Besides the pope, who speaks Latin today?
By Ben Zimmer
Pope Benedict XVI waved as he lead the Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican.
There aren’t many jobs where mastery of a dead language is an asset. But when Giovanna Chirri, Vatican correspondent for Italy’s ANSA news agency, heard Pope Benedict make an announcement in Latin earlier this month, she understood completely, and raced to break the story: The pope was resigning. Meanwhile, many of the assembled cardinals, it was reported, were left scratching their heads. Their Latin skills weren’t up to snuff.
It took the first papal resignation in six centuries to thrust Latin—as a live, spoken language—back into the news. Beyond the extremely rare circumstance of major world religious leaders announcing their retirement, however, you might well wonder: Who still speaks the language of ancient Rome outside of the Vatican walls? In this day and age, what would be the point?
As it happens, a conference in New York City last weekend provided ample evidence that this “dead” language is not quite dead after all. Around 70 participants, about half of whom were high school teachers from the Northeast, gathered at Fordham University to spend a couple of days speaking in Latin together. I dropped by to see what the “living Latin” movement is all about—and got a taste of a language that’s being used not just for scholarly and religious purposes, but as a way to bring centuries of classical learning into the here and now.
Jason Pedicone, a spirited young Princeton PhD candidate and a founder of the Paideia Institute, which sponsored the event, welcomed the attendees with a hearty “Salve!” before launching into an impassioned plea for keeping spoken Latin alive. (Thankfully for me—a non-fluent Latin speaker—he did so in English.) He recalled a “magical” summer program in Rome that introduced him to “the incredible sensation that came from making Latin, this fundamental key to Western civilization, a tool for interpreting and communicating with the world around me.”
Pedicone took issue with Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard, who was quoted by the BBC after the Pope’s resignation as saying, “One of the pleasures of Latin is that you don’t have to speak it.” “Pace Maria Barbatula, begging the pardon of Mary Beard,” he said, “one of the pleasures of Latin is you get to speak it, and by doing so, you get off the sidelines and make yourself an active player in this beautiful, glorious story of human history. Western civilization does not have to be a spectator sport.”
For the next two days, the conference-goers broke into small groups to talk in Latin, guided by instructors, on a number of topics, organized around the theme of mirabilia urbis, or “marvels of the city,” in both Rome and New York. The sessions I sat in on were easy-going and full of laughter, whether the group consisted of novices attempting to speak Latin for the first time or fluent experts declaiming like Cicero.
I caught up with Eric Hewett, who cofounded the Paideia Institute in 2011 as a way to maintain the tradition of Reginaldus, a.k.a. Reginald Foster, a gruff Carmelite friar from Milwaukee who ran that popular Rome summer course on spoken Latin for over 20 years. Foster was the Vatican’s official Latin translator until health problems forced his return to Milwaukee in 2008.
Hewett told me the institute had launched their own summer program in Rome, guided by Foster’s principle that spoken Latin should be a bridge between secular and religious worlds. This also means bridging two different accents: classicists speak a “reconstructed” Latin, while those from a seminary background speak with an Italian-influenced “ecclesiastical” pronunciation. But whether they pronounce c’s like “k” in the classical way or like “ch” in the style of the church, the institute welcomes all comers.
The institute has also started a summer course in Rome for high school students, attracting young scholars from the likes of the Brooklyn Latin School, which is modeled on the Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country. The Brooklyn school makes the study of Latin central to a classical liberal arts education, in a disadvantaged area where Latin isn’t typically a high priority.
Bryan Whitchurch, who teaches there, told me about one student who’d gone on the Paidaia program last year: Sabiya Ahmed, the daughter of Bangladeshi and Puerto Rican immigrants. Ahmed was selected based on her spoken Latin talents, with a donor paying her way. She had never been on a plane before, but Whitchurch, as one of the course instructors, was able to accompany her to Rome. “Her face completely lit up when she saw the Pantheon,” Whitchurch recalled. “She almost dropped her gelato.”
While young secular scholars of Latin may be enticed by the opportunity to speak the language in Virgil’s old stomping grounds, Hewett told me that Catholic seminarians are also returning to Latin, after their elders moved away from it following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. (Vatican II helps to explain why those cardinals had such difficulty understanding Benedict.)
And that brings us back to what the journalist Chirri found so useful in knowing Latin: understanding the most famous current user of the language. A fluent Latin speaker, Benedict has encouraged the language’s revival, even posting to Twitter as @Pontifex. We don’t yet know if his successor will be such an ardent Latinist. But it seems clear that there are still plenty of signs of life in that old language, even in Novum Eboracum (New York).
Some people still speak Latin. What if U.S. presidents did?
By Frances Stead Sellers
You only have to glance at Washington to see how steeped the American republic is in the classics. The Latin language, so familiar to the Founders, may have faded from our collective consciousness, but the great temples of the Capitol and Supreme Court and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials echo the classical tradition.
And spoken Latin is even making a bit of a comeback these days, with some educators looking to the ancient language as a means of tackling the country’s contemporary literacy problems.
Two pioneers in the revival of spoken Latin, University of Kentucky Profs. Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg, run classes and summer camps (or conventicula) in spoken Latin and actually converse in Latin. It’s their common tongue.
Minkova says she speaks Latin with “many other colleagues from Europe and America.” Sure, she and Tunberg will fall back into English in faculty meetings (to do otherwise would be impolite and impolitic), but Latin has become “their normal language of communication.” Rome, where Minkova used to live, may be the world capital, or caput mundi, she says, but she and Tunberg have created a new Rome, “novam Romam,” in Lexington among speakers who are comfortable using “the language that shaped the Western World.” Some of those disciples have in turn sent their own students back to Lexington to study at the Institute for Latin Studies.
