September 03, 2006

University name bulletins

Four follow-ups to my posting on university names:

» Covert premodification: American universities that are called "University of X" but are also referred to by the initialism "YU", where Y is the first letter of X -- though never as "X University"

» U.K. universities with official names that are premodifying

» A brief report on Australian university names (short summary: mostly like the U.K.)

» Some reflections on universities in China (and elsewhere) having official names IN ENGLISH

Three people have written to report on covert premodification: Mark Liberman, with a pointer to Chris McConnell's infobang blog on the subject (citing the Universities of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma); JS Bangs (on Colorado); and Ken Carpenter (on Kansas and Oklahoma).  Usually, "University of X" gets the initialism "U of Y" or "UY": "U of T" or "UT" for the University of Texas.  But for these three states, at least, you get the reverse order, and it's not just in conversation; the premodifying initials are there on football helmets, on homepages ("Search CU-Boulder", "KU The University of Kansas", "What do you know about OU?"), and in the case of Kansas and Oklahoma, in the URLs (,; Colorado is just

I think I understand what happened here: the Universities of California, Kentucky, and Oregon are referred to as UC, UK, and UO, respectively (Oregon even gets the URL; Kentucky is, and the campuses of the University of California have their own URLs), so Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma distinguish themselves with the reverse ordering.  Connecticut isn't a problem, because it has the abbreviated form "UConn", and there is no University of Ohio, so that's all the state competition.  (True, there's now an ambiguity with Ohio University -- which has the URL, but is referred to as "OU" and not "Ohio" -- but you can't win 'em all.)

Other state universities just live with ambiguity.  The Universities of Alaska, Alabama, and Arizona, for instance, are all referred to as "UA" (Alabama got the URL, though Arkansas seems to use "U of A" only.  And for "X State University", there's pretty much nothing to do, so Ohio, Oklahoma, and Oregon State Universities are all referred to as "OSU" (Ohio State got

On to the U.K.  It turns out that though most universities in the U.K. present themselves prepositionally, as "University of X", a few take the premodifying route, "X University": Bath Spa (but: University of Bath), Bournemouth, Cardiff, Coventry, Cranfield, Durham, Keele, Lancaster (but: University of York!), Loughborough, Middlesex, Roehampton, Staffordshire.  As  far as I know, people still use the prepositional version as well.  This is certainly true for the two of these universities I've visited, Cardiff and Lancaster.  [Andrew Gray suggests that universities see the premodifying form as modern (stylish, progressive, with-it, etc.), which might explain the gradual shift from entirely prepositional naming in earlier times for official purposes to more and more premodifying forms; Durham is a recent convert.]

And now to Oz.  George Kesteven tells me that place-name universities in Australia are mostly given officially in prepositional form, but that in general the premodifying form is available as an alternant (just as in the U.K.), so long as the place name is a single word, and suggests that multi-word names aren't used in premodifying form.  So: Sydney Uni(versity) (and Adelaide and Melbourne and so on).  But not: New England, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, or Western Sydney University.  (Kesteven adds that some of these are also referred to by initialisms -- UNE, UNSW, UWS -- even by the universities themselves.)  This would make some prosodic and processing sense: the premodifying forms are left-heavy, while the prepositional forms allow heavy names to be postponed to the end of their phrase.

Here in North America, we don't have a whole lot of premodifying "X University" examples, but some of them have multi-word place names in them: for instance, New York University, Cape Breton University, and (my favorite) Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, B.C. (which began life in 1970 as Cariboo College, became University College of the Cariboo (UCC) in 1995, and then TRU, incorporating a reference to the North and South Thompson Rivers, in 2004).

And now to China (and elsewhere in the non-Anglophone world).  Jim Gordon writes to wonder about an institution telling other people how to TRANSLATE their chosen name.  I put this down in part to the enormous importance these days of English as a world language; I suspect that Beijing Daxue (known colloquially as Beida) has not recommended translations of its name into Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, French, German, or Spanish.  But part of the issue is that English provides two alternative translations (leaving "Beijing" untranslated, of course) that are equally acceptable, while for many other languages the choice of translation would be obvious and wouldn't call for comment.  In addition, there was probably a feeling that proper names should be unique and invariant, an idea that might have been further encouraged in this case by an acquaintance with the American system of university naming.

