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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Flesch-Kincaid and Jabberwocky

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) created a delightful word-play poem, "Jabberwocky," which appears in his book Through the Looking-Glass. With this post I continue my series on the inadequacy of the Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) readability test to assess non-standard English. I will further illustrate my point by applying F-K to Jabberwocky. First, here is the Jabberwocky poem:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mame raths outgrabe.
'Beware the Jabberwock, my son,
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch.
Beware the jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious bandersnatch.'
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought.
Then rested he by the tum-tum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One! two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snickersnack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjious day! Calooh! Calay!'
He chortled in his joy.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
The Flesch-Kincaid test results on this poem are:
Flesch reading ease: 77.8
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 4.4

These results are, I suggest, non-sensical. They only measure what Flesch-Kincaid is designed to measure--average word length, average sentence length, and usage of passive sentence-- nothing more. The F-K results for Jabberwocky do not accurately reflect a reading grade level of 4.4. The F-K test does not account for all the (wonderful!) made-up words in this poem or the non-standard syntax. I suggest that Jabberwocky can be "understood" by few, if any people. Attempting to assign a readability grade level to it is an exercise in futility. It is, as I said in my last post in this series, trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole.

Yet reading Jabberwocky is a fun literary experience. I just don't think there is any way that we can compute what the readability grade level is for a text such as Jabberwocky which is intentionally filled with non-English made up words. The same is true of the non-applicability of Flesch-Kincaid to any text which is written in non-standard English. F-K is too primitive of a testing instrument to adjust its results to reflect the greater reading difficulty which results when non-English syntax is used in a text, or obsolete syntax or vocabulary, or vocabulary which is in a higher register than that which the presumed audience uses.

The Flesch-Kincaid test works quite well on "standard" English texts, written in contemporary English with contemporary English syntax and vocabulary. It gives fairly reliable results when testing the reading level of English Bible versions which are, for the most part, written in standard dialects of contemporary English such as:
GW (God's Word)
BLB (Better Life Bible)
F-K does not give as reliable results when analyzing Bible versions which have a high percentage of non-English syntax patterned on biblical language syntax, obsolete syntax, or higher register vocabulary. Other kinds of readability tests must be designed to give accurate readability results for these Bible versions which have a high percentage of non-standard and non-contemporary English. It is misleading to post F-K results for Bible versions which are written in English which F-K was not designed to measure.

Finally, please note that this series of posts on the Flesch-Kincaid testing instrument only address the inadequacy of that instrument for testing certain kinds of texts. We are not making claims here about whether or not Bible versions not listed above are adequate for at least certain English-speaking audiences.

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At Fri Aug 12, 10:27:00 AM, Anonymous Dave said...

I wanted to toss in a question about Bible translation of texts which may be meant to be confusing. I've thought of this before, but reading this paper made me more interested in the subject. Usually when people read the Bible, they assume that the text is speaking in a very dry, very authoritative voice. What about when the text is elbowing you in the ribs and winking? Or when it is simulating a gaggle of Jr. High girls all talking at once?

Also, there are plenty of situations in the Bible where sarcasm or humor can be highlighted or hidden by the translation. I'd be curious to hear any thoughts on this.


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