Transcript of Latinum Podcast Episode:
In 2003, Michael Thomas Connaghton published a short thesis on the use of Latin in the Vatican State – in the hope of demonstrating that Latin was still alive. Instead, his thesis outlined the last gasp of Latin as a spoken language – across the Vatican, latin as a language of daily intercourse is now in effect confined to a single room – the so-called “Office of Letters”. The main Latinist, Reginald Foster, recently proclaimed that spoken Latin was, to all practical purposes, on the verge of extinction within the Church.
In the thesis, a transcript of an interview with Pater Foster is recorded, and I’m going to quote from a section of it here, as it it very revealing –
C: Now, just for the record, though I know the answer to this: when you’re in the office
in the Vatican now, what is the language used to communicate?
F: Well, we in the office, we speak Latin in the office. But other people come in—well,
you probably have to go back into Italian. Well you have to be charitable, in a certain
sense, not to embarrass them. Because some people would understand everything, I
could say anything, I could give a s—they would understand, but they, ya know,
wouldn’t know how to answer. They would be so rusty or something, they have to think
about a half hour to get four words out. And then they’d get it wrong anyway
D: I know how that can be.
F: [Regi noises]
C: Don’t we all.
F: That’s the passive and active use of the language, you see. We were encouraged, of
course, I would insist on, there has to be some active use but in general most people
would say, “fine I understand, that’s wonderful,” and et quid dicam? Even if I were
speaking with the Pope, he would understand that. But he probably couldn’t answer.
And that fact is, once you had a famous, a famous thing—I met Paul VI in a little group
of another sort. But I was there, and he said—oh it must have been about ah! 1972,
maybe, something in there—and he said, “You won’t believe—he kind of ex animo he
was speaking just there—and he said, “there were some Hungarian bishops today—or
yesterday or something—in the Vatican, and so I gave my little speech in Latin that we
would write-up anyway, and after that, the bishops came up and they started speaking in
Latin about there dioceses and under Communism and all that stuff, and about the
future—and to think,” he said, he said, “I couldn’t answer these people. I was hesitating,
I was looking for words, vocabulary and forms and everything else,” he says, ah, and he
was just sharing his own sentiments with us, and he said, “To think here that the Bishop
of Rome had a difficulty answering these Hungarian bishops in Latin.” Well, it’s just
because he doesn’t have the usum, you see. It’s just consuetudinem, that’s the whole
One thing Pater Foster did note, however, is that outside the Church, however, the story is somewhat different. There are now far more secular speakers of Latin in the world, than Catholic ones. When I say far more, one must remember that we are starting from a very low baseline. After monitoring the Grex Latine Loquentium for some three months, I have counted only 20 individuals contributing to the written intercourse on that email list – some write very frequently, others very seldom. However, this is written Latin, not spoken. The number of people on earth at present who are able to speak moderately well in Latin numbers around 100 people. We are starting from a very low baseline.
On the other hand, the rapid growth of the Schola website, started by myself and John Doublier of New York, gives some cause to hope. Schola
was started in February 2008, and now has over 500 members. Many of the members are still learning Latin through the Latinum course – however, when the time comes that these new Latinists get more confident – and you may be one of these new learners - my hope is that they will overcome their timidity, and start to write.
Pater Foster’s announcement of the death of Latin as a spoken living language within the Church – a place that had nurtured the language and kept it alive for millennia after the fall of the Roman Empire - galvanised me – it was one of the things that motivated me to set up Latinum. An extinct language is a great loss to the world – millions are spend protecting iconic species, such as the white rhino – but the loss of a language – as a living organism – especially such a noble and valuable language as Latin, would be a terrible loss indeed. Latinum, and your participation in using the Latinum course, puts you in a very special place – as a language eco-warrior, to use a current expression favoured by the British Press.
Now let us take this analogy a step further – an organism needs a habitat, an ecosystem. Languages, as organisms, no less so than ones of flesh and blood. If you persevere with the Latinum course, the time will come when, perhaps somewhat to your astonishment - you will be able to open your mouth, and speak in Latin – maybe not so well, but certainly well enough to have managed to get along quite well in the ancient Roman Empire. This ability to speak will be accompanied by a new-found reading fluency – making reading Latin into a joy, and not a chore. You’ll stand a chance of getting through the entire corpus of Roman literature in your lifetime, and have time over to read works of mediaeval and Renaissance Latin literature to boot - something you’d not have a hope of being able to do without advanced fluency.
But, I am straying from my point – the need for a habitat. When you find you are able to speak, human nature will kick in, and you’ll want to find others to speak with. This is all very well if you’re in London. What if you’re in Peking, or Singapore, or one of the cities in Australia where there are large concentrations of users of the Latinum course? How will you find others to get together with to share a beer with and a few stumbling words of Latin?
I have set up a series of websites, under the banner of Foedus Latinum
. The Foedus Latinum
– of ‘Latin League’ – was the original loose group of city states on the plain of latinum, that eventually lead to the Roman State. The name also translates as “Alliance Latine
”, and indeed,
In doing this, I was directly inspired by the history of the Alliance Francaise, which nowadays provides a habitat for French in cities across the globe. Each branch of the A F is independent, and functions like a little club. The organisation took decades to establish, groups in each city growing slowly from very humble, and small beginnings. One has to start somewhere.
There are not enough Latin speakers to set up such a robust organisation – but what is needed – if Latin is to survive to the end of this Century and beyond – is something similar – a place where you can find others living near to you, who are interested in Latin, others who are using the Latinum lessons, and who will, after two to three years, be able to speak the language, and who will, as is only natural, want to seek out others to try to speak it with.
The Foedus Latinum is a series of websites, each of them a social website, where you can sign in, and make a small homepage. The sites are in a variety of languages – so that you can find people in your area, and contact them in your own language. MY expectation is that it will take about ten years to populate the Foedus Latinum
sites. At present, if you look at the site for your area of the world, it will probably still be empty. Do join. If there is no sub-group for your city or country in the site, then feel free to make one. I have set up a few in each group, so that you can see what is intended.
My hope is that, in the long term, some of these online clusters will meet off-line, and form groups like the small (and growing) group organised by Keith Rogers, that meets in London once a month – and other groups like it worldwide. There are already some active groups in existence, under the banner of the Circulus Latinus, so if you are in a city where one of the few active Circulus Latinus groups is meeting, you could pop along to one of those – however, these groups, at present, are as rare as hen’s teeth, and have not been growing or spreading. The Foedus Latinum is not intended to overtake the existing structure – but to supplement it – using social networking sites to create a seeding environment, that will help strengthen the existing groups, and provide, in the very long term, a seeding ground for new ones.
So, if you’re in Iran, or the Gulf States, or somewhere in the Orient, or indeed, anywhere in the world, take a look at the main Foedus Latinum webpage - and find you own country’s group, and sign in. If you do this, you’ll be doing your bit to help create an environment, a habitat, for Latin once again to live in. Latin is an endangered species – there is no doubt about this – but the cause is by no means lost.
The goal here, is to remove it from the endangered list.
So, apart from making the effort, and exhorting you to study regularly, I also exhort you to click on the link to the Foedus Latinum page on the main Latinum webpage , on the sidebar – and sign in to the Foedus.