BOSTON PUBLIC RADIO
3:43 pm
Tue March 12, 2013

Who Speaks Latin Today, Anyways?

The Lapis Niger is one of the oldest known examples of writing in the Latin language.
Credit Wikipedia

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in Latin in February, he thrust the long dead language into the spotlight. In the United States, few Catholics still celebrate Mass in Latin, and we're far from the days of mandatory Latin in schools (you'd be hard pressed to find a person under the age of 20 who knows the Latin phrase "semper ubi sub ubi").

Linguist Ben Zimmer  joined Boston Public Radio to talk with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan about Latin's comeback.

Who still speaks Latin?

Believe it or not, there's a whole living Latin movement. People who are trying to get Latin to be used as a spoken language, not just treating it as a dead language that's on a page, that you might read in a Latin class, but actually a language you can speak conversationally.

I got to attend a conference that was held in New York City that was quite eye opening. A lot of participants were high school teachers around the Northeast, so they would know Latin in order to teach it, but they didn't necessarily have experience just talking about their day in Latin. There were also people there who were actually quite fluent, and it's amazing to hear someone just rattle off conversational Latin and hear it living in that way.

It's amazing to hear someone just rattle off conversational Latin and hear it living in that way.

Does Latin really help you with English?

There are plenty of good reasons for learning Latin... It gives you a key to understanding not just a lot of the roots of English words, but can be kind of a key for learning about Western civilization in general. What this living Latin movement has done is taken all of that valuable knowledge and made it something everyone can participate in.

Learning Latin can be quite helpful in terms of learning the roots of English words- many of which have those Latin roots. At the same time, there's a danger in trying to say that if you know Latin grammar, therefore you will somehow have a better grasp on English grammar. In fact, throughout history, people have tried to put the model of Latin grammar onto English and sometimes it doesn't really fit very well.

What's Latin education like in the U.S. today? Does it have importance in 2013?

For the most part, there's certainly not as much of an emphasis on learning Latin as there might have been in the past when that kind of Classical education was more central to everybody's learning. Our early presidents, for instance, would have known Latin and Greek quite well. We don't live in those days any more. Certainly Latin is important for high schools. You can look at something like the Boston Latin School, which is the oldest high school in country, which keeps Latin at the core of its curriculum.  There are a lot of schools around the country that try to follow that model.

It's modest in terms of how it's placed in our current educational system, and certainly has importance in the Church... Even the Cardinals themselves are not necessarily great Latin speakers.

It was reported that the assembled cardinals were left scratching their heads after the Pope's resignation because they didn't know Latin. Is that true?

Pope Benedict XVI announcing his resignation in Latin on Feb. 11 at the Vatican.
Credit Associated Press

That's real! That was reported... There were cardinals that did not know what he was saying when he made his announcement. It really all goes back to that Second Vatican Council, when Latin was removed from many areas of Catholic life. Not just the liturgy, but also seminary education. And so, the kind of education the cardinals would have gotten for the most part, would not have had much of an emphasis on Latin. For the most part, the cardinals do not have the ability to speak it or understand it very well.

Are the cardinals who are meeting for the papal conclave really speaking Latin?

They probably are not speaking Latin to each other. The language that would be most familiar to the majority of them would actually be Italian. Because if you're a cardinal, then one of the things you have to do is go to Rome and study at a pontifical university, where you would have lots of opportunity to practice Italian. But Latin, we know, is being used in the official announcements... but the cardinals themselves wouldn't be able to just sort of chat in Latin amongst themselves.

Hear the full interview here:

Linguist Ben Zimmer on Boston Public Radio

Check out Ben Zimmer's column here.

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