Patrick J. Burns

Research Associate at Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology | Formerly Quantitative Criticism Lab, ISAW Library | Fordham PhD, Classics | CLTK contributor

Virgil’s Hardest Sentence?: Measuring Readability in Latin Poetry

Abstract for paper delivered at the Midwest Classical Literature Consortium, Ohio University.
April 22, 2017


In the first book of Virgil’s Georgics, the poet praises Augustus and asks him to favor his undertaking (Georg. 1.24-42). He does so in a sentence which with modern punctuation runs to 124 words and 910 characters over 19 hexameter lines. Because of the length of this sentence as well as the ratio of characters to words, a version of the Automated Readability Index, a measure that has been used determine the “grade level” of English texts, ranks this as Virgil’s hardest sentence. But are these features applicable to Latin? And are they applicable to Latin verse? Can we compare the difficulty of sentences, paragraphs, or even entire works based on formal features? In this talk, I will produce readability scores such as the ARI, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, the Gunning fog index, and the Dale-Chall formula for the works of Virgil and his epic successors to explore whether these standard measures of English readability can help us better understand the relative ease or difficulty of specific Latin texts. I will demonstrate a natural language processing workflow using Python and the Classical Language Toolkit ( that we can use to generate the statistics necessary for calculating such scores including word length, sentence length, and relative word frequency. A recent paper (Moritz, M. et al. 2016. “Sentence Shortening via Morpho-Syntactic Annotated Data in Historical Language Learning” JCCH 9: 1-9) notes that readability indices “could serve as a measure of orientation” in building e-learning tools for historical languages. So, by way of conclusion, I will discuss what these scores can tell us about such pedagogical issues as which works of Latin poetry should be assigned to intermediate and advanced students, in which order, and in what quantity.

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