Huzzah: Diction, Language, and Legacy in ‘”The Great”

In 2020, the streaming giant Hulu launched its own exclusive period piece called “The Great”. Starring Elle Fanning and Nicolas Hoult as Catherine II and Tsar Peter III, the show documents the rise of Catherine in court to ultimately becoming Tsarina, earning her title of Catherine the Great. Marketed as a comedy-drama, it has received numerous accolades from its first season. Rebecca Onion, writing for Slate, called the show “wrong on the facts but smart about history”, due to the often blazon disregard of historical fact (such as skipping over five Russian tsars in the lineage between Peter I and Peter III) coupled with its dedication to bringing modernist and feminist struggles to the forefront of entertainment.

Catherine plotting…

With an upcoming season already in production, the Great’s popularity will certainly continue to rise. Is this a good thing for the field of history? This is the main problem I hope to solve in this project. Similar to the Ben Schmidt piece we read for class, I am interested in analyzing the Great through its language choice in the dialogue. The questions that I aim to answer include: How does the script depict court life? What is lost with the dialogue’s particular structure? How does presenting a show in English regarding a non-English speaking court change the perception of the historical subjects? What does the language choice say about how “western” Russia is or is not portrayed to be?

Since I do not speak Russian, I think the first method of analysis would be Russian loanwords—words that originate initially in Russian or represent Russia that have become part of the English lexicon (most notably and prominently, vodka).

THE word

This method will highlight when key loanwords used in the show actually arrived in English and whether or not that is represented accurately in the Great. By using the Voyant tool I can identify key loanwords in the script before then using Google Ngrams to analyze usage over time. Though the show does not adhere to strict time periods, I will be analyzing diction from the 18th century in accordance with Catherine the Great’s rule. Interestingly, most often when written text is presented on the show it is in the Cyrillic alphabet. This gives me hope that words of Russian origin will be used correctly.

I hope to find that the show, even though it touts the fact that the writing is loosely based on its reference material, portrays Russia in way that is not detrimental in pop culture. Within the United States entertainment world, television exposure to Eastern European and Slavic countries is often an unequal one: using various stereotypes and tropes that juxtapose these cultures against other “western” ones. Peter the Great and later Catherine both pushed hard to westernize the state, but does this come through accurately in the Great?

one of the many attempts at an “experiment”

What do you guys think? If you have watched the show, how do you feel it uses language to create meaning for Russia and for Catherine? Happy to hear your thoughts!

3 Replies to “Huzzah: Diction, Language, and Legacy in ‘”The Great””

  1. Josh, I love this idea. I have not watched the show but have heard it is quite entertaining. Not sure if this would make your project too broad but you could also look at Netflix’s The Crown. The Crown is fairly historically accurate–albeit there are some dramatizations and glanced over events. But it could be interesting to compare the two series (both of which are incredibly popular) and their interpretations of history.

  2. This is such a fun idea for a project. I loved The Great, and I thought it was extremely interesting to think about as a historian. There were many things I loved about them using language to reflect the contemporary English language, but it does need to be taken into account how the audience would perceive this. As I’m unfamiliar with Russian history, this show really piqued my interest in learning more about Catherine and Russia’s royal history. However, like any and all media, its important to look at historical comedies like The Great with a critical eye.

  3. Really enjoy this idea! It’s interesting in this case that the story for this series is blatantly anti-historical in a number of ways but that it also something that engages in ideas about power and wealth. That is, something like Downtown Abby presents itself as being much more historical. That said, the decision to situate this series in this moment in history is itself significant. I think your idea of focusing on Russian loan words is really smart. Overall this is a really neat concept and if you did decide to run with it I think you would delve into a range of interesting questions.

    It also strikes me that just looking for mentions of a lot of the key figures in the show in something like Google n-gram could help surface the points in time when there have been lots of discussion of some of these historical figures in the english speaking world which I think is itself interesting. That is, these figures get used to tell particular kinds of stories to english language audiences and those happen at different points in time.

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