The Linguistic Differences Between 2 Television Portrayals of Sherlock Holme Essay Sample

The Linguistic Differences Between 2 Television Portrayals of Sherlock Holme Pages
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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.

Spoken Variations
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 Lestrade – two polar opposites of the spoken spectrum -, Mycroft being a high society RP speaker and more akin to the pronunciation of Brett with careful pronunciation of syllables, while Inspector Lestrade employs a classic “London cockney” style with abundant glottal-stops and/j/ dropping.

A switching of [ty] for [ch] can be found in words like “Stupid” or “Deduce”, and Cumberbatch also displays a comparatively compressed range of pitch intonations –especially in deduction sequences, which remain almost monotone in style- against Brett’s rather flamboyant dynamic range, stated as a key difference between RP and Estuary. While Brett changes pitch frequently (sometimes mid-sentence, as in “A cons-IDERABLE CRIME is in contemplation), Cumberbatch remains at a similar level for the majority of all his dialogue, changing drastically in volume but remaining close in pitch, characterising what could be called a cynical “drawl”. Rosewarne notes this feature as a possible indication of ‘deliberateness’ and ‘an apparent lack of enthusiasm’, which from the viewpoint of fictional characterisation, ties in neatly with the angry, frequently “bored” characterisation that Cumberbatch portrays.

The differentiations in RP and Estuary features between both portrayals have possible contextual explanations based on the shift between each speech style The upper class accent of Brett’s Holmes is replaced with a standard English form that reflects the context of the time frame – while a high class ‘posh’ style of speaking grants respectability to a character set in the 19th century where social class was reflected through speech, a modern day Holmes speaking in the same fashion would somewhat reduce the authenticity of a modern day amateur detective living in middle-class London.

As Rosewarne states, a EE spoken style is a “middle-ground” between the wide range of RP and regional varieties, and as a result is a style more attractive and popular than RP because of its huge widespread influence –as opposed to the now extreme minority that is RP, which as Rosewarne says, is no longer neutral and has the possibility to arouse “hostility”. This sentiment is supported succinctly by a particular scene in A Scandal in Bohemia- in which Sherlock leaves a tense meeting with RP Mycroft and a Royal representative, exclaiming a conclusive “Laters!” in deliberately exaggerated London/EE style. This final ‘rebellious’ display of language could be said to highlight the difference between the devil-may-care attitude of Cumberbatch’s modern Sherlock and the conservative officials of the old RP world, visualising him through language as an everyday, ‘relatable’ depiction of the genius character.

Formality and Grammar
A significant change that can be noted between the two adaptations is the framework of formality and grammar, much of which is related to the shifting social expectations between the settings of the two adaptations. Brett’s Holmes occupies an era where personal titles were held in high regard due to the higher importance placed on social class. Therefore, titles such as ‘Doctor’, ‘Sir’, and ‘Officer’ can be found in frequent use, elevating the receiver as a figure of respect via their societal address and surnames are used as the standard form of address (‘Watson’, ‘Mortimer’). Modern day Sherlock drops the majority of these terms as per the change of the modern world, direct first name address is used in place of surnames or generic pronouns (‘John’, ‘Molly’) and professional titles are limited to those with official status, such as ‘Inspector’ or ‘Doctor Watson’, titles which are sometimes used almost mockingly by Holmes (“Hospitals are full of dying people, Doctor”), displaying a disregard for professional respect and possibly a reference to the extensive use of such pronouns in the canon.

In addition to this, the subject of politeness has a radical overhaul in the modern day Sherlock which owes as much to the characterisation of the modern portrayals as it does to the social norms. Brown and Levinson’s politeness theory suggests clear distinguishing levels between social parties based on status or social distance, proposing that people adapt their language accordingly to a situation based on their relation to the receiver. [Brown, P. and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.] Although the speech depicted here is completely fictional, both versions attempt to simulate real-life speech with an emphasis on differing levels of politeness within each characterisation, the good-mannered gentlemanly Victorian Holmes and the socially-inept Sherlock. Brett’s Holmes uses hedges and modal verbs extensively to precede his questions or imperatives (“May I ask you?” “Could it be possible?” and the abundant ‘Pray’ sit down/continue etc.), easing his clients and colleagues via a well-mannered approach that enhance his respect from the other characters and create a likable character.

Differing entirely is Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, who does away almost entirely with preceding hedges and ignoring the implications of what Brown and Levinson describe as “Face-threatening acts”, providing no attempt to “save face” via positive or negative displays of language – (something that ties in with Holmes writer Leslie Klinger’s theory of Holmes being a fictional sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome, which affects a person’s capacity for social understanding or empathy [Sanders, Lisa, 2009. ‘Hidden Clues’.]). Sherlock instead frequently employs brisk, direct imperatives (“Sit down”, “Pass me that”) and impolite orders (“Shut up!”), sometimes even mocking the idea of polite speech (“Now, if you would be so kind”) which contributes to his sociopathic representation. Sometimes however, in rare genial conversation, auxiliary verbs and tag questions are used in question – such as ‘Do you?’, or ‘Are you all right?’ – denoting a possible capacity for polite language usage

Probably the biggest language variation between the two adaptations is the use of language itself, the vocabulary in Sherlock undertaking a distinct change from previous adaptations – one of the key praises of the series. Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock is very much a product of the late 19th century – elegant and descriptive, with a much larger number of Latinate lexis and archaic terms than the 2011 set modern day Sherlock. There are a number of parallel passages linked between the two that serve as excellent examples of the lexical changes of the adaptations, for instance one particular passage from the original story A Scandal in Bohemia. The Holmes of Brett and Conan Doyle explains in quite significant detail his need for “the most abstruse cryptogram, the most intricate analysis”, confiding to Watson: “I crave mental exultation” and without the work his mind “rebels at stagnation”.

