Monday, February 13, 2012

Making Downton more traditional

[Update: I've consolidated all of my TV anachronisms posts at a different blog, Prochronism, and new ones on Mad Men, Deadwood, Downton Abbey, and the rest are going there.]

Digital humanists like to talk about what insights about the past big data can bring. So in that spirit, let me talk about Downton Abbey for a minute. The show's popularity has led many nitpickers to draft up lists of mistakes. Language Loggers Mark Liberman and Ben Zimmer have looked at some idioms that don't belong for Language Log, NPR and the Boston Globe.) In the best British tradition, the Daily Mail even managed to cast the errors as a sort of scandal. But all of these have relied, so far as I can tell, on finding a phrase or two that sounds a bit off, and checking the online sources for earliest use. This resembles what historians do nowadays; go fishing in the online resources to confirm hypotheses, but never ever start from the digital sources. That would be, as the dowager countess, might say, untoward.

I lack such social graces. So I thought: why not just check every single line in the show for historical accuracy? Idioms are the most colorful examples, but the whole language is always changing. There must be dozens of mistakes no one else is noticing. Google has digitized so much of written language that I don't have to rely on my ear to find what sounds wrong; a computer can do that far faster and better. So I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.

The results surprised me. There are, certainly, quite a few pure anachronisms. Asking for phrases that appear in no English-language books between 1912 and 1921 gives a list of 34 anachronistic phrases this season. Sorted from most to least common in contemporary books, we get a rather boring list:

 [1] realistic prospect funding than       specialist care    pansystolic murmur
 [5] moment decision    the rematch        relax together     basic tips        
 [9] a pansystolic      of randy           be defeatist       dress fittings    
[13] dedicated nurse    wartime marriage   point pretending   fairly grand      
[17] want grandchildren friendships out    shortages all      when peacetime    
[21] liberal front      heavens name       staff luncheon     can posture       
[25] major inheritance  those logic        fingerprinted or   little daydream   
[29] very disfigured    having pancakes    taxing assignment  rationing now     
[33] liar while         unicorn if

Another 26 phrases do appear rarely in the 1910s, but are at least 100x as common today (sorted by biggest difference between the teens and the 1990s to least):

 [1] black market      the basics        overall charge    there anymore    
 [5] feel loved        work load         most dedicated    ganging up       
 [9] gonna need        first priority    her homework      our funding      
[13] you anymore       bit carried       hospital costs    likely outcome   
[17] off limits        contact her       more traditional  exercise classes 
[21] from scratch      in overall        current situation guest bedroom
[25] you gonna  

A few of these are just rare words, plausible hapax legomena in the time period. But others are egregious, howling mistakes. We see here several of the phrases Zimmer discusses ('those logic pills', 'the rematch','contact her' for 'get in touch with'). There are also some more obvious anachronisms ('fingerprint' as a verb, 'did her homework' as a metaphor for being prepared) and a few less recognizably modern phrasings like "realistic prospect" (which, when you think about it, is quite a mixed metaphor) and "dress fittings." Expanding it a bit reveals some more howlers: Lord Downton's complain that his family is "ganging up" on him (the OED has it as a 1925 American coinage); Lady Mary's concern about losing the "moral high ground" to Sybil (a creation of the 60s that didn't really take off until the early 1980s); a usage of the Americanism "cow pie" when a Briton would have said 'cow pat;' and several more. None of those sound as jarring, but they are equally inaccurate. (I particularly like 'cow pie'; we tend to think that rural language is eternal, but it can change as easily as city terms).

With the full list, we can see some broader patterns of error. There are some areas where writers persistently drop the ball. Through much of season 2, Downton Abbey is a hospital or convalescent home, and medical vocabulary presents a particularly problem. Branson escapes the draft because of a "mitral valve prolapse" (first use, c. 1965) causing a "pansystolic murmur" (c. 1953); both terms suggest St. Elsewhere more than the Great War. The doctor's helpers aren't trained in 'specialist care'; hardly their fault, since the phrase was never used before 1925. The household is relieved that Carson the butler did not suffer a 'heart attack'; but that phrase was about 50x rarer in 1917 (perhaps a coronary, like the one that nearly killed Roger Sterling in season 1 of Mad Men, would have been more appropriate?) and, so far as I can tell, only an 'acute heart attack' would have meant myocardial infarction to the crew at Downton.