“We are like grandparents,” says Minkova, perpetuating a language that many gave up for dead.
Tunberg doesn’t go so far as to suggest, as some have done, that the language of the European Union, for example, should be Latin. (“That’s absurd!”) His approach is more practical — that “we should use the language we study.”
And it’s easy to adapt the language to our changing world. Computer, after all, comes from the Latin verb computare (although there is a healthy disputatio about whether the Latin noun should be computatrum or computatorium). As for a laptop? Tunberg’s answer is simply to add an adjective and call it a carryable computer — computatorium gestabile. In other examples, the words for the new inventions are jargon that work in almost any language: An iPad is an iPad is an iPad.
Their fluency made us wonder what it would be like if the grand tradition of Ciceronian rhetoric had survived in this country, if the successors of George Washington, the American Cincinnatus, had delivered their famous lines in Latin.
Pope resignation: Who speaks Latin these days?
By Robin Banerji
The reporter who broke the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation got the scoop because she understood his announcement in Latin. How much of it is spoken in the Vatican and elsewhere these days?
There are not many occasions when a reporter needs a grasp of Latin. But one came on Monday when the Pope made a short announcement.
Most of the reporters present had to wait for the Vatican's official translations into Italian, English and languages that people actually speak.
But not Italian wire service reporter Giovanna Chirri, who had clearly been paying attention in secondary school. Her Latin was up to the job and she broke the story of the Pope's resignation to the world.
But beyond Chirri how widespread is Latin within the Roman Catholic Church? To what extent does it exist as a spoken language?
In his office at the Vatican, Father Reginald Foster says "we always spoke Latin". It was Foster's job to write the Latin for the Church's official documents and encyclicals.
Now retired to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Foster continues to speak to friends in the Vatican on the phone in Latin. And he still has friends to whom he sends postcards in Latin.
But even while he was writing Latin for the Church he felt he was writing not for the present "but for history". It is still important he argues that there is a single version of a text which people can consult in case of any doubts about meaning.
To keep Latin alive he has for many years run Aestiva Romae Latinitas in Rome - a two-month immersion course in Latin.
"Latin is a language," Foster stresses. "It didn't come down in a golden box from Heaven. You don't have to be clever to speak it. In ancient Rome it was spoken by poor people, prostitutes and bums."
And how good is his Latin?
"I can make jokes in Latin and my students can follow my jokes."
But he worries for the future of the language in the Church. He estimates the number of fluent Latin speakers as no more than 100. And he does not see things getting better.
"The text of Vatican II has glorious passages in Latin but can the young priest walking across St Peter's Square understand it? I don't think so."
A sketchy understanding of the language is not good enough. "Take the sentence urinabor in piscinam: if you are guessing, you might think it means 'I will urinate in the swimming pool' but it doesn't. It means 'I will dive into the swimming pool'. "
"With Latin, either you know it or you don't," says Foster.
According to Foster, the language of the Vatican is not Latin but Italian, and to a lesser extent English. "You have to speak Italian properly, if not you're just out of it."
"Ultimately, I am not afraid for Latin," says Foster. "Like other great human creations, like the music of Bach and Handel it will survive. But I am afraid for Latin in the Church."
Foster may be relaxed about the future of Latin outside the Church but the picture is not entirely clear.
Nicholas Ostler, author of Ad Infinitum, a history of Latin, and the Chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, compares Latin's presence on the internet (interretialis) to a small European language - it is comparable to "Icelandic, Lithuanian or Slovenian".
Ostler emails his brother in Latin for fun and enthusiasts maintain websites such as Circulus Latinus Interretialis (Internet Latin Circle), Grex Latine Loquentium (Flock of those Speaking Latin) and the connected online paper Ephemeris. The Finnish radio station YLE even broadcasts news in Latin.
But Ostler is concerned that Latin's vocabulary is not being renewed and developed. "There's a perfectly good Latin translation for tweet. It would be pipatum, the noise made by Catullus's girlfriend's sparrow, but for some reason the Vatican insists on using a periphrastic construction of three long words."
And he does not think much of Benedict's tweets in Latin - "the last one was a real case of messing up Latin word order".
He admits that Latin has been in retreat for a very long time. It survived the fall of Rome remarkably well and continued with some small changes in vocabulary into the Middle Ages.
In the Renaissance there was an attempt to turn back the clock. Writers deprecated the Latin of the medieval philosophers and tried to write like Cicero and Virgil. And not just write Latin.
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne was brought up speaking Latin as his first language and as a boy read Ovid's Metamorphoses for fun.
In Europe Latin was still important in the 16th and 17th Century but by the 18th it was already on the wane. It fell out of use first in France and England. "Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) was the last major work in England to be published in Latin," says Ostler.
In northern and eastern Europe Latin carried on as a language for scholarship and to some extent government even into the 19th Century.
Part of the reason, thinks Ostler, is that in an odd way Latin is actually easier to learn than living languages. "You don't need to be able to follow a conversation in it, you just need to be able to read," says Ostler.
And that is a point seconded by Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University.
"One of the pleasures of Latin is that you don't have to speak it and of course not many people do. It is charming that the Finns broadcast news in Latin. It doesn't hurt. But it's not why you learn Latin," says Beard.
"You learn it so that you can read what the Romans wrote and what was written in Latin down to the 17th Century. You learn it to read Virgil."
But can she and her classicist colleagues speak it?
"If you give us some nice claret, and as the claret goes down, we'll drop our inhibitions and have a go."
Why Italian is important
Italian cardinals have long dominated Vatican hierarchy
Of the 209 living cardinals, 49 are from Italy - almost a quarter
That percentage is rising again after dipping to 17% in 2005
Fell below 50% in the mid-20th Century
Besides the pope, who speaks Latin today?
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