While now almost archaic, the language of the original stories featured, as demonstrated here, a few then-recently coined and so contextually modern terms, the word ‘cryptogram’ for example being of English etymology only 10 years prior to the usage in Holmes, and it can be suggested that terms used in other stories such as ‘render’ (in the semantic meaning of ‘reproduction) and technical terms from the industrial revolution such as train, telegraph or biology are implemented into the original stories to emulate a sense of then-modern scientific authenticity. [The History of English, 2011. ‘The Industrial and Scientific Revolution’]. Being what is now revered as the ‘original’ example of crime literature, Holmes was written frequently with a scientific register influenced by Conan Doyle’s professional background and much of Holmes’s deductions and experiments featured cutting-edge terms like protein, chloroform and combustion in order to represent a revolutionary new scientific style of police detection (which, as it happens, had a significant impact on the techniques of the real-world police themselves).

As a result, much of the language in Jeremy Brett’s series is of French and Latin origin (‘Postulate’, ‘Erroneous’, Habitually’), creating, it could be said, an ‘exquisite’ form of English that complements the Victorian setting. Modern Sherlock however, features a higher percentage of scientific lexis over descriptive words – relatively modern terms like “Life-expectancy” or “Halitosis” (itself coined close to the time of the original stories) – which could be suggested at, in the era of complex CSI research and psychological analysis, connoting a higher level of intelligence in the modern detective than more elaborate descriptive lexis.

Now, while the modern day Sherlock does indeed implement a style of language influenced by these elements in the 19th century stories, the adaptation is set squarely in the present EE-dominated day and so the language is brought forward to reflect this. Colloquial terms and general contractions feature much more heavily in Holmes’s speech, words such as ‘gotta’, ‘damnit’ and ‘so what?’ that contrast with the more elaborate Latin influenced lexis used in his detailed deduction processes, such as ‘luminous’ or ‘excreted’. One of the key points to consider about the adaptation is the audience of the programme – being a modern day BBC production written by Doctor Who writers Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the audience can probably be pinpointed as viewers 13+, familiar with the technical sci-fi lexis of Doctor Who but expecting fast-paced exciting dialogue with touches of humour.

As a result, the vocabulary of Holmes in Sherlock is split two ways: everyday colloquial speech for general usage, (‘hi’, ‘god’s sake’ ‘shut up!’) that the audience expect of a modern day British character, and on the flipside the intelligent talking mastermind, (‘eloquent’, ‘halitosis’) who exceeds the skill and knowledge of the everyday London police. A distinct pattern across the whole of Sherlock’s dialogue is the frequent use of negative lexis or modal verbs. In a single 5 minute scene, Holmes employs a significantly larger number of negative words to positive, negative forms such as ‘can’t’, ‘wouldn’t’, ‘don’t’ that eradicate contextual possibility are used frequently, along with words that connote negativity such as ‘nothing’ ‘stupid’ or ‘hardly’.

While toned up in the modern adaptation, negative semantics are consistent throughout the whole characterisation of Holmes and extend to his use of metaphorical language as well. In one famous passage featured in both adaptations of the stories, Holmes compares his mind originally to “A racing engine, tearing itself to pieces because it is not connected with the work for which it is built”, a chaotic metaphor in itself that is updated in 2011 Sherlock to “A rocket ship, tearing itself to pieces, trapped on the launch pad”. The usage of the present participle verb ‘tearing’ and the added ‘trapped’ demonstrate the negative connotations behind Holmes’s language, both words of Old English origin and suitably dramatic in nature. This particular phrase is a strong example of one of the parallel lines between the original and the adapted, retaining the original idea as a homage yet updating for a new audience. The metaphor now concerns the subject of a rocket ship, a contextual nod to the changes in technology over the last century, and the term ‘racing engine’ now archaic in style due to ‘engine’ now encompassing a far wider range of uses today than the original context.

In conclusion, the language differences between the two adaptations are undeniably extensive in all areas of language analysis, implementing factors such as social context, language change and updated characterisations to supplement the requirements of both versions. Jeremy Brett’s series serves to emulate the original stories in an accurate and faithful form, employing much of the same language from the late 19th century into the 1980’s, simulating a particular point in English both in speech style and dialogue. Modern day Sherlock however, the majority of which is original content, updates and adapts the original ideas of the stories for a new audience, changing the language to fit the expectations and styles of the modern day while creating a new portrayal of Holmes a world apart from the pipe-smoking detective of classic literature

My investigation was intentionally meant to be quite a simple study, being a big fan of the Holmes stories and the series I intended to have most of the study done from knowledge and basic research. Because of the wide area of language change however, I found it difficult to focus my study at first and so the investigation became quite convoluted. I managed to eventually produce the final piece, which I think has a more definite framework and mixes evidence with ideas much better than before. To improve this investigation I would make the points more concise and grounded in evidence, and include a wider range of patterns in the data than I currently have, as well as including more theorists as solid bases for the study.


[Brown, P. and S. Levinson. 1987. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.]

[Mercurio, Jed, 2007. ‘Adapting books for TV’. The Guardian. 17 March 2007.]

[Rosenwarne, David, 1984. ‘Estuary English’. Times Educational Supplement, 19th October 1984]

[Sanders, Lisa, 2009. ‘Hidden Clues’. Available: Last accessed 2012.]

[The History of English, 2011. ‘The Industrial and Scientific Revolution’. Available: Last accessed 2012]

[Wells, John, 1997. ‘What is Estuary English?’. English Teaching Professional, 1997]

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