Let's recall the facts here.  The name of the institution in Chinese is not changing.  But the university presents itself to the world in English as well as Chinese -- those are the only two languages available on its website (which seems to be five years old, by the way) -- and so the issue of translation comes up.  Here's a piece from the China Broadcast site on 8/28/06:

The university says "Beijing University" can be its English name but in written English, "University of Beijing" should be used.

It also specifies that "Peking University" and its abbreviation "PKU" are long-accepted English names of the university, so they will continue being used.

(The university's web site is, so "PKU" isn't likely to go away.)

Well, good luck.  As others have commented, "Beijing University" is being used in writing, extensively.  And there's nothing wrong about that.

Interestingly, there's another university in Beijing that has opted for the premodifying (rather than the prepositional) form in English, despite considerable left-heaviness in the result: what is now Beijing Language and Culture University, which teaches Chinese to foreign students and foreign languages to Chinese students.  The institution has been through three names in 44 years: School for Foreign Students in 1962, Beijing Language Institute (BLI) in 1964, BLCU in 1996.  (I taught a couple of courses at BLI in 1985.)  In each case, the name was changed in both Chinese and English. 

[Breaking news, 9/4: Apparently this institution, ever restless, has changed its name once again, in both Chinese and English.  Chris Waugh, who lives in the neighborhood, tells me that the words "culture" and "wenhua" 'culture' have recently disappeared from the university's gates, signs, and vehicles.  The news of Beijing Language University has not yet reached the web world, however.]

The premodification in "Beijing Language Institute", rather than "Language Institute of Beijing", is heavily determined.  ("Beijing Institute of Language(s)" would also have been possible.) As I noted in my previous posting, names with "College" in them strongly favor premodification, and this seems to be true in the U.K. as well as North America.  And "Institute" behaves like "College".  So "Beijing Language Institute" is like "Monterey Language Institute" (in Monterey, California).  [The official name of the Monterey institute is Defense Language Institute, but MLI is how lots of people know it.]

With the next name change, there were several ways to package the parts "University", "Language and Culture", and "University": prepositional "Language and Culture University of Beijing" and "University of Language and Culture of Beijing" (ugh), premodifying "Beijing University of Language and Culture" and "Beijing Language and Culture University" (the winner on compactness).  Back in the early '90s, I had some discussion with colleagues at (what was then) BLI about a new name (in both Chinese and English) for the institution, which was now describable as a university and had also expanded its scope from language instruction.  My candidate for the English was "Beijing University of Language and Culture", but my colleagues worried that this name would suggest that the institution was connected to Beijing University (as people were already referring to what was still Peking University in English).  BLCU was the next-best option.  Note the assumption that there should be a unique translation.  [John Mathis writes to note that that both BLI and BLCU fit a standard CHINESE template for institution names: location, subject, institution type.]

For a truly serious translation problem, consider the Free University of Brussels.  A perfectly good English name for what was once a single institution, which had -- remember, this is Belgium -- both a name in French (Université Libre de Bruxelles, or ULB) and a name in Dutch (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, or VUB).  If you were a student there and someone asked you in English what university you went to, no problem: Free University of Brussels.

But then, this being Belgium, the two parts became separate institutions, in 1969.  And kept the old names in French and Dutch.  So now if you're a student at one of them and someone asks you in English what university you go it, you have a choice: reply in French or Dutch, whichever is appropriate, or give the now-ambiguous translation "Free University of Brussels", or resort to something like "the French/Dutch Free University of Brussels", supplying material that's not in the original language (and potentially introducing other sorts of ambiguities).

Apropos of none of this, have I mentioned that I'm a faculty member at two institutions that like to insist on the definite article in their full names: the Ohio State University and the Leland Stanford Junior University?  (Yes, I teach at a junior university, one too cheap to spring for a few commas.)  At Stanford this isn't much of an issue, since hardly anyone, even the people who write the university's website material, has occasion to give the university its full name (the definite article isn't even on the seal of the university, for goodness sake); it's "Stanford University" in formal contexts, "Stanford" for everyday wear.  At Ohio State, this administrative mania for the definite article is fairly annoying, but at least no one insists that you use it whenever you represent yourself as connected to OSU -- a good thing, since I'm damned if I'm going to sign letters "Arnold M. Zwicky, Distinguished University Professor (Emeritus) of Linguistics, The Ohio State University".

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 3, 2006 03:19 PM