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The Language That Wouldn’t Die

Richard Oslund
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 2, 2007, page 29)

It turns out that the rumours of Latin’s death have been greatly exaggerated. After the Catholic Church severely limited its use in the 1960s and most high schools stopped teaching it, Latin looked doomed. But it hasn’t passed away at all. It’s merely moved to a new home above the 60th parallel: Finland.

Every week, on shortwave or through the Internet, you can catch a roundup of international news in Latin presented by Finnish National Radio. Whenever Finland holds the presidency of the European Union, as it did in 1999 and again last year, it produces a weekly Latin summary of EU news. And a Finnish university professor has recorded two albums containing Latin versions of some of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits.

In a way, Latin comes naturally to the Finns. In both Finnish and Latin, vowel and consonant duration is important, often distinguishing words that would otherwise sound the same. And both Finnish and Latin have a rich set of suffixes to indicate grammatical functions, allowing word order in these two languages to be quite free.

The Latin of the Internet broadcasts sounds a lot like Italian. But while Italian-speakers mark the accent in words by sounding one of the syllables louder and longer, Latin has a musical accent, giving it a singsong quality. The contrast between long and short vowels is also quite striking, making Latin sound a little like Stephen Hawking’s computer-generated voice. (Vowel duration used to be distinctive in English, too. Then, starting around 500 years ago, long vowels fractured into diphthongs, with the result that what we still call “long a” sounds nothing like “short a.”)

Listening to these Latin newscasts from Finland for a few weeks almost prepares you to hear Dr. Jukka Ammondt sing Nunc hic aut numquam (It’s Now or Never) on his 1995 album The Legend Lives Forever in Latin. That disc includes such other Elvis classics as Non adamare non possum (I Can’t Help Falling in Love) and Tenere me ama (Love Me Tender). Or you might want to sample Dr. Ammondt’s 1997 follow-up album, Rocking in Latin, with such hits as Quate, Crepa, Rota (Shake, Rattle and Roll) and Ursus Taddeus (Teddy Bear).

Finland’s use of Latin during its stints in the EU Presidency suggests a solution to the EU’s language problems. Replacing that organization’s 23 official languages with Latin would save more than $1 billion a year in translation and interpretation costs.

In recent years, Latin has been showing signs of renewed vigour outside Finland, too. Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, a Latin version of the first volume in the Harry Potter series, was published in London and New York in 2003. Its success prompted the publication of Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum this past January. Again in 2003 , one of the greatest works of English literature came out in Illinois in Latin under the title Virent Ova! Viret Perna! (literally, “The eggs are green! The ham is green!”). And much of the dialogue in the movie The Passion of the Christ is in Latin, although it is pronounced in a way that properly belongs to a much later phase of Latin’s development.

This highlights a question that confronts anyone wanting to speak Latin: Which Latin to emulate? Like any language, Latin evolved over time, both grammatically and phonetically. The Finnish newsreaders appear to have based their Latin on educated speech at around the time of Christ. They always pronounce c like English “k” and never like English “ch,” as one can hear in The Passion or church Latin. And they pronounce Latin v like English “v” and ae like “eh,” whereas Julius Caesar, just a couple of generations earlier, would have pronounced them like English “w” and “eye.” (The pronunciations of the words “wine” and “wall,” from Latin vinum and vallum, show that they were borrowed into the Germanic ancestor of English during this earlier period.)

Latin does not live on just in translations of newscasts, lyrics, books and screenplays originally written in some other language. Thousands of individual Latin words have found their way into languages all around the world.

English has been one of the most avid importers. Even finite Latin verbs have found their way into English. Veto literally means “I forbid” in Latin, and placebo means “I will please.” Other first-person finite verbs you often hear include audio (I listen), video (I see) and Volvo (I roll). The latter was originally the name of a Swedish firm’s ball-bearing division, before it switched to making automobiles.

In Latin cookbooks, so many of the sentences began with the imperative recipe (take!) that English-speakers applied this word to the entire set of instructions.

Another Latin imperative had a decidedly stylish fate. When German industrialist August Horch lost control of the Horch automobile company, he was prevented from giving his name to the new firm that he started up. Horch means “listen!” in German, so he named his new company the Latin equivalent: Audi.

Several Latin adverbs have found their way into English, but as different parts of speech. Where we might write ditto in a list to avoid repeating a word or phrase, medieval clerks drawing up inventories in Latin wrote item (likewise). In English, the word came to mean a single entry in a list. Tandem is translated as “finally” or “at length” in Latin-English dictionaries, and at some point someone apparently construed “at length” to mean “in a row.”

One Latin grammatical ending produced an English word all on its own: “bus,” from Latin omnibus (“for all”). The same ending, this time with the root still attached, can be seen in Latin rebus (“with things”), which in English came to mean a way of writing speech without using letters.

Of course, English is not the only language to borrow heavily from Latin. Canadian kids studying French in school may not realize it, but a large portion of the words they learn are actually Latin. Much of French vocabulary was not handed down from one generation of French-speakers to the next from the late Roman Empire to the present, but was instead rescued from musty Latin manuscripts in recent centuries. Sometimes, these resurrected Latin words co-exist with their own distant descendants, in a sort of lexical version of the movie Les Visiteurs. One researcher found more than 200 such doublets, each consisting of a French word that shows 1,500 years of phonetic smoothing and the Latin loanword from which it descended. Examples include blâmer and blasphémer, chenille and canicule (which means “little dog” in Latin), lien and ligament, noël and natal, sou and solide.

Nothing even remotely similar to this exists in English. It would be like Old English hlāfweard (“guardian of the bread”) and hlāfdige (“kneader of the bread”) being used today alongside their modern descendants: lord and lady.

Such is the prestige that Latin has enjoyed among English-speakers that several English words have been coined to merely sound Latin. Conniption is no more based on Latin roots than humungous. Likewise gazebo (apparently coined to mean “I will gaze”) and discombobulated, which a Translation Bureau translator once had the challenge of rendering in Russian.

Meanwhile, Latin words continue to be revived to help name the hundreds of new species being discovered around the world each year. And there are reports that the new Pope is in favour of lifting the restrictions on the use of Latin in mass.

And what has Dr. Ammondt’s reaction been to this resurgence of Latin? Perhaps fearing that Latin is becoming too mainstream, he has moved into a more esoteric field, cutting a CD of Blue Suede Shoes and other songs in the world’s oldest recorded language: Sumerian.

But there are no Sumerian news broadcasts on the Internet. At least, not yet.

References

Weekly Latin news broadcasts at www.yleradio1.fi/nuntii/audi/.

Archived weekly Latin newsletters from Finland’s recent EU presidency at www.eu2006.fi/news_and_documents/newsletters [link no longer available].

Free samples of Dr. Ammondt’s Latin covers of Elvis songs at www.mp3.com/albums/177747/summary.html [link no longer available].

J.K. Rowling, Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, translated by Peter Needham, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London, 2003.

J.K. Rowling, Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum, translated by Peter Needham, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London, 2007.

Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham In Latin, translated by Guenevera and Terentio Tunberg, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., Wauconda, Illinois, 2003.