The Luscious Language of ‘Lincoln’

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

The Academy Awards ceremony is on Sunday, and once again my thoughts turn to the language of film. (And I mean language-language, not the lingo of tracking shots, jump cuts, montage, and such.) Last year in this space I opined that

the tendency in Hollywood is to have [characters] talk in such a profoundly false and uninteresting manner. Screenwriters (pardon me while I grossly generalize) have a poorly thought-out notion of linguistic realism, toward which they reflexively gesticulate while spending most of their attention on advancing the plot or setting up various kinds of commonly accepted payoffs, aka “money shots.”

My biggest dialogue gripes of late have centered not on a film but on Downton Abbey, the recently completed third season of which featured more jarring anachronisms than ever. As tracked by the stealthy digital humanist Ben Schmidt, these 1920s characters have talked about an “added bonus,” “parenting a child,” and—twice—a “learning curve.” As I noted when I previously discussed Downton‘s jarring notes, “it is absurd to expect realism on TV, whether in depiction of hospital procedures, workplace banter, family life, or upper-class English talk of any period.” But the problem with a phrase like “learning curve” is that it’s so egregiously of a particular time (late 20th century) and milieu (watered-down and jargonized social science) that it’s impossible to suspend one’s belief and in any way credit the characters and situations on the screen.

Getting back to the Oscars, Schmidt has written an article for The Atlantic on the numerous linguistic anachronisms in Lincoln, nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category, among many others. Schmidt says:

Mary Todd complains about Thaddeus Stevens’s “prosecutorial” interest in her accounts, but the word wasn’t used at all until 1934, and not widely until Watergate. As others have noted, everyone said “sneaked,” not “snuck,” until the 20th century, and the “barrage” of artillery Edwin Stanton plans for Wilmington only entered English around 1900. And the “bipartisanship” at the heart of the movie’s narrative? The dictionary says the term only entered the language in 1909, although I’ve found a few occurrences from the 1890s.

What’s really interesting about having scores of errors is that they let us see what kinds of mistakes a historical drama makes. Many are of the sort that only linguists would find interesting: extremely rare noun forms for verbs (“abstention” and “frustrating”) or verbal forms of nouns (railroads “switch” in the 1860s, but not much else does), and several misused prepositions (changes to instead of changes in, support for instead of support to, and so forth).

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind those “mistakes.”  What’s the difference between Downton Abbey and Lincoln? It’s the difference between Downton‘s Julian Fellowes, who is an able fellow, I’m sure, and Tony Kushner, the author of the Lincoln screenplay, who is a dramatist of a high order. He makes the words sing, which is why I hope and expect he will be clutching a statue Sunday evening.

(There is some controversy over which particular statue it should be. Timothy Noah wrote a piece for The New Republic arguing convincingly that the category should be Original Screenplay. Moreover, Noah shows, the book that influenced Kushner most wasn’t the credited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals but the Brown history professor Michael Vorenberg’s 1991 Final Freedom: The Civil War, The Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment.)

In interviews, Kushner has reported making an effort to be linguistically true, checking the provenance of every word in the script against the Oxford English Dictionary‘s historical citations. But he didn’t let his findings rule, and good on him for that. He wasn’t even above making up words. Lincoln says to his allies at one point: “You grousle and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” Kushner told Ben Zimmer of The Boston Globe that he made up grousle. “I just liked the sound of it,” he admitted.

The words and phrase Ben Schmidt lists may not have been said in the 1860s but, to my ears, they could have been. (Well, maybe not bipartisanship, admittedly a clunker.) And there’s a poetry to many of them—the iamb of barrage, the stately dactyls of prosecutorial. Kushner relishes the language and his characters’ use of it, in an almost Shakespearean way. At one point Thaddeus Stevens tells George Pendleton of Ohio, “You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.” Hard to improve on that.

Or listen to a scene between Lincoln and his wife’s African-American attendant, Elizabeth Keckley:

KECKLEY: White people don’t want us here.

LINCOLN: Many don’t.

KECKLEY: What about you?

LINCOLN: I … I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re … familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what will become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.

And I don’t know if people in the 1860s used unaccommodated, forked, expectations, or assume. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Update: In an e-mail, Stephen Dodson points out a forebear to Lincoln’s speech, quoted above: King Lear, Act III, Scene 4. Lear says (I quote from the Harvard Classics edition):

Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncover’d body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on ’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come, unbutton here.  [Tearing off his clothes.]

So Kushner has Lincoln quoting Lear. That’s worth a damn Oscar in itself.

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