I mentioned Benjamin Schmidt’s Prochronisms site here, but now that I’ve been following it a while I thought I’d give it its own post. Here‘s a Wondermark appreciation, with links (thanks, Sven!), and here‘s the Prochronisms FAQ (“I tend to call a word an anachronism if it’s extraordinarily unlikely that a person would have used it at the time, even if it’s not completely impossible”—makes sense to me). He has gone into detail about anachronisms in movies about Lincoln, and he’s currently working on Downton Abbey (which my wife and I are hopelessly addicted to). If you’re interested in the language of historical dramas, you’ll want to bookmark it.

Update (Nov. 2022). The site is dead (the URL has been bought by an annoying company), but the Wayback Machine, though it has a lot of snapshots, only brings up an image of gears turning endlessly if you click on one. Annoying!

Update (Sept. 2023). It turns out the site is still there, but at a different URL, which I have substituted above (though the FAQ doesn’t seem to be there any more); the layout is annoying, but at least it’s accessible.


  1. In an episode of a TV series about the Catholic Monarchs I could listen to how the archbishop married them, in 1469, spoke in Spanish ( not in Latin with subtitles; even he read a papal bull) saying a modern expression as: “ we are gathered together here in the sign of God to join together in holy matrimony…”
    Spanish has the words “anacronismo” and “paracronismo”. Maybe, the word “ucronía” could be used here.

  2. The point of drama is to deceive the audience, so the anachronism problem on Downtown is not that Fellowes has the 1920s characters use expressions that weren’t around until the 1930s, it’s that he has them say things that we know (rightly or wrongly) weren’t around until well into our own lifetimes. Fellowes shows little sign of moving up his beloved learning curve, in spite of all his logic pills. He should stop pushing the envelope out of the box.

  3. I liked what David Malki says on the link, partly because he implies that what you get right are more important than what you get wrong:
    “But I rather love the mishmash, as well — obviously someone striving for period accuracy would do well to try to use the language of the day in the manner in which it was actually used, but there’s something charming to me about adopting the trappings of a different era but putting a little bit of a modern voice into it. It becomes new; it’s something we couldn’t have gotten from the real era. It’s science fiction: traveling back to the world of Kennedy or LBJ or Queen Victoria or Abraham Lincoln, getting to put on those clothes and talk about those issues, but bringing a little 2013 with you in a way that they never would have done. It’s inventive.”
    Except that there isn’t any way fictional language set in the past can exist without ‘bringing a little 2013 with you’, like Menard’s Quixote perhaps. It’s never going to be authentic, it will always be obvious, as much as with sets and makeup, when it was really made ¬–which doesn’t rule out being convincing, or truthful. (There are parallels with translation.)
    Malki’s mishmash ignores rules or makes a noise breaking them. Inconsistency is the point. The energy and newness of other kinds of writing – Treasure Island, Hawksmoor, The Blue Flower, Andrea Arnold’s film of Wuthering Heights, the whole shaggy dog story of Aubrey and Maturin ¬– needs coherence, depends on reimagining an entire world.
    (I’ve not seen Lincoln. Malki’s description almost works for Downton, but it’s surely much too knowing to be ‘striving for period accuracy’?)

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    He makes a good point in the FAQ that you can only push the “authenticity” thing back so far, maybe for the 1920’s or 1860’s but after a few centuries “authentic” dialogue (esp. as to pronunciation) would become incomprehensible to a modern audience. I don’t know enough about the history of Spanish to know if it would be the same there, but certainly a movie/tv-show depicting English royalty in 1469 speaking the way they actually spoke (according to our best scholarly reconstructions etc) would probably need to be heavily subtitled. My sense is that even productions of Shakespeare that don’t monkey with the text do not attempt to have the actors use “authentic” period pronunciation, which means that certain puns and other wordplay are lost.

