Arts and Culture

Mary DeForest's Epic Adventure Led to the Latinometer -- a Classic Bullshit Detector

Mary DeForest loves Jane Austen. The 68-year-old academic has read each of the author's novels over 100 times. "I went to her tomb at Winchester Cathedral and burst into tears," she says. "I couldn't believe she was dead."

DeForest has spent much of her academic career defending Austen's legacy. "Austen was unpopular in the '60s because all of her characters got married, and people weren't supposed to get married," she says. "It was my guilty pleasure loving Austen. All my best friends hated Austen. They said she was demeaning to women."

So DeForest set out to prove her friends wrong. See also: Sixteen Years After His Death, Not-So-Famous Novelist John Williams Is Finding His Audience

She determined that Austen was a secret classicist and analyzed the novelist's dialogue to show that Austen was not just mirroring, but lampooning her era's sexism and class conflict. Between 1775 and 1817 -- Austen's lifetime -- a woman who learned Greek and Latin was a social pariah, considered "a sexual freak," DeForest says. "She was a lesbian. She was incredibly promiscuous. She was sexually frigid and had other issues. Oh, yeah, and she was a terrible housekeeper. Therefore, for a woman to learn Greek and Latin was to really jeopardize ever getting married, because who wants to marry a sexual freak who can't keep a clean house? That was the dark side of the classical tradition."

But DeForest believed that Austen understood how gender and class shaped a person's vocabulary, and the speech patterns of her characters showed that the novelist had broken the code and infiltrated the male world. While the poor at the time relied on Germanic words, the upper class used words rooted in classical languages; in an Austen book, the character's class and sex determined the density of Latinate words they spoke. To prove her point, in 1988 DeForest started underlining each Latinate word in Mansfield Park. The chore proved tiresome. So a decade later, she and a collaborator created software to take over the job.

In creating her system, DeForest had to choose which words were in, which words were out, and how each word ranked on her pretentiousness scale. Words originating in Greek received 1.25 points; Latin words got 1; French words earned .25; German words netted zero. "I got rid of prepositions, conjunctions and modals," she remembers. "All obscene words and slang words are omitted. One day the word 'bitchiness' came through. I excluded it. I figured, I'm elderly. I'll play the crone card and exclude it." Other decisions were more difficult. "I had this big crisis about whether or not to exclude 'burrito' and 'tortilla,'" she admits. The words were Latinate in origin, but also Spanish and unpretentious. She left them out.

The program worked but was clunky -- so DeForest looked for a more efficient option. Last year she recruited a computer-science class at Regis University to turn her 120,000-word database into a website. One student took charge, and by the end of Christmas break, the project was done.

DeForest officially launched in January, and after it was tweaked in May, it caught the attention of Forbes. Since then, thousands of users have entered everything from Harry Potter passages to fundraising letters to campaign pieces. "If you're going to have ideas, you've got to make it so people want to hear them," DeForest says. "Too often, language is used to exclude people instead of to joyously share ideas."

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris

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