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Friday, January 11, 2013

The Language of the Lincoln Movie

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is a magnificent film that gets the big things right.  The script beautifully articulates his belief in self-evident truths:

Here are his actual words, in an 1859 letter:
One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.

But the picture errs in some smaller ways. At The Atlantic, Benjamin Schmidt writes:
I'm not the first to look at the historical accuracy of Lincoln's language. But by using massive databases of digital texts—in particular, the Ngrams corpus that Google created in collaboration with the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, where I have a fellowship—I can do it very comprehensively. Kushner relied on his ears to know when to look up a particular word. I lack that sensitivity, so instead I have a computer program that can tackle the problem more crudely: It simply checks every single word and phrase of up to three words (in Lincoln, there are 15,000 of them) to flag places where the script seems to be departing from language published in books. This "anachronism machine" produces dozens of potential leads I can track down in dictionaries, old newspapers, and other sources.Using computers for tasks like this is useful because it gives a completely different perspective. The statistics can help uncover shifts in American language and culture over the last century and a half that no one has noticed—although we still have to decide what they mean.
Schmidt finds many anachronisms, such as the term "peace talks," which comes from the latter half of the 20th century, and the name "Kevin," which was extremely rare in the United States of 1865.
Even the phrase "13th Amendment" is out of place. At the time, people just said the "constitutional amendment" or the "slavery amendment": It had been 60 years since the last amendment, and no one was in the habit of numbering them. The same sort of mistake dogs the movie's discussion of racial equality. One particular character makes more than his share of this sort of mistake: the radical Congressman Asa Vintner Litton (Stephen Spinella, playing a composite character who seems most closely based on Henry Winter Davis). In one of the film's key scenes, Stevens refuses to state his belief in full equality to Congress in order to help the amendment on its way. Litton is furious: "You refused to say that all humans are, well... human!" But in 1865, referring to people as "humans" was slang, not an elevating way of being inclusive. Had a real Asa Litton wanted to express the notion of universal equality, he would have, like Thomas Jefferson a century before or Lyndon Johnson a century later, mentioned "all men;" even if he were being gender-neutral, he would have said "persons." In a similar vein, Litton and Ashley each talk about "racial equality" and "race equality" as the eventual goal, but the phrase would have been "Negro equality." Nowadays, that sounds like a completely meaningless difference, but actually, the difference between "Negro" and "racial" equality underscores just how adaptable American racism can be. One of the strangest results of "Negro equality" in Reconstruction was a short period when the California supreme court re-interpreted a law that prohibited blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese from testifying against white men: Thanks to the actions of the Radicals in Congress, blacks were now free from Chinese testimony as well.