  5. “He makes a good point in the FAQ that you can only push the “authenticity” thing back so far, maybe for the 1920’s or 1860’s but after a few centuries “authentic” dialogue (esp. as to pronunciation) would become incomprehensible to a modern audience. ”
    This is the inevitable problem.
    I am reading “Babbitt” finally, set in the 1920s, and even only that far back a lot of the expressions Sinclair uses are nearly meaningless to me. I never ehard mygrandparents, basically fo the same era, use any of them and they have no emotional impact.
    It becomes a work of translation, as when in “Lincoln” when Lincoln walks in on those sleazoids who have been hired to buy Congressional votes, one of them exclaims “Well, I’ll be fucked!”. He almost certainly would realy have said “I’ll be damned!” but it is simply a fact that to a modern audience that expression sounds very mild and would not say what it would have said in the 1860s.

  6. >J.W. Brewer
    I meant that the mass should be in Latin and probably there’s no need to add any subtitles. At least they shouldn’t have said that modern expression.
    Anyways, in Spain unfortunatelly all foreign films are dubbed into Spanish except songs.

  7. Spotting the language errors in a Downton Abbey is always fun because the stakes are so low. The same problem irritated me more with Wolf Hall, to the extent that I had to give up reading it, though I hear that some people thought the misplaced diction a feature, not a bug. Give me Patrick O’Brian any day.
    Granted, true period dialogue gets impossible after a certain point, but it is the job of the writer to make these things as invisible as possible. What really bugs me is anachronistic thought and attitude in historical fiction. (Or historical history, for that matter.)
    But back to the Crawleys – for those who think them ripe for parody, I give you a trifling bagatelle my wife knocked off after a bit of season three. I mean to say, how could she resist?

  8. The language of Wolf Hall worked very well, in my opinion. How dare you lump it with Downtown Abbey. What would you have preferred: something a bit more Shakespearean, like?
    As Michael says, Fellowes is deliberately adding these anachronistic phrases.

  9. Because we are talking about historical fiction and diction. As I said, the task is to be as invisible as possible, and for me, WH just didn’t do it. I wanted to like the book, truly I did – I just couldn’t. (Though I did like A Place of Greater Safety when that came out, as I recall. And I did note a few good jokes in WH. Perhaps I’ll try it again some time.)

  10. But isn’t invisibility a trick? in the sense that objective untweaked authenticity, so far as it exists (Stasi tapes?), is likely to be terribly distracting? I agree you can’t do without invisibility, but often as something you might want to dip in and out of or pull focus on, as actors are capable of being invisible as well as giving a performance you can enjoy.
    In principle I think any anachronism is fine if it’s there for a reason (such as energy v. correctness), even if the reason is you don’t care about anachronisms. Whether it works or not is something else, but if it does it often is invisible.
    I like the possibly apocryphal story of Brecht insisting on having actors incorrectly pulling pints of gin in a London pub, because gin was just better.

  11. I liked it very much, also Bring Up The Bodies, which is plotted brilliantly, like a chess match. I suppose I did find the language a bit stilted in places, but if I were to need reassurance about either book I’d just read Colin Burrow(fellow of All Souls, no walkover) ‘s reviews in the LRB.

  12. The Prochronisms site seems to have changed hands sometime in the summer of 2018; at least, the first date for which the Wayback Machine shows the current clickbait site is 9/26/2018. Before that, I don’t get an error message, I just get an image of gears turning which is presumably a signal to wait, but it never resolves (e.g., 1/20/2013). Can anyone explain this, or (for extra credit) find a capture of the original site, as posted here, that I could replace the useless one in the post with?

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    @ hat
    is being posted to by Schmidt regularly. He has a contact control there which also provides a twitter contact. Alternatively
    contains link to, which also has a contact control.

  14. I’m not sure what you mean by “contact control,” but at that second link we find: “Prochronisms: Exploring language dynamics by tracking anachronisms.” Did you click through? Because the current Prochronisms site has nothing to do with language dynamics, it’s the clickbait site I referred to.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose what I thought is the current “contact point” might know about archive posts. If not, Schmidt himself might know….

  16. After all this time I finally checked Ben’s site and found a working link for Prochronisms — belated thanks!

  17. Granted, true period dialogue gets impossible after a certain point, but it is the job of the writer to make these things as invisible as possible.

    1) Or else it isn’t. Some people like blatant. It’s not a moral issue.

    2) What’s invisible to Alice is blatant to Bob.

    3) The job of the writer is to write it the way they like it. If the reader likes it, tant mieux; if not, tant pis.

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