A new HBO miniseries following the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition produced by actors Tom Hanks, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt will feature authentic dialects and language styles thanks to a professor at West Virginia University.
Kirk Hazen, professor of linguistics and director of the West Virginia Dialect Project, began working as a linguistic consultant for the miniseries in late Spring 2015, when the producers reached out to him.
The series is based on Stephen Ambrose’s 1996 biography of explorer Meriwether Lewis, “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.”
Having an accurate portrayal of the language in the 1800s is imperative to creating realistic characters, Hazen said.
As a linguistic consultant, Hazen reviews scripts and gives writers and producers advice on whether the language used is suitable for that time period or overly modern.
Producers were the most interested in swear words that were used in the 1800s.
“Modern-day swearing is quite different from earlier times,” Hazen said.
The most offensive swear words that circulated during the period of the expedition dealt with taking religious topics in vain.
“Cursing that left a lasting impression also involved saying, ‘Damn You.’ Everybody took that as though someone was asking them to be damned to hell,” Hazen said. “The religious part of it was much more front and center.
“The kinds of swearing we have now where sexual terms are used as insulting terms did not exist then – it’s not that the terms themselves weren’t available then, but they were only used for actual sexual acts, and discussions of those things,” he said.
Hazen also helped with the representation of characters. A person with training in classical Latin or Greek would speak very differently than a character that does not have a formal education, he said.
Michael Buster, a dialect coach who worked on “12 Years a Slave” and a number of other films, worked with Hazen to determine what kind of accents characters from different regions would have during this time period.
Hazen studied various texts from the 1800s as well as the Dictionary of American Regional English to provide historically accurate suggestions. The dictionary has different regional terms, and includes words that cannot be found in a standard dictionary.
Hazen said he hopes to continue to perform linguistic consulting work for the entertainment industry in the future. He is currently working with the producers of a documentary on the image of Appalachia in Hollywood.
Production on the miniseries begins in Spring 2016.
CONTACT: Devon Copeland, Director of Marketing and Communication, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University, 304-293-6867, Devon.Copeland@mail.wvu.edu
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