History as a foreign language


Would you be surprised to hear a clock chime in a play or a movie nowadays? Probably not. And what if it was in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar? Considering that it portrays the conspiracy that took place in 44BC against the Roman dictator it would definitely surprise more than one person in the audience. Another example is found in Titanic, when Rose admires a Monet (The nymphs) which wasn’t painted until 1915.

The film industry is full of chronological errors, also called anachronisms. Although they could simply pass by in the past without being noticed, they are nowadays spotted and widely discussed on the Internet, where nothing remains unseen for long. As the examples show, these mistakes can be found not only in objects that are chronologically out of place but also in specific periods’ vocabulary.

According to Geoff Nunberg, linguist and professor at the UC Berkley School of Information, “the past speaks a foreign language that even those who grew up with it can’t recover”, and this becomes evident in some TV shows. In Mad Men, for example, we can hear them using expressions like “keep a low profile”, which wasn’t used back in 1963. In Downtown Abbey spotting linguistic anachronisms is even easier. We can hear Lord Graham say “I couldn’t care less” or Cousin Mathew announcing that he has been on a steep learning curve.

However, as Nunberg says, avoiding the words or expressions that weren’t used back then is just a mechanical issue. The real problem comes with words that had different connotations in the past. It is a big challenge to have a mid-19th century character speaking of “equality” or “race” without immediately applying the filters and contexts of our generations.

So how can linguistic anachronisms be avoided? There are different approaches on how and whether or not they should be avoided. While some think authenticity is the cornerstone of the writers’ profession, others see historical novels as a rewriting of history to fit modern expectations. As for Geoff Nunberg, “a historical novel or screenplay should give us a translation and a great translation allows us to hear the alien language rustling in the background”.

 Article written by Diana Pereira, trainee at TermCoord

About TermCoord

The Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Schuman Building on Place de l'Europe, Luxembourg
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One Response to History as a foreign language

  1. Lee Eisenberg says:

    Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” contains one. Harvey Milk says “African-American”, a term that didn’t become common until the 1980s.

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