Cavete Fallaces Latinitatis Custodes! 

Beware False Guardians of Latin!

Francisca Parva

On 24th March, 2008, an article appeared in The TimesOnline blog of Mary Beard, Cambridge professor of Latin, entitled “Do we need Wikipedia in Latin?”.  The short answer to this of course is no, we don’t need it, any more than we need anything which, not contributing to the physical necessities of life, serves merely to enrich it.  Consequently Wikipedia in any language is not necessary and neither, by the same argument, are university dons who get paid to teach what they consider to be a dead language, whilst not wishing to share it with those who want to use it for the primary object of language - communication.

There can be no dispute that for centuries, Latin was the preserve of the Church and of the upper classes who had both the money for a good education and the time for the study and cultivation of the classics, humanities and science. To the vast majority of ‘ordinary’ people though, Latin was something to be heard in church but not understood.  Further, over the last century or more, there has been a massive decline in the traditional uses of Latin.

Does this mean that Latin is now dead? Or that it has been dead since last spoken as a first language?  Of course not!  By definition, language is used for communication and is not restricted to the spoken word.  We also communicate in writing, both in our daily lives and in order to share knowledge and ideas with other cultures and ages, even if sometimes the process is necessarily one-way. Any language which has done that for almost three thousand years and continues to do so can hardly, by any stretch of the imagination, be called dead.

“I’ve only just caught up with the fact that there is a version of Wikipedia in Latin: or, to be precise, Vicipaedia.”

It seems somewhat sad, and certainly begs some questions, that someone who is supposed to be at the forefront of Classical education and study apparently has so little knowledge of what is happening in the world of Latin today.

“I have to say that it is all very well done. I explored it, hoping to discover some dreadful howlers. But a ten minute glance gave them pretty much a clean bill of health. And there is plenty of earnest worrying about how to translate such as ‘link’ into Latin. ,  or ? Oh help…”

Very well done and a clean bill of health? So the problem is what exactly?  As one of the replies to the article has so correctly pointed out, and which I’m therefore quoting verbatim, “As scholarly publication increasingly embraces online forms and formats, we need the vocabulary to talk about the medium, the method and the format. As these are new and evolving forms, the terminology is necessarily novel (and sometimes fraught). If you want the option of Latin as a possible language for digital works written for an international audience of classical scholars, then someone must sort out for us how to say "link" just as the editors of the print CIL and IG did for "photo" and "squeeze". (Anthony Alcock)

“But my problem with this enterprise is not its accuracy in Latinity or its progress. It is: what on earth is the point?................Much the same goes for college grace before and after meals. “Benedictus benedicat etc etc” makes it a whole lot easier for the agnostic crew to let it all wash over them, while apparently satisfying the believers.” (see article for full text)

Once again, I agree with Anthony Alcock’s response: “Also, it seems like you're saying that Latin should be used in some cases BECAUSE it's incomprehensible to most people. That seems like a much worse fate for a language than people having fun with it on a website.”

What a picture this whole section conjures up of the “traditional” use of Latin purely for the amusement of Classics dons and students! Presumably this is one of the benefits of retaining Classics departments?  Ah, but I’ve forgotten that the author herself admits that “the whole point about Latin is that it is a wonderful language, with wonderful literature worth reading on any valuation of the world culture”. Doesn’t it seem a pity then to reduce it to the status of court jester for the amusement of bored professors?  But why not take a deeper look at the value of Latin on the world stage, or would that risk walking into the dangerous territory of ideas and facts which counter the argument that Latin is dead?

“I’m pretty keen too on the general idea of using Latin in books meant for modern classical scholars. If you are a publishing a collection of ancient Latin inscriptions, you might just as well publish the commentary and explanation in Latin too. After all, anyone wanting to consult a Latin inscription is, by definition, bound to know the language – so it can be more inclusive to publish the commentary in Latin than in one particular vernacular, whether English, Swedish, or Japanese. It’s the argument.”

“By definition”? Doesn’t is seem somewhat ironical, and supremely condescending, to support the use of a so-called dead language in scholarly books as an exception, as if it should not be allowed to anyone other than Latinists to find Latin inscriptions of interest? Do not archaeologists and historians, amongst others, have an interest in such areas?

If however you are going to use the lingua franca argument for the use of Latin within academic texts, doesn’t this stress rather than diminish the importance of Latin as a living language?  For, if we consider that all such texts will eventually find their way onto the Internet, how are we to choose a suitable vernacular?  Experience teaches that English is probably the most likely candidate, but why on earth would you use Latin for books and another language elsewhere?  Why disenfranchise those who know Latin but not English? What indeed is the point?

“But that argument doesn’t extend to the likes of Vici – or to those charming Finns who waste their spare time putting the news into Latin and broadcasting it to the waiting handful.”

Perhaps the author is unaware not only that there are considerably more than a handful of people who enjoy ‘wasting their time’ listening to the news in Latin - and for that matter reading it - but also how great an asset to learning a language - any language - listening to it being spoken is. After all, who on earth learns a modern language purely by reading, for example, the works of its medieval authors?  Why should Latin be different?

“The whole point about Latin is that it is a wonderful language, with wonderful literature worth reading on any evaluation of the world culture. But it is also well and truly dead. It doesn’t help the cause of Latin one bit to pretend that it is remotely worthwhile inventing new Latin words for “web” or “wind turbine” or “EU”.”

