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May 1, 2020

How has the field of Classics changed with the growth of digital writing and social media? How can this writing reframe how ancient languages function online? In her new book, Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch notes an overall shift away from formality, “We write all the time now, and most of what we’re writing is informal.” Although most of us are participants in this phenomenon through our daily texting, posting, emailing, tweeting, messaging lifestyles, McCulloch set out to collect and analyze the “boundless creativity of internet language flowing past me online.” It is an impressive overview of the myriad ways in which we manipulate the English language to express ourselves best on the internet and on social media in particular. As McCulloch explains, “Linguists are interested in the subconscious patterns behind the language we produce every day.”

McCulloch gives the reader chapters on typography as a means for expressing nuance through text alone, on emoji as an icon-based stand-in for gestures, and on internet memes as a kind of language of shared reference. Perhaps the most important lesson that comes across in reading Because Internet is that this “explosion of writing by normal people” represents not some sort of deficient English, but rather an expressive, dynamic version of the language well-suited to electronic venues. It is a fascinating book and one that made me more aware of how English works online. As I wish to explore in this post, it also made me more aware of how Classics generally and Latin specifically work online today.

Figure 1: Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet invites readers to consider how we manipulate the English language in writing online.

Classics within social media covers a long spectrum—from Joel Christensen and Erik Robinson’s running anthology of quotations to Sarah Bond’s on-this-day-style historical recaps to Emily Wilson’s scholia-style explications of Homer to David Meadow’s long-running omnium gatherum of the field—and this barely scratches the surface of the ways in which people use Classics for outreach, dissemination of ideas, and academic networking. But there are also some discipline-specific illustrations of the kind of informal communication that McCulloch covers in her book, whether off-the-cuff Latin prose composition, emoji recaps of ancient epic, or Propertius memes. Here is a sample of the more informal side of Classics social media.

It wasn’t that long ago that an argument could be leveled against teaching Latin prose composition that there is “no living context” for the language. Increasing attention to active Latin methods in the classroom and events like conventicula and cenae Latinae call this idea into question, but social media has demolished the argument. Under hashtags like #loqlat, a Twitter-based republic of (micro)letters finds a ready audience all over the world 24/7. Much of this tweet-length composition is an extension of classroom activities with teachers and students using the platform as a venue for testing and improving their skills. But we also find the stuff of the general Twitterstream—the self-fashioning, diaristic expression of daily life—only written in the Latin language: so, tweets about admiring fall foliage or sharing recipes for pineapple cake. Quotidian Latin is a big part of Classics Twitter.

Translations of movie titles, song lyrics, entire novels line-by-line, and the like are another place where we see an outlet for informal Latin writing that goes beyond the quotes of elites like Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. One project that makes particularly good use of social media as a platform is Rocking Classics, which touts “weekly tweets of modern music rendered in Latin” by David Wright and Aaron Hershkowitz. What really pushes Rocking Classics into “living context” territory is that it takes advantage of the conversational nature of the medium: the translations are posted as a kind of contest where followers try to guess the song in question, discuss the lyrics, and often contribute another translated line or two. The game-like nature of the posts exemplifies a particularly social brand of Latin composition and a fun one at that.

Figure 2: A song-translation tweet from @RockingClassics that plays on the name of the singer-songwriter of the English original and the Loeb Classical Library.

Because Internet also addresses the network effects in the creation of “shared vocabulary”: “Does it ever feel like your family or friend group speaks its very own dialect?” Latin Twitter has this kind of language-shaping effect and there is perhaps no better example than what I have referred to in a recent talk as the ‘quomodo dicitur?’ genre. What we find here are Latinists asking for neologisms from other Latinists. Quomodo dicitur aliquid Latine...?—“How do you say X in Latin?” It can, of course, be used to find out something that might otherwise have been looked up in the OLD or Lewis & Short—but that is not what is really going on here. The set phrase has really become shorthand for saying: “Latin has a lot of words from hundreds of years ago, but I want to say ‘hipster’ or ‘clickbait’.” The two-word phrase captures the energy of an active Latin scene that prizes conversation and self-expression, so much so that the phrase is used as the name of a “weekly Latin podcast about anything.” What I especially love about ‘quomodo dicitur?’ is that as a network effect it is doubly productive, not just part of the Classics idiolect itself, but a phrase that leads to more coinages and more preferred locutions among the Latin Twittersphere.

Another kind of social-media composition that McCulloch calls our attention to is emoji storytelling. The “classic” example of this genre outside of Classics is Fred Benenson’s 2012 Emoji Dick, a pictographic version of Moby Dick, but there are also examples from our discipline. Last year, for World Emoji Day, the Classical Studies & Archaeology editors for Bloomsbury published a three-tweet, nearly 200-emoji distillation of Homer’s Odyssey. Another World Emoji Day offering from @AeneasGoogling retells the story of Aeneas and Dido through emoji with an interlinear English translation. And I’ll admit to distracting myself from dissertation writing once upon a time by emojifying scenes from Lucan’s Bellum civile.

