Examining the changes in language between two portrayals of Sherlock Holmes Chris Fowler
My investigation of choice is focused on the differences between the original Sherlock Holmes stories and novellas and the modern adaptation Sherlock currently in full media swing on the BBC, examining the changes in language and lexis between the Holmes "canon" of late 19th century to early 20th by Sir Conan Doyle, against the modern take on the detective pair, written by screenwriters Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. I chose this particular literature franchise based on not only the large gap in time between telling, but also because of the significance of Holmes in modern English literature, being a staple of crime fiction that has gone through countless incarnations and so is a perfect choice for a language change study.
To gather my data I collected together some key scenes and passages from both versions of the Holmes stories, transcribing short passages of the TV series and quoting the books. This way I had a compact pool of with two solid sides to compare from in short, manageable chunks. While there is a considerable amount from the original canon to choose from, there has of yet only been 6 episodes of Sherlock aired, with 2 diverting completely from the original mysteries. As a result, I was limited in the data I had to choose from, but with the series being made as a part fan project, there are still many modernized references and quotes that can serve as excellent examples of the updated language change I need.
One of the most significant changes between the two adaptions is in the spoken variations between the two portrayals of the detective, and specifically in the subject of RP and Estuary English. Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock is intended to be a faithful depiction of the original late 19th century detective, and so is ingrained in the era’s social expectations of an intelligent, respectable figure, demonstrating status and respect through an enhanced, theatrical RP style. In contrast, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock occupies a very different world, modern middle-class London, where his superhuman skills for deduction and genius are seen as ‘freakish’ by his peers and acquaintances. Angry, impatient and obsessive, modern Sherlock is a cynical social recluse, but employs a higher-register form of EE that retains a degree of respectability while remaining decidedly ‘everyday’.
A key example of the language variation between characters can be found in Cumberbatch’s use of the features of Estuary English, as noted by Rosewarne [David, 1984. ‘Estuary English’. Times Educational Supplement], such as the glottal-stop. While retaining a degree of ‘correct’ RP in his speech and disregarding more extreme features, - like the dropping of the phonetic /j/ in words such as ‘absolute’ (absol’oo’te), ‘assume’ (as’oo’me) or consume (cons’oome’), or lengthening ending vowels in words like ‘city’ (cit’ee’) or ‘me’ (m’ee’) – Cumberbatch demonstrates features such as glottal-stops (dropping the T) and yod coalescence (replacing the [tj] with [ch], as in ‘choo-ne’) which makes for a comparatively modern and ‘everyday’ spoken style as opposed to Brett’s RP. A strong case for this can be found in each Holmes’s use of ‘Doctor Watson’. Cumberbatch drops the T of Watson in almost all cases, while also carrying the trend into general dialogue – conversational words like “Gotta” or “Wasn’t” -, in contrast to Brett who accentuates almost every syllable of his speech , especially that of Ts as in “Watson”. Interestingly, Cumberbatch shows an irregular pattern in pronouncing syllables and glottal-stops, “Doctor” for instance is pronounced fully, as is “Inspector”, relating to Rosewarne’s observation that “an Estuary English speaker uses fewer glottal-stops than a “London” speaker, but more than an RP Speaker”. This rings true when Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is placed alongside other characters like Mycroft or...
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