Stop using the Flesch-Kincaid test

Before Language Log beats me to it, I want to hip you to another Bad Linguistics study out there. This one is called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches” and it’s written by Martijn Schoonvelde, Anna Brosius, Gils Schumacher and Bert Bakker. It was published in PLoS One (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0208450).

The study analyzes almost 400,000 political speeches from different countries using a method called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Score. The authors want to find out how complex the language in the speeches is and whether conservative or liberal politicians use more complex language. But hold up: what’s the Flesch-Kincaid score, you ask. Well, it’s a measure of how many syllables and words are in each sentence. The test gives a number that in theory can be correlated to how many years of education someone would need in order to understand the text. This is called the “readability” of the text.

So what’s the problem? Well, rather than spend too much time on it, I’ll listicle-ize the problems with this paper.

Continue reading “Stop using the Flesch-Kincaid test”

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Awesome advice on gender-neutral pronouns

The Establishment has a great post where they tell you what to do if someone asks you to use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them. Even though the post is short, it’s hard to pick a favorite line. It’s all just so good. But I do especially like this bit:

being preoccupied with particular grammatical usages signals not a deep concern for linguistic propriety but is instead a probably classist and very likely racist and almost certainly ableist approach to human communication

So good. Check out the rest here.

Words of the Year

Now is the time of the Words of the Year… lists. You should have a look at the LinguaBishes list (and the rest of their site). They include words and phrases that people have been using (mostly online?) and (re)defining to express things that everyone is feeling at some point. I like their list the best.

And, not for nuthin, but the American Dialect Society’s Slang/Informal Word of the Year looks a lot like the LinguaBishes list.

I love the top definition of yeet on the Urban Dictionary, especially the third example. Yeet!

The vowels haven’t gone anywhere

There’s another brainfart article on language in the New York Times. The author, John Williams, shows right away that he’s thinking out loud from somewhere deep inside his armchair with this one. Basically, Williams is having some vague instance of a Recency Illusion as he ties James Joyce and MGMT to Tumblr, Flickr, and other modern companies which opt out of using vowels in their names. His idea is that – apparently all of a sudden – no one is using vowels anymore. lol.

A couple of things. First, as a Twitter friend pointed out, orthography and speech do not correspond. That means that our writing system and our spelling system only have a passing resemblance to each other. Writing is not speech on paper – it’s so much less than that. You think we need vowels in writing to distinguish between words, but we really don’t. This is Linguistics 101. Williams totally whiffs on it.

Second, Williams claims that people are only now routinely removing vowels from their writing by signing their correspondence with “Yrs” (his example). He makes a reference to “Finnegans Wake” and says “Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels.” That’s a nice dig at ya boy Joyce, but ol’ Jimmy J was just stealing this style from other writers. John Adams didn’t use vowels when he signed his letters. Neither did Jane Austen. Time was when no one wrote vowels because ink and paper were precious commodities yo.

Third, I kinda have to give Williams some credit for actually reaching out to a linguist, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the article any better. Williams contacted John McWhorter to see what is going on with people dropping vowels. I don’t know how much he talked to him – I only have the quotes included in the article – but it seems like McWhorter was really phoning this one in.

Now, full disclosure: I like John McWhorter when he talks about linguistics. He’s made some highly questionable political debates and articles recently, but his linguistics stuff has always been sound. In this article, however, McWhorter says “There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike. This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’”

I don’t know what McWhorter is on about here. No one wonders how to pronounce Tumblr, Flickr, MNDFL or Mdrn (except maybe NYT writers working on a deadline?). And saying “because NOUN” is not channeling “kid-ness” (what is kid-ness anyway, linguistically speaking?). And and, adding a y-sound onto the end of words is really not child-like. That’s just language-like. They’re called diminutives. Go talk to the Aussies about them. Or any other English speakers.

So yeah, stay away from the NYT Style Section’s hot takes on language.

Online etiquette in a different language

Here’s a very interesting article by Aviya Kushner about translation and internet language conventions. It talks about formality in language and how tricky that can be when moving from writing to spoken interactions or vice versa, as well as how quickly formalities fall away in emails and texting. And it does a great job explaining the politeness required (or expected) in different mediums. Check it out:

Why Online Etiquette is an International Conundrum

(h/t to @LangPol_JER)

When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot

Last week I did a twitter and it got a big response (for me, that is). It was about a recent paper on language that appeared in an economics journal and it lit a fire under other people as well. The paper is called “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop” and it’s by Horst Feldmann. I thought that in addition to dunking on that paper on Twitter, I’d spell out some of the fundamental problems with it. Here goes.

Continue reading “When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot”

Notes on MAPACA18

I attended the 29th annual conference of Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) last week in Baltimore, MD. I’ve been to this conference before and it has always been a fun time, full of interesting talks and learning about things I didn’t know. It’s also nice to catch up with scholars that I know (some of whom I know mostly through social media) and meeting new people (some of whom I can’t believe I don’t already know). Below are some of my notes on the conference. Enjoy! Continue reading “Notes on MAPACA18”