Visualization of the Week: Anachronistic language in "Downton Abbey"

A look at the historical accuracy of "Downton Abbey's" language.

The British television show “Downton Abbey” has just wrapped up its second season here in the U.S., and the historical drama has been well received by both critics and fans. Despite the show’s popularity and critical acclaim, it has come under fire for a number of anachronisms that have slipped into the characters’ dialogue, most notably when the house maid Ethel quipped, “I’m just sayin’.”

History grad student Ben Schmidt has taken a closer look at the speech patterns in this season’s final episode. His blog post and accompanying visualizations explore the finale’s anachronisms. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers.)

Schmidt ran every two-word phrase from the episode through the Google Ngram database to see how the show’s language matches up with circa-1917 English.

He explains the visualization in his post: “Left-to-right is overall frequency; top to bottom is over-representation. Higher up is representative of 1995 language; lower down, of 1917.”

Downton Abbey language visualization
Visualization of two-word phrases used in the “Downton Abbey” season two finale. Read more about this visualization and see a larger version.

“So: how does it look?” Schmidt asks. “In short: not too bad. This was one of the best episodes of the season, anachronism-wise.”

For those curious how “Downton Abbey” compares to other historical dramas from the same period, Schmidt also discusses anachronisms in other well-known films and TV shows. Interestingly, the patterns in “Downton Abbey” are quite similar to “Gosford Park” — no surprise, perhaps, since both share the same screenwriter, Julian Fellowes.

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