A dead language is alive and kicking online and on the airwaves
WHEN Pope Benedict XVI resigned in February he used Latin, giving a scoop to Giovanna Chirri, the only journalist present who understood his words. That was a timely reminder of Latin’s unlikely survival—and revival—as a living language. Radio Bremen, a German station, has broadcast a weekly news roundup called Nuntii Latini Septimanales since 2001. Finland’s YLE Radio 1 has run a similar show since 1989, with listeners in over 80 countries.
Twitter’s 140-character epigraphs and aphorisms are ideal for Latin: five words can often say more than ten English ones, notes David Butterfield, a Latinist at the University of Cambridge. Tweets also leave no room for troublesome long subordinate clauses. The Pontifex Latin account has gained 132,000 followers since Benedict XVI started it in January. It is run by the Vatican’s Office of Latin Letters—perhaps the only modern workplace where the language of Virgil is still the lingua franca.
Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, one of its seven Secretaries, speaks of the “fun” of writing tweets such as “Plures hodie comparent rerum species falsae. Verum fideles si videri ipsi cupiunt christiani, dubitare haud debent contra aquam remigare.” (“Many false idols are held up today. For Christians to be faithful, they can’t be afraid to row against the current”.) The English version, he says, loses a neat allusion to one of Seneca’s letters.
But stretching ancient vocabulary to describe modern phenomena requires ingenuity (see table). Radio Bremen’s coinages include autocinetum electricum for electric car. The Latin Wikipedia takes a strict “Noli fingere” (don’t coin) attitude towards neologisms for its 94,000 articles, which range from iPods to volleyball; it relies on the Vatican dictionary as one of its sources. Google Translate is of limited help. Launched with a blog post (in Latin) in 2010, the software draws on translations of classical texts: good for stories of the Gallic Wars, less so for newscasts. Google says traffic for Latin translations is higher than for Esperanto.
Like Google, Facebook offers users a Latin-language setting, replete with “Mihi placet” for “like” and “Quid in animo tuo est?” for “What’s on your mind?” Farther up the slopes of Parnassus is Schola, a Latin-only social-networking site created in 2008;Ephemeris, an online Latin newspaper started by a Polish journalist in 2004, has contributors in Colombia, Germany, Chile and America. Floreat!