Why should ancient foreigners speak ancient English?
September 1, 2005 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Why is the dialogue in Rome all in quasi-Shakespearean English?

You know what I'm talking about -- everyone's got classy British accents (okay, except for the plebes) and they avoid contractions and use the word “shall” a lot. I mean, if the creators are... conceptually... translating from ancient Latin, why not translate it into something resembling modern English?
posted by skryche to Media & Arts (36 answers total)
 
I'd say because Latin was an ancient, classical language and ancient, classical English best approximates the arcane and overexact flavor of it. This is the same reason that as far as I know Hellenic texts are still translated into a vaguely Shakespearean mode (with many exceptions, especially Stanley Lombardo).
posted by abcde at 7:59 PM on September 1, 2005


Also, it's a co-production between HBO and the BBC, which might explain the heavy number of British actors.
posted by Bezbozhnik at 8:22 PM on September 1, 2005


It's the old cliche, that Romans had a British accent. It might also have to do with the fact that Shakespeare wrote several Roman-era dramas (or as they were known in his time, dramedy).

They should totally speak Latin (a la Passion of the Christ), even though it'd sound funny to our ears.
posted by geoff. at 8:54 PM on September 1, 2005


I think its just the notion that ancient language, to an American, has a British accent. The country's only existed for 230 years, Columbus only landed 500 years ago. It just seems implausable that someone from before then would have an American accent.

American speech is slangy, and topical--two qualities you wouldn't want in an historical drama. So it's become kind of a cliche to make them sound British.

Personally, I think it would be hilarious if they all spoke with Brooklyn accents. But that's just me.
posted by curtm at 9:13 PM on September 1, 2005 [1 favorite]


Brutus? Oy. Again with youse?
posted by Vidiot at 9:48 PM on September 1, 2005


Because I, Claudius still casts a very long shadow.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 10:22 PM on September 1, 2005


Going off of geoff., I think they should totally, like, speak with bitchin' Valley Girl accents.

Since we've got a Rome thread running ... why were all the ladies' pubic hairs trimmed down to a landing strip? Is that historically accurate, or only in the Julio-Claudian family line? ;-)
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:27 PM on September 1, 2005


No kidding.. every two minutes it was a fresh set of pubes, as if pubes could substitute for plot and character development. Oh wait, they might be onto something...
posted by drpynchon at 11:08 PM on September 1, 2005


I haven't (and surely won't) see this show, but in general it's a matter of feeling rather than logic. No one spoke English at all in Rome, of course, so forget logic. Filmmakers must use language that will convey a feeling to the modern audience. In this case, the audience is American? And the characters are upperclass, royalty, ancient? Try substituting any other English accent in your mind and you'll see that the only choice is a pseudo-archaic British English accent.

But what's this with "pubes"? What sort of soft porn are you folk watching?
posted by pracowity at 12:15 AM on September 2, 2005


Latin was a language of farmers: it would have been topical, and it's certainly very economic and direct. I think any ghetto speak would probably be closer than the flowery, baroque English from an era of courtiers and preux chevaliers.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:21 AM on September 2, 2005


I think any ghetto speak would probably be closer...

Saying Latin was a language of farmers is like saying English is a language of farmers. Many people speak (have spoken, will speak) English in many ways and at many levels. It surely was the same with Latin.

But the real problem with your suggestion, regardless of whether it is right or wrong logically, is that no one would be able to take the characters seriously. If you have Mark Antony speak like some guy from today's Bronx, people will laugh. There can be no suspension of disbelief if you jar the audience with Roman aristocracy talking like the gormless kid next door.
posted by pracowity at 1:49 AM on September 2, 2005


Hmm, I think the whole gormless kid-thing worked pretty well in Luhrman's "Romeo+Juliet", pracowity. Anyway, I just wanted to point out that Latin is a very direct language, with a pretty limited vocabulary (unlike English, which has an enormous vocabulary).
posted by NekulturnY at 2:01 AM on September 2, 2005


I think the whole gormless kid-thing worked pretty well in Luhrman's "Romeo+Juliet"

I agree, it worked very well, but that was a different deal. Pop music, revolvers, neon lights, modern costumes, and street gangs in a gaudy place called Verona Beach. It was a purposeful mish-mash of modern imagery and never pretended to be anything like a faithful representation of the place and time. Watching it, you would never think to complain about an anachronism, because the entire production was built on anachronism.