Season 2's Great War setting opens the door for another sort of mistake: words from the Second World War showing up 20 years ahead of schedule. To most of us, the lingo from the wars is indistinguishable; but there are some major mistakes. One subplot involves Thomas setting up business selling goods on the black market; "there are shortages all around," he declares. He might as well be speaking Greek: the 'black market' doesn't emerge until 1941, and though  businessmen (particular Americans) sometimes used 'shortages' as the opposite of 'surpluses,' it is so rare in British speech that it almost never appears in UK fiction from the period. "In short supply," also used in this subplot, was about 250 times as common during the second world war as during the first. Even the today ubiquitous ideas of 'wartime' and 'peacetime' aren't appropriate; Mrs. Bryant refers to a 'wartime marriage;' but the use of 'wartime' and 'peacetime' as adjectives didn't pick up in earnest until 1941.

But we can do more than just pick nits on idiomatic speech. ("Pick nits" is 1960, by the way). It lets us look more generally at what the show gets right and wrong about past language. Every episode has dozens of lines that are just slightly off, and it's in these that the patterns really look funny. In addition to the 60 phrases above, there are another 260 that are at least 10 times more common in the 1990s than in the 1910s. These arephrases like "at long last," "from scratch", and "act fast"--maybe a few could be spoken in the teens, but all of them together?

Some of these are extremely common. To help me find the words, I asked R to make a chart that looks like this to find the worst mistakes in every episode of the season. (This is last night's: click to enlarge):
[ed--If you want to see more, they're all in my next post on the topic.]

Farther to the left means less common nowadays; higher up means more common today ('be defeatist' is next to 3; it's 10^3, or 1000x as common today) and below 0 means more common in 1917. Looking at these, the new words on the upper left jump out, but some more common words that are only overused 5 or 10 times jump out as well.

For example: Characters in Downton Abbey say "I must" 24 times, three times as often as they say "I need to." Books from the period, on the other hand, say "I must" three hundred times as often; going by the printed literature, the Abbey's residents should "need to" do something about once every ten seasons, not once an episode. Ben Zimmer pointed out that some characters say "I'm just saying" anachronistically, but it's not just that phrase: they use "just" to modify meaning far too much. Words like "just wrong," "just sucking," "just need" are frequent, and uncharacteristic. (They should be saying "only wrong," I think).

This is not to say that they get everything wrong. The writers tune their ears well enough to get quite a bit right. They know to say "sympathy with" rather than "sympathy for," and so on. They know to use "awfully" as an intensifier, and so on. We can find the shining examples of period language in Downton, too: all of these phrases were at least 6x as common in the teens as today:

 [1] this war               the trenches           who shall             
 [4] war has                practically a          so slight             
 [7] old chap               newspaper man          civilised world       
[10] dressing station       very feeble            for luncheon          
[13] little chap            jolly well             stand well            
[16] wonderful what         from Arras             1914 I                
[19] thither as             before luncheon        our chauffeur         
[22] soldier servant        a plutocrat            no livery             
[25] whole bally            awfully cut            tremendous disturbance
[28] hereafter forever      wee chap               me enlist             
[31] bally lot              hall boys              our Arch              
[34] dressing gong          seems jolly            little waspish        
[37] no convalescence       shining film           beggared if        

In all, the language in Downton is about 50-50; half is more common in 1995, half more common in 1917. In the abstract, that doesn't sound great to me, but we need a basis for comparison. Let's take another show: the beloved "Pride and Prejudice" adaptation from the nineties.