One surely starts to wonder to which “cause of Latin” the author is alluding, but conveniently she hasn’t elaborated. Presumably to the study of Latin in the ivory towers of scholarship, from which the commoners can be banned as in the good old days, which is exactly what would happen if Latin remained the preserve of a handful of academics, because unless Latin becomes a language open and accessible to everyone, sooner or later it WILL become extinct.  Why?  Because Latin as traditionally taught in universities only has relevance to a very small number of people and that number is declining, leaving the language at risk of becoming stranded, so to speak, on a marginalised island.

The so-called ‘death’ of Latin as an international language meant that almost overnight Classics ceased to have any relevance outside the strict confines of Academia, and became something which only people who were ‘apparently’ slightly strange or eccentric studied, doing so purely for its own sake.  Additionally, in this “quick fix” society, fewer and fewer people are inclined to study anything which, to put it bluntly, requires hard work and perseverance, particularly in the dry and uninspiring environment of many university departments. Neither are Latin and Ancient Greek something easily studied alone, unless of course one has considerable will power, determination and an overwhelming desire to communicate solely with dead people.

The cumulative effect of all this would not only have delivered a fatal blow to the language itself, but would also have revealed the almost total disregard with which Western Society treats its own heritage.  For sooner or later there would be very few people left who could read (or translate) the vast treasure house of Latin texts, both classical and more recent, in their original language and we would be left with nothing but existing translations.

So how important a part of our heritage is Latin?  Well, if there is one language which binds together Western civilisation, it is Latin, not only one of the two linguae francae of the Roman Empire and Hellenistic period, but also of a great part of medieval Europe, and the language for two millennia of the Catholic Church (historically not only a religious power but also political). In recent centuries however, it was not confined to the Catholic Church but employed extensively across Protestant Europe for political, legal and academic uses, a pan-European language extending to the colonies. In short Latin, until recently the primary vehicle for the exchange of information and ideas, is the bedrock of Western civilisation.

Does this however make it relevant to modern-day society and where does Vikipaedia fit into all of this?   Assuming that any society has even a passing interest in its own heritage, then Latin is greatly relevant not only to contemporary Europe but to numerous societies further afield, whose history has been intertwined with that of Europe.  To anyone in fact who has an interest in the history of world civilizations or their literary traditions, not to mention various other disciplines, Latin is essential to enable study of the sources, since the vast majority of texts and documents were written in Latin. Let us also not forget that Latin is a prerequisite for the study of the linguistics and philology of numerous modern languages.

Consequently, it is vital that the study and culture of the Latin language continues and once again flourishes, not only for its own sake, for as the author herself has admitted, “it is a wonderful language” which deserves to be fostered and enjoyed for that reason alone, but also lest we deny to subsequent generations their cultural heritage.

This indeed is what makes the recent resurgence of Latin as a living language so important.  Latin may well be regarded as ‘dead’ in some (by no means all) university departments but it is definitely alive and kicking both on the Internet and in many places on Terra Firma. Latin is spoken at a number of conventions held throughout the year, used to teach courses in various disciplines such as philosophy and Reginald Foster’s summer Latin course in Rome, and spoken in Latin-speaking Circles around the globe whose members meet for this very purpose. Surprising as it may seem, participants in these activities are not confined to a ‘lunatic fringe’.  On the contrary, Latin is finally embracing people from all walks of life and and professions whose love, interest and appreciation of this language, whether it be for them a hobby, a profession, a duty or a love-affair - how many languages inspire such devotion? - leads to a desire to use it as a living language.

The Internet has not only played a pivotal role in bringing together like-minded people from across the globe, often after years of isolation, but additionally offers an educational environment and resource system for Latin (and Ancient Greek) which otherwise would be unavailable to many people who lack access to university libraries. It also fosters a sense of community within which Latin can be - and is - studied, actively used and enjoyed.  Yes, it’s a community which sometimes exhibits tensions and disagreements - which community doesn’t? - but at its best, it is also mutually supportive, co-operative and instructive.

Moreover, it boasts members ranging from fluent Latinists to children home-schooled by their parents, giving them all the opportunity to use the language for the primary role of language, that of communication, both through spoken conversation by means of programmes such as Skype, and through writing, for example via the Grex Latine Loquentium, alongside numerous other forums and lists.  Not only does such participation lead to better understanding of grammar and increasing fluency, but, by the same lingua franca argument put forward by the author herself, how ridiculous it would be if Latinists wishing to discuss Latin texts with others, as not surprisingly many do, could only do so with those with whom they shared a common language - as long as it wasn’t Latin.

This of course is where Vikipaedia has a role to play. Necessary? No, of course not but, as others have pointed out, it is an excellent vehicle for practising literacy skills, appeals to many people, both adults and those of school age, to whom the likes of Caesar and Cicero are not necessarily the most relevant and absorbing of reading material, and, lest we take it all too seriously, why on earth shouldn’t there be a version of Vikipaedia in Latin? Why all the fuss?  As the author herself admits, the standard of the Latin isn’t, as she apparently expected, terrible.  No-one is being forced to read it and after all, one would seriously consider the sanity or motives of someone who said that those studying or speaking, for example, French, should be denied the opportunity to read - or write - Wikipedia in French.

My question would be “If a University Don seriously considers Vikipaedia to have no point, why on earth would she waste time writing about it and so disparagingly?”  Unless of course she is concerned that it is helping to prove that Latin, at least outside Universities, is indeed very much alive. Hence perhaps the strangled cry on some hallowed grounds of  “Oh help!”



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