But this Rome thing, judging by the web site, is supposed to be a more typical costume drama. If someone wore a wristwatch or spoke a Brooklynism ("Shakespeare, kick in the rear"), you'd be popped out of the imaginary space they are trying to lure you into.
posted by pracowity at 3:05 AM on September 2, 2005


It's called the suspension of disbelief. Don't fight it, go with it. Enjoy. You're in Acient Rome!
posted by sic at 3:22 AM on September 2, 2005


Haven't seen Rome, but isn't the movie cliche that the Romans will have British accents and the heroic slaves or Jews will have American accents? (see Spartacus, Kirk Douglas vs. Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov).
posted by barjo at 7:05 AM on September 2, 2005


Wait, what's this about pubes? Should I start watching Rome?
posted by klangklangston at 7:10 AM on September 2, 2005


Latin was an ancient, classical language and ancient, classical English best approximates the arcane and overexact flavor of it.

Don't be silly. Latin in the period covered by Rome wasn't "ancient" or "classical," it was the vernacular of the day. I've long been irritated by the use of British English as an indicator of Classy Antiquity; Brutus and Caesar didn't sound like Oxbridge twits, they sounded like politicians and military men of their day. And for anybody who thinks "nobody would take it seriously" if the actors spoke in standard American English (who said anything about the Bronx?), you're seriously brainwashed and need to reexamine your assumptions. Did people not take Chinatown or The Silence of the Lambs or Thelma & Louise or The Player seriously because the actors didn't talk like the Queen? If the script is good (which by all accounts this wasn't, but let's pretend) and the actors do their jobs, nobody will notice what version of English is being spoken.
posted by languagehat at 9:19 AM on September 2, 2005 [1 favorite]


Latin in the period covered by Rome wasn't "ancient" or "classical," it was the vernacular of the day.

But the Latin spoken by the Equestrian and Senatorial classes in their public dealings was by no means the same thing as the Latin spoken by the ordinary soldier or civilian plebeian.

I've long been irritated by the use of British English as an indicator of Classy Antiquity; Brutus and Caesar didn't sound like Oxbridge twits, they sounded like politicians and military men of their day.

There's no such thing as a single "British English", and having seen the first episode of this show, I know that there isn't a uniform accent used in it, but two very different ones which any British ear will instantly pick up as markers of the appropriate social slots to which their users belong.

That the upper classes should use RP in movies about the Roman era while the soldiers and slaves sound like Cockneys actually does a reasonable job of conveying something of the immense social distance which existed between the ancient world's privileged classes and the mass of ordinary people, as the fact is that British society has also long suffered that kind of class distance and antagonism in a way that America, for all its current economic inequalities, never has: Harvard graduates and Upper East-Side residents sound little different from any other Americans who happen to have college educations, there never was an American landed aristocracy entitled to privileged treatment before the law, and appeals to class warfare have never enjoyed the same resonance as they still do to some extent even in modern Britain.
posted by Goedel at 10:26 AM on September 2, 2005


Speaking of Latin, isn't Caesar pronounced Kaiser and Cicero, Kikero? I take it there are no soft sounds in Latin, based on what I recollect from the Wheelock I browsed through.
posted by Gyan at 10:28 AM on September 2, 2005


I saw the first episode. Like Goedel, all I heard was posh British and cockney (Brit because it's a 1/2BBC production, posh & cockney to clarify class differences). I didn't hear anything that even remotely Shakespearean (which would be Elizabethan English).

I haven't read anything about the making of the show. But it looked like it was basically a BBC production that HBO had poured money into.
posted by grumblebee at 11:44 AM on September 2, 2005


Did people not take Chinatown or The Silence of the Lambs or Thelma & Louise or The Player seriously because the actors didn't talk like the Queen?

That misses the point, languagehat. Your examples are American movies about Americans, so of course no one would take them seriously with anything but American accents. And of course Romans didn't speak English. Of course the Romans weren't British (except for the ones who were). But don't try to apply simple logic to this or you'll come away with the wrong answer.

When trying to convey, in English, to Americans (I presume, if it's HBO), the feeling of ancient Rome, the options are to use a real modern English accent that everyone will be able to connect to a real place and real people ("Ha! This 'Roman emperor' sounds like Joey Nosepicker down the street!") or to use an accent (possibly a contrived one) that will not make the audience laugh at unintended and unfortunate associations.

They could use a fake Italian accent (after all, it's about Rome) and end up with other unintended associations, or they could find a native English accent that somehow conveys the feeling they want and does not lead to unintended, or at least not to unwanted, mental associations. By choosing what sounds to the average American like a generic upper-class "English" accent, the worst they can end up with is Americans thinking (subconsciously, if it works as I suppose they hope) about aristocracy and empire and history and the like. People might also think about Shakespeare or Masterpiece Theatre, but at least those are positive associations. They just don't want people thinking the emperor sounds like Joey Nosepicker.

And after they've settled on that, it's obvious that the lower classes have to speak in a more working-class English accent. I don't know if they chose Cockney -- I haven't seen the thing -- but it would have to be, to the average American's ears, something like that.
posted by pracowity at 12:15 PM on September 2, 2005


Of course the Romans weren't British

Exactly. End of story.