That band on the left are the completely new phrases from 1815 to 1995; a lot of language doesn't appear at all in books from Austen's time. Now, Pride and Prejudice has a lot of obstacles to overcome; the books are worse, a lot of occurrences of 'someone' will appear as 'fomeone' in the old OCR, and it's set 100 years earlier than Downton. But nonetheless, the center of that cloud is a little lower than Downton's. Of the 6 episodes, between 60 and 67% of the words are more common in 1815 than in 1995; for Downton, only about 50% are more common. That's because the BBC could steal lines from Austen that sounded authentic even without the writers having to think up phrases like "total want of" or "cordially wish." If you care only about gross anachronisms, Pride and Prejudice will sound worse than Downton because from time to time they added words that Austen didn't write; but if you care about historically accuracy overall, you'll get a much better experience of old-fashioned speech from the show that took from Austen.

For a script without a source base to crib from, though, Downton doesn't do so poorly. A couple episodes of Mad Men I checked were possibly worse [Ed.--Looking into it a little more, I take this back; they're probably better]; even great novelists do no better. Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" is one of the great historical novels in the public domain (written in 1921, set in the 1870s), but dialogue in it routinely uses phrases like "marked trend" and "shoe polish" that no one in the 1870s would have known. In fact, only 40% of its words are more common in the 1870s than the 1920s; even worse than Downton. Of course, they all sound old-fashioned to us now.

Do these mistakes really matter? Yes and no. Maybe the characters say it best:

ROBERT, EARL OF GRANTHAM                                                              
You don't think she'd be happier with a more traditional set up?

Nothing seems out of order here, perhaps. But, "more traditional" is a profoundly untraditional way of describing things. Historians know that the "invention of tradition" was rampant in Victorian England; the practice of happily talking about "more traditional" and "less traditional" outcomes is even more recent. To a real Earl of Grantham, talking about tradition as a sliding scale would rather miss the point; either it's traditional or it's not.

But today, of course, those shades of tradition--sometimes right, sometimes wrong--exactly what the show is about. We think we can recapture it in little parts; that various characters in the past can stand in for us, and that we might behave just like they do.

This is the real weakness of Downton Abbey, I'd say. Not just the language but the sensibilities are obviously modern, easy for us to understand, and false to the reality of the past. (I admit I skipped large parts of the second season of Downton Abbey to watch Cheers, which gives a far more nuanced depiction of the way social class is used as in instrument of authority and liberation than Downton.) But to imagine yourself sophisticated, fighting prejudice and eating quaint food, Downton's just the thing.


  1. Showing my age, perhaps, but how does Upstairs, Downstairs compare to Downton Abbey? They're both in Edwardian settings, but the standards for period correctness (and the means to detect them) weren't as available when Upstairs, Downstairs was produced. At the very least, we can expect few to no 1980s or 90s coinages in Upstairs, Downstairs.

    1. I think I might look at a few more shows next--the only problem with Upstairs, Downstairs is that I haven't seen it myself, and I might pick up more of the plot than I want...

  2. "Want grandchildren" is clearly the best thing that no one said.

  3. Also, Roseanne was a much better show about class than Cheers was! It is also on Netflix instant watch.

    1. I think I believe this about Roseanne, but I'm still probably not going to watch it.

  4. Some of these comments see to assume that class relationships in the US were/are identical to those in the UK in the early 1900's, this is I think highly questionable.

    1. I certainly don't want to claim they're the same. I think I didn't say what I meant clearly here. Which is: a major part of class differences are in tastes, priorities, language, and so on; we find people of other social classes ridiculous, distasteful, or foreign in ways that cut both up and down. But in Downton, people are rich and poor, elevated and cast down, but they almost always relate to each other so easily; they have a good laugh when Sybil doesn't know how to make tea, but different ideas about what's important never seem to divide them in really important ways. Or at least, that's what I've felt a lot of the time watching it.

  5. Would "I'll be a monkey's uncle" be one of them. Thought that got popularized during Scopes' Monkey Trial?

  6. I'm not sure a 50/50 mix of period and modern makes it "quite good", most of the examples you give for period language are either (a) things that involve talking about the war (which as you observe they do using modern language) or extremely stereotypical costume-drama-language (like "the whole bally lot").

    A line like "In 1914 I sold the whole bally lot on the black market" would be two-thirds period, one third ahistorical, but it's still something nobody in 1916 would *say*.

