Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"Latin ban": nothing to see, folks

A Telegraph story - Councils ban 'elitist' and 'discriminatory' Latin phrases, now copied worldwide - had various academic bloggers aerated a few days ago. It's bonkers to ban Latin said Mary Beard; Anti-Latin P.C. poppycock said Geoff Pullum at Language Log; "gibbering idiocy" said Language Hat at Banning Latin.

Skip to the key analysis: Anatomy of a manfactured controversy from Gareth Rees, who rightly suspected both the facts and the agenda, and identifies the ingredients: a reactionary polemicist and selective reportage of Bournemouth City Council's initiative
"... to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at".
- Use of Latin words - Inaccurate reporting in recent national media, press release, Bournemouth City Council
If you like English peppered with Latin (or even more peppered, since it already is), check out Carmen Possum; and the intro to Umberto Eco's Baudolino, whose central character tells his story in an English (Italian in the original) mixed with Latin and various European languages of the 12th century.

P.S. While reading around this topic, I ran into a fine example of recency illusion (not to mention, lack of linguistic research) in a Times piece in the same vein as the recent Telegraph one:
So we are solving the difficulty in a natural way. Instead of inventing a funny neutral pronoun, we are bending another "rule" of grammar. We say: "Why should anyone plan their own funeral?" "Every child must bring their own picnic." "We don't want anyone to hurt themselves." "It must have been someone who wanted to clear their conscience." We are busting the old rule of agreement of number between the parts of a sentence. We do it to avoid the clumsiness of "his or her". We do it for fear of being exposed as a male chauvinist. We do it because it is politically correct. And it is becoming correct. That is the way language changes.
- A new sex-neutral pronoun would make it easier for anyone to speak their mind, Philip Howard, The Times, May 10, 2002
See (again) Everybody loves their Jane Austen on the antiquity and ubiquity of singular "their" as a genderless construct in English.

- Ray


  1. Hi... you will, I'm sure, see how careful I was in laying out the "sources' of my info! (I'm not that dumb!)

    Nonetheless there IS an issue here. Not only do various of these councils think that phrases like 'eg' and 'ie' are 'jargon' and difficult to understand. But the Campaign for Plain English DID jump in to support the most extreme version of what they were supposed to have done.

    Underlying this is a notion of language and its 'purity' or 'simplicity' that fundamentally misrepresents how language works. Latin is always a good target (and has indeed been removed from various legal procedures), but it is only one example. Mary (Beard)

  2. But you did, ultimately, accept the premise. As I said at Language Log, my first thought was, like Gareth, to doubt the accuracy and agenda (given the track record of right-leaning papers inventing council-bashing anti-PC stories). Given that, unless I'm shown verbatim source, I don't trust anything in this territory not to have been cherry-picked and/or misquoted by the Telegraph.

    Underlying this is a notion of language and its 'purity' or 'simplicity' that fundamentally misrepresents how language works.

    I don't see any motivation in terms of "purity" in this particular case (despite it being a regular obsession of other anti-Latin types - William Barnes, Percy Grainger, etc). It sounds more like applying the use of Latinisms as one surrogate measure of reading difficulty. By which I mean: copywriters aim to make text comprehensible for the intended audience, but readability is a quality that's a huge amount of work to measure directly. You can't road-test everything you write. So writers have to fall back on surrogate measures: deciding readability on simple-to-target factors - like word/sentence length, and use of Latinisms and other overt foreign-language phrases - that correlate to some extent with reading difficulty.