films is ensuring that the language is not totally out of keeping with the language spoken during the period. The article below is Ben Zimmer‘s appreciation for what the screenwriter Tony Kushner has done for Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln. Zimmer notes that this is not a simple task of ensuring that the language used is a correct depiction of the language actually used, but the film has to be entertaining as well: the language must not sound too archaic or old-fashioned. The use of profane language might be an attempt to imbue the film with a contemporary feel, but it might not be a complete success, at least to some commentators. Earlier article by Zimmer on this topic.

“…I talked to screenwriter Tony Kushner about how he crafted the dialogue for Steven Spielberg’sLincoln.” I had been intrigued about Kushner’s script-writing process after hearing that he had consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to check any word that might have been inappropriate for the film’s 1865 setting. While the results of this painstaking work are admirable, it’s always possible to nitpick over possible anachronisms.

In the past, I’ve indulged in similar nitpickery over such televised dramas as “Mad Men” (set in the 1960s) and “Downton Abbey” (set in the 1910s and ’20s). Lest it seem that I can’t enjoy any period drama without picking apart the dialogue, I want to make it clear that I’m not particularly bothered by occasional linguistic anachronisms. I agree with what Kushner told me in the interview for the Globe column: in writing a period-specific screenplay, the writer has a duty in “not making it sound like a historical waxwork.” The dialogue must, above all, speak to a contemporary audience. Judicious use of anachronistic language has its place, as long as the audience isn’t distracted by questionable lines.”