    That said, I don't think it's any more desirable for the cast of Downton to speak in the language of 1916 than it is for Macbeth to speak in an authentically Scots dialect.

    - Dan Hemmens

    1. Fair points. Though the extreme outliers are just as you say, my initial impression of the less extreme ones is that Fellowes also does a decent job sprinkling in slightly musty phrasings throughout. I don't have a great statistical model right now, but I think of it this way: you'd expect, knowing nothing else, that half the words that come out of my mouth today are getting more popular, and half getting less popular. (More than a third of the dialogue in a Marx Brothers movie is more common today than in 1933, for example. A perfect period drama would hit that percentage, but I think it's a pretty much impossible goal.) I don't want people to think that Downton is so much worse than Upstairs-Downstairs, or Remains of the Day, or whatever; it's far more interesting to me that no one can write perfectly authentic period dialogue.

      Macbeth raises an interesting point. Of course today Shakespeare's language is perfect. But the histories, we all know, are massively distorted for blatantly political reasons. Were I blogging in 1605, I'm pretty sure I'd be livid about the pasting he gives to Richard III or the whitewashing to Henry IV. And that political purpose was enabled by making their language so transparent to the groundlings. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if Shakespeare's audiences were more attuned to the obvious contemporary political valences of those plays than American viewers are to those in Downton.

    2. I think we're more or less in agreement here, and I think "slightly musty phrasings" are really all you want in a period drama (it's written for a modern audience, the fact that it would sound strange and alien to somebody from the actual time period is completely beside the point). Downton does a reasonably good job of sounding past-ey, but I don't think it particularly tries to recreate the language of 1916, and I'm not particularly convinced it should.

      As for Shakespeare - obviously the Histories were political, but nobody cares at all that they're not written in period language. You might have complained, legitimately, that Shakespeare did a ridiculous hatchet job on Richard the Third, but nobody would have complained that the play opens with "Now is the winter of our discontent..." despite the fact that the word "discontent" wasn't in common usage during the Wars of the Roses.

      - Dan Hemmens

    3. Wouldn't Shakespeare or any other creative writer be anachronistic in the sense described here? For instance, the phrase "a sea change" appears much more often in 19th and 20th century writing than it did among Shakespeare's contemporaries.

    4. @Dan--Fair enough. I think you're on stronger ground than I about Shakespeare here; I might well have complained about 'discontent,' but it would have been a pretty absurd point to make. The real question is how important we think accuracy is in any context. For some scripts (eg Shakespeare, Deadwood) I don't care at all if the language is accurate, but for some others (eg Mad Men) the idea that the creator is trying scrupulously to be accurate is a big part of the appeal for some people.

      @Maneki--Though Shakespeare did introduce several phrases that would show up as anachronisms, so much else of his language (any two word phrase starting or ending with 'thou', for example) would be obviously fusty that it doesn't. Shakespeare, I suspect, is about the only English writer who inflected the language enough that his own neologisms could make a difference.

      I actually ran some old scripts through the algorithm to check this very question; "Duck Soup" (1933) and "The Apartment" (1960) do come across as less anachronistic than Downton or Mad Men. (Although it's hard to compare between time periods, which is why I retracted my claim about Mad Men being worse than Downton--I should post separately about this, but in short, I now think it's better).

  7. This was fascinating, but I am left with one question. If the show is so wildly popular, are nitpickers actually listing 'mistakes'? I suppose I just wonder exactly what you have quantified about the show.

    If a 50-50 split of period /modern language is a deliberate choice and is also the recipe for a more engaged audience, it seems it's more a measure of success (for a television show) rather than of failure (for a documentary).

    1. Good point, and I don't have a definite answer. There might be some magic formula for how musty to get, I guess. It's hard to say what makes a show resonate--I suspect that the modern speech in Pride and Prejudice wasn't more engaging than the stuff ported over from Austen, but maybe I'm wrong. Certainly some sorts of anachronisms, like the one's Zimmer talks about, make it harder to watch the show. (And even some, like 'suck up', that might not be anachronisms, can feel too much like them).

