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Pope resignation: Who speaks Latin these days?

  • 12 February 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Latin for thank you and bye written on a blackboard

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."

Pope reads his resignation letter to gathering of cardinals
The Pope reads the document in Latin announcing his resignation

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.

Latin banner reading "units, simple, numbers" under a crucifix in an Italian classroom
Italian trumps Latin in daily Vatican life

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."

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