Figure 3: Emoji storytelling from @BloomsburyClass. This is the first of three tweets retelling Homer’s Odyssey through emoji.

When it comes to visual modes of expression on Classics social media, it is hard to ignore memes. While a strict definition of an internet meme can be hard to pin down, one of its typical forms is defined as an “image of a person…with a funny or witty caption.” And as McCulloch writes, “Any community that talks with each other via the internet now has its own set of memes.”

Classics does not disappoint here either. Classics Ryan Gosling stands as an early example, entering the scene in early 2012 through Angeline Chiu’s Latin-language twist on the popular meme. The Ryan Gosling meme typically features a caption beginning “Hey girl” placed over a photo of the actor. In the Classics version, “Hey girl” becomes Salve puella and the captions are drawn from Latin literature, as for example, in the first Tumblr post: ‘Salve puella, *TU* prima tuis miserum me cepisti ocellis.’ At this point, Latin memes are ubiquitous on social media. And by any measure this is not a minor phenomenon—Classical Studies Memes for Hellenistic Teens has nearly a quarter-million followers on Facebook. Nor is it limited to Tumblr and Facebook. Latin conjugation and preposition usage made its way onto TikTok earlier this year thanks to Lennon Audrain.

Memes have made their way into the Classics classroom as well. Victoria Austen-Perry at the University of Winnipeg, for example, has developed a meme-based assignment for her Classical Mythology course (a course which she has referred to as “Myth, Musings, and MEMES”). She sees it as a “non-traditional” format that tests knowledge without feeling like an exam and not unimportantly one that the students enjoyed. Austen-Perry explains: “Memes are an amazing way to process and summarize information—you can’t explain why they are funny unless you ‘get’ the information.” McCulloch agrees: “Creating a dense set of references, or just getting them when you see them, is a sheer delight.” In this way memes can promote learning and build community through shared experience and knowledge.

One last thing to consider here is the preservation of this informal Classics content. Whether we are talking about social-media-based prose composition or the emojification of classical Literature or reflections on our field as told through memes, it can be easy enough to dismiss much of it as ephemera. I found myself reflecting on this earlier this month reading the New York Times story, “Meet Your Meme Lords.” The article calls attention to Abbie Grotke and the Library of Congress’s web archiving team in ensuring the preservation of blogs, social media posts, and various other examples of internet culture. So, Cute Overload as a κτῆμα ἐς ἀεί, the Urban Dictionary as a monumentum aere perennius. Reading the article and thinking about the intellectual effort and creativity on display on Classics social media, I found myself wondering about where our field’s digital artifacts fall on the line between ephemeral and eternal. Expansive projects like the one at the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine can only capture a small percentage of what finds its way online. We should consider what kind of initiative may be worth undertaking to ensure that our disciplinary-specific online record does not vanish.

To paraphrase the sentence with which McCulloch opens her final chapter: “When you think about the Latin language, what do you picture?” For Classicists, there may be a reflex to think of the kind of texts found in red Loebs, OCTs, Teubners, the CIL, and so on. But two thousand years from now—ok, even 10 years from now—I can also imagine a Latinist text mining a Corpus Breviloquentiae Latinae (a “Corpus of Latin Tweets”) to learn something about the state of the field in the early part of this century. Classics Twitter—and emoji literature, memes, and the like—is, as McCulloch writes, “our own idiosyncratic corner of the internet,” and as such a space, it is one that she invites her readers to explore on their own: “Consider this an invitation to draw your own map of another portion of the territory, to conduct your own internet linguistic research.” This post is but a preliminary sketch intended to map some notable examples and in turn to invite readers here to take up Because Internet as a guide to looking back and then looking forward to the ways that Latin continues to live online.

I want to thank Joel Christensen, Jacqueline Vayntrub, and the participants of the “5000 Years of Comments” conference for an opportunity to develop the ideas here about ‘quomodo dicitur?’ and Latin Twitter.

Header Image: Bird (Detail) - Nymphaeum with mosaics (1st century AD) from Massa Lubrense (Pipiano) / Sorrento stretch of coast - Exhibition "Myth and Nature" at Archaeological Museum of Naples. Image by Carlo Raso via Flickr.


Patrick J. Burns is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Quantitative Criticism Lab at the University of Texas at Austin where he works on large-scale computational literary criticism. He formerly worked as an Assistant Research Scholar at NYU's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Patrick received his PhD from Fordham University in 2016 writing about the influence of Latin love elegy on later epic. He is a contributor to the Latin language resources at the Classical Language Toolkit with a focus on automated lemmatization. Lastly, he writes about Latin and digital philology on Twitter at @diyclassics.