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Vivat Academia!

NumenLumen.svgAmong the relics of medieval Latin still venerated by modern American colleges and universities are the mottos inscribed or circumscribed on the great seals that adorn their diplomas. Long before mission statements were sine qua non at institutions of higher learning, their seals evoked their aims.

Harvard, of course, leads the pack with a coat of arms reading ve ri tas: One word for “truth,” in a trinity of syllables. Lest there be any doubt about the nature of this trinity, the coat of arms wa…

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Famous Women, Banknotes, and Online Abuse

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Mary Somerville

Oxford, England — Last night, as I dined in Somerville College, my host during a visit to the University of Oxford, a chain of thoughts led me to reflect on the linguistic abuse women endure on social media.

Like Caroline Criado-Perez, for example. She was a victim of highly focused Twitter hostility in 2013.

“Die you worthless piece of crap,” said one tweet. “I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do,” wrote a troll; “you’re pathetic, kill yourself befo…

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Lucifer in the Flesh

satan_cruzAs a Luciferian from birth, I listened with interest when word of John Boehner’s recent characterization of the Republican candidate Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh” got out. Apparently, there’s no worse insult. The Internet exploded after Boehner made his comment, accompanied by the apparently tamer “miserable son of a bitch,” at an interview at Stanford University. Satanists were consulted and properly expressed their horror at being compared with Ted Cruz; the word incarnate, rare among pol…

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Capital Punishment

28vetoThe New York Times reported recently that the National Weather Service has decided to stop yelling at us, at least typographically. FLOODING will now be flooding, and 9.2 ON THE RICHTER SCALE will be smaller, if only in appearance.

In the digital world, all caps are important for writing code, but the long-familiar convention may be becoming less welcome in journalism. It’s certainly not the way to make friends on email.

Capital letters are, of course, a boon to legibility, and have been since a…

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The Social Consequences of Switching to English

I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English…

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How ’Bout That As?

Logo_AsEnglish offers plenty of opportunities for repeating words. A perennial favorite, maxing out at five instances, is “I think that that that that that man used should have been a which.” The sentence cheats a bit, in my view, because like President Clinton’s famous utterance, “It depends what the meaning of is is,” one instance of the word must be set apart as word-qua-word. Still, that that is a common repetition, with is is not far behind. As my colleague Ben Yagoda has pointed out, the repetiti…

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O Tempora, O Mores!

College_graduate_studentsIt’s that time of year when respectable denizens of colleges and universities don caps and gowns and assemble amid the groves of academe, some to confer academic degrees and some to be conferred upon. Their faux medieval vestments are vestiges of that time in western Europe when Latin was the lingua franca for all serious scholarship.

It isn’t anymore. But other vestiges of Latin remain, connecting the English-speaking colleges of today with their ghostly ancestors in the Middle Ages.

Alas, with…

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State of ‘Lay’

As Robert Frost might have put it, something there is that doesn’t want to say lie. I refer to the present tense of the verb meaning to assume or be in a recumbent position, figuratively or literally. So: I want to lay down. He had to lay low. Don’t just lay there. And so on. I have weighed in on the topic before, as have my Lingua Franca colleagues Anne Curzan and Geoffrey Pullum. But I feel that a tipping point has been reached.

This Google Ngram Viewer shows that in American books (the sub-da…

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Transadaptation

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Emily Dickinson

Efforts to translate a text within the same language, from, say, the French of Molière to the present-day language of immigrants in Paris, are common today. Not long ago, I got a copy of  Andrés Trapiello’s faithful modernization of the entire Don Quixote, all 126 chapters. His argument is that today’s readers, especially young ones, no longer read Cervantes’s novel. Since its antiquated language might be one of the causes, why not render it it in 21st-century Iberian Spanish?

Ev…

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Readability, Understandability, and ETS

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference

Donald Trump’s speech to Aipac scored above a grade-level 6 in readability.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the formulas available for estimating readability are less than foolproof. It doesn’t even take a linguist to notice that things are missing from the formulas.

Last week I offered a link to the website Readability Score, where you can take any text and paste it in for an instant estimate by half-a-dozen different formulas, all purporting to determine the grade level o…