      For me personally, I like it when TV/movie creators set the bar as high as possible for being both accessible and period-correct. But not everyone needs to agree. Some people used to like their plays to be written in iambic pentameter, too, but most people now would just find it a silly hoop.

  8. Great post. The question of periodicity is something I'm interested in with relation to the eighteenth-century stage and I think it's always an open question of how historically accurate you want your language and the sensibilities of your characters to be when writing a historical drama for a contemporary audience (e.g. The ideas and emotions expressed by the characters in Malick's The New World seem extremely anachronistic in comparison to those expressed in, say, Weir's Master and Commander, but I think those anachronisms also make it a more compelling film in certain ways).

    On a more practical level, I just wanted to note that this might be an example of how digital humanities could demonstrate its utility for broader society (i.e. sell out). In order to avoid the embarassment of those articles about notable howlers, I can easily imagine the screenwriters for shows like Downton running drafts of their scripts through the sort of analysis you've done and editing various lines accordingly. Maybe you should offer to do it for them in exchange for generous compensation from the studio.

    A bit less ambitious than uncovering the structure of language through 'Age cohort and vocabulary use' but probably more lucrative.

  9. Is this sort of thing (on a far less detailed basis) possible to do with existing, free resources on the internet?

  10. I think one runs the risk of losing one's audience if the language is too authentic in such a period script as "Downton Abbey". It has to sound authentic "enough", yet be accessible to the ear of the modern audience. Most viewers aren't going to be researching the language bits anyhow. Now if the Earl of Grantham were using an iPhone...

  11. Great post! How do you account for the differences between spoken and written language? It is very likely that people in the teens and twenties said words and phrases that they never would have thought to write down.

    In other words, your measures compare written utterances to spoken utterances, and consequently overestimate the frequency of anachronism. Is there a way to correct for this? You could, for example, test Downton against a corpus of works that are records of spoken utterances or, as in playtexts, attempt to imitate spoken utterances. This would reduce the size of your corpus significantly, and would thus make for more "pure anachronisms," but it might also yield closer correspondence more generally.

    1. Thanks! There are definitely differences between written and spoken. In my other post on Downton Abbey, I look at a Shaw play set in a country manor to get some baseline for at least imitated speech, and it shows very different patterns: I think that (seeing whether contemporary imitations of 1920s speech and 1920s imitations of 1920s speech) is the sweet spot here.

      In general, I think it's easy to overstate the difference between vocabulary (as opposed to syntax, or usage rates) between spoken and written English. For later periods (like Mad Men) there are some actual speech recordings that should be interesting. But I haven't fully explored those yet. Someday!

  12. Great analysis Ben! I was wondering if you would be able to help me locate Downton Abbey scripts online as you said you found some. I can't for the life of me find any, but perhaps my resources need expanding.
    Where did you find yours?!
    Your help very much appreciated!

    1. For this post I used some ones someone put up at; more recently, I've mostly been using subtitles/closed captions, which can have transcription errors, but if you get the right ones don't include any non-dialogue, and it's easy to get lots of scripts.

      On the other hand, they also don't include character names, which can make them bad for anything other than looking at words actually spoken.

  13. Thanks so much, will try both options! I was looking more for actual scripts, but this is a start. Appreciate your help:)

  14. What strikes me is how much of the inaccuracy is a matter of degree. "High ground" is a long-established military concept, and it doesn't take much inventiveness to add moral to it in the military parallel Lady Mary was drawing. And "traditional" might have been a new adjective then, relatively speaking, but turning an adjective into a comparative is about as surprising as buying a car and then taking it for a spin (so to speak). These are particularly erudite and intelligent people (at least, Upstairs) and it doesn't strain credulity that they'd coin relatively inevitable neologisms from time to time to suit a need, the fact that those phrases wouldn't generally catch on for some time notwithstanding. What does strain credulity is that they'd do it so often.

  15. What this analysis doesn't take into account is the earlier use of these words, phrases and idioms in spoken language, before they show up in printed literature. Also, literature prior to WWI was almost exclusively written by people from the middle and upper classes and so doesn't fully reflect the rich working-class vocabulary of the day.