They just don't want people thinking the emperor sounds like Joey Nosepicker.


I'm trying hard to keep my cool and not go off on snobbish people in a manner that would be inappropriate for AskMeFi. You're not making it easy.
posted by languagehat at 12:34 PM on September 2, 2005


Exactly. End of story.

Nope. They also weren't American.

I'm trying hard to keep my cool

Then you're still missing the point. If it's for American consumption, you don't want it to sound, to an American, like the guy down the street.
posted by pracowity at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2005


In the abhorrent King Arthur (which I saw on pay-cable by accident because nothing else was on, and there was a storm outside...and 5 other excuses that might exonerate me), the visiting Romans had a rather thick Italian accent that, in light of this AskMe thread, might seem like a good middle-ground.

It was rather thick going, however, and I doubt that an entire 1 hour episode where everyone is speaking in that thick of an accent would really play well to an American audience.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:48 PM on September 2, 2005


WHY HASN'T ANYONE ADDRESSED THE ISSUE OF THE PUBES
posted by jimmy at 12:50 PM on September 2, 2005


the visiting Romans had a rather thick Italian accent

That would make sense (of the moviemaking variety) if everyone else were speaking some sort of native English and they wanted to make the point that the visitors were foreigners, but, yes, it would drive me crazy (I think) to hear everyone in an American movie about Romans putting on Italian-accented English for every character. Maybe. I'd have to hear it.

OK, it's off topic, but: the pubes (see the article and comments). No dirty pictures. Abstract: Romans (or at least some Romans) plucked pubic hair, so it wouldn't be an anachronism for an actress in Rome to have something like the "landing strip" mentioned above. But I'm only summarizing; I have no idea whether that's right.
posted by pracowity at 1:37 PM on September 2, 2005


Yes. The pubes.

The pubes speak in a rather middle-class Oxfordy kind of accent.
posted by curtm at 1:41 PM on September 2, 2005


I'm thinking of a skinny little David Niven mustache.
posted by pracowity at 2:05 PM on September 2, 2005


Sheesh, folks, so much for subtlety; "Julio-Claudian family line" was meant to indicate I was fully aware that the full-frontal female shots we got in the first episode were all of noble (and nubile) women. Sorry, so sorry, for the derail. Sheesh!
posted by WolfDaddy at 2:53 PM on September 2, 2005


If it's for American consumption, you don't want it to sound, to an American, like the guy down the street.

Who is Joey Nosepicker. Gotcha.

I'm not against UK accents in UK productions (and to be honest I hadn't realized this was one -- I assumed if it was HBO it was American), but I resent the idea that a Brit accent is automatically OK for any circumstance whereas an American one is Joey Nosepicker. Fuck that noise.
posted by languagehat at 3:20 PM on September 2, 2005


It's a difficult thing to chagne, but I think we've been forced to grow accustomed to the "ancient" speak of movies portrayed in ancient times.

I realise the "it has to feel ancient" argument exists, but isn't that completely and utterly missing the point? Think of an American movie about the military: sure they bark orders, and sure the higher ups even are a little more formal. But that's only when they're forced to, and because of their position, they're used to switching into formal mode. Even if they don't speak in "ghetto slang," they speak relatively casually (relatively being the insertion of words which are proportional to whatever job they have) around friends/coworkers/family etc.

Right now, it is true that the stereotype is that villains and ancient people "are" British. This is the "fact" right now. Should this change? I think so--I think some director, some writer, needs to create a work so well molded for a non-British accent, so well-written, or even so well-written for a British accent, but still casual, that we forget the stereotypes of yore.

There has to be a happy medium between speaking like faux-aristocracy to give it that old feel and speaking like a human being.
posted by Lockeownzj00 at 4:28 PM on September 2, 2005


Wow. Pubes. I'm so ordering HBO right this second!

Er, because the new season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is starting later this month. Is all.
posted by hincandenza at 5:44 PM on September 2, 2005


Sometimes you just have to pick an accent and stick with it so that things seem reasonably standardized. Since it's a primarily British cast, British accents win.

Otherwise you end up like the Last Temptation of Christ, with Harvey Keitel, David Bowie and Barbara Hershey all sounding like they come from different times/places.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:32 PM on September 2, 2005


Oh...and I, too, am curious about the pubes.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:33 PM on September 2, 2005


Last Temptation of Christ, with Harvey Keitel, David Bowie and Barbara Hershey
Is it wrong to find this idea immensely appealing?
posted by boo_radley at 12:53 PM on September 6, 2005


Uh, boo? Did you not know that Last Temptation of Christ actually had those three people in it?

I'm not kidding.
posted by hincandenza at 2:25 PM on September 6, 2005


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