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.
Latin is no longer the language of anyone's culture, so I really do not see how it is possible to talk about "reviving" the language if there is no culture of which Latin will be part. When Hebrew was revived in Israel, it was part of a larger cultural project. As people throughout the United States struggle to revive dying, but not quite dead, Native American languages, it is because these languages are part of tribal cultural traditions, cultures of enormous value to their members. At the University of Oklahoma, where I teach, these efforts at sustaining Native American languages is a major focus of the anthropology department, which employs Native American language instructors in Cherokee, Creek, Kiowa, Choctaw and other languages - it's an amazing effort, and I wish them every success possible in such a difficult endeavor - this is a real fight for the lives of endangered languages.
I just do not see how Latin can be considered a language to be revived in that same sense. While I am all for people using whatever means necessary to gain fluency in reading Latin, I'm more dubious about the time and effort spent in learning Latin to speak and communicate. When there are so many vital living languages in the world today - languages with living cultures of which they are part - I find it very hard to justify treating Latin as if it were one of those vital languages with a living culture, because it is not. I'm even very dubious about the way in which high school and college students in this country are allowed to count Latin towards their "foreign language requirement." Obviously, Latin enrollment would be decimated if it were to become an additional language that students would do, something they study on top of learning a living language to satisfy their foreign language requirement... but if our goal in having students in this country do something to overcome the dire monolingualism which plagues this country, learning Latin really does not further that goal. I always felt terrible when I met students who had done Latin as their only foreign language in high school and college, because that meant they still had not learned a foreign language which would give them access to another living, thriving culture on this planet.
Reading Latin written in the past is a fine historical project, but there is not and will never be (I don't think) a living Latin culture on this planet again - the use of Latin to communicate is about communicating between non-Latin cultures using Latin as a matter of convenience... I can learn about Finland or Hungary by conversing with Finns and Hungarians in Latin, and perhaps that is more practical than me trying to learn Finnish or Hungarian to do so... but the cultural content of our shared communication is not Latin culture - it is instead the communication of the actual living cultures that are real to us (Finnish, Hungarian, American culture, etc.)... Latin, alas, not being on that list of actual living cultures any longer.
So I applaud the use of Latin in spoken and written forms as a pedagogical tool. I find it hard to see it as anything more than that - I disagree with the idea that Latin is an endangered language species: it is dead, because its culture is gone (you can see the culture getting more and more attenuated over time, which means it is hardly surprising that at last it disappeared: there was a true ancient Roman culture, a somewhat attenuated but still very strong medieval scholastic culture, a more attenuated and precarious Renaissance artistic and scientific culture, and now even that most attenuated of all, the neo-Latin culture of the Catholic world).
We can make use of the Latin language for our own purposes, but without a living culture to accompany it, that language exercise is always going to be something artificial - using Latin as a kind of global "lingua franca" to facilitate intercultural communication is an intriguing project, but that is still something fundamentally different from communicating in languages which are themselves part of living cultures today.
I agree with what you have to say, but not in toto - reading fluency is an end goal, but I do not agree that it is necessarily ‘the’ end goal. I think being able to write in Latin is also very important. The Latin academic community is spread out across the globe. Only Latin unites it - and so the international language for Academic Discourse and publication of modern commentaries for Latin texts and neo-Latin texts, should be in Latin. I do not think that this is an absurd proposition. Anyone good enough, for example, to read Plautus, should be good enough to read or write a commentary in simple Latin on the text. If their Latin isn't good enough for that, then they're not ready to pick up Plautus. Simple.
I have an academic edition of Comenius, a critical edition, written in the early 1930's. Thankfully, and much to my amazement, the Czech author wrote his academic introduction and textual notes in Latin, not in Czech. I have another critical edition of the Schola Ludus, from the same time period, and in this one, the notes are in Czech. I can't read them. Here lies a big problem. There are not all that many Latinists. If the Latinists of the world cannot read publications written in other languages, a lot of what they do, is going to be lost. Works written in one language, are not translated into others. There is no demand for that, with the exception of the occasional seminal piece of work. There are so few Academic Latinists, as it is. I have wonderful critical editions of some texts, with the commentaries in English. Can French students read them, or Spanish, or Brazilian, or Serbian? No – so what a monumentalwaste of effort, what a limiting of resources, a circumscribing of knowledge. The commentaries, even modern ones, should be in Latin. Anyone good enough to be dealing with these texts at an advanced level, should be able to read academic papers written in Latin. Theses on Latin at an Academic level, should be written in Latin. I know of one or two such, written in the 1990’s so it certainly is possible. Should the Viva be in Latin for a Ph.D. thesis on a Latin text? Perhaps there is even an argument for that.
The academic world of Latinists needs to unite – it can only do so through and around Latin. The fragmentation of Latin scholarship needs to end – and this can only take place through the medium of Latin. If something is not done, a department will close here, another there, another Latin department will be subsumed into an Archaeology Department, etc etc, and before you know it, Latin will be there, preserved in books on shelves that hold silent conversations with each other. As it is, that is the situation today with the vast bulk of Latin literature – it is simply unread, because there are not enough readers alive to read the corpus. The situation will not improve; it will only deteriorate, unless there is a sea change.
Is that what Latin as a language deserves? So, I do not have the great confidence you do in the future of Latin - it could easily end up becoming as small and insignificant an Ancient Language as Classical Greek - where thousands presently study Latin, only a small fraction of that number study Greek. A decline in the number of teachers, leading to a decline in the number of High School Students, leading to a decline in academic standards as the pool of experts shrinks, and standards drop. Departments close. Knowledge disappears down the plug hole. Colleagues of mine are very pessimistic. There is an expression – about urinating against the wind - sounds a bit more colourful in its native form - and maybe all that we are doing amounts to that - but one hopes not.
Modern Latin texts should have their commentaries written in Latin. There should be a students’ Latino-Latinum dictionary, and there is not. Most Latin teachers cannot write in good Latin, and they should be able to - for their own self respect - if not speak in it, at least be able to write in it. Is that too much to demand? I don't think so. It is what I expect of myself – and I only consider myself a mere tyro, but I know the goal is perfectly achievable, and I don’t think it will take longer than it took me to master French – around 5-6 years. I can already write in admittedly rather bad Latin, after only 2 years of study. My level now, is similar to my French level after the same period of time, and I am not particularly gifted at languages I would expect a French teacher to be able to write a half decent letter in French, and the same goes for other languages. This is simply a marker that they actually know the language they purport to know.
The audio methodology used on Latinum has a by-product - it produces students with some ability to verbally communicate in the language - and this will need an outlet - hence the Foedus Latinum. It is all about pleasure, and joy in learning. The Renaissance cannot in all probability be recreated - although that being said, there were probably only around 20 -30 000 active and highly literate Latinists at the height of the Renaissance - and such numbers are certainly achievable - so maybe, just maybe, it is possible to rebuild a little of what has been lost. What can be done however, is to create more Latinists who can communicate actively in the language. This will drive up standards, which can only be a good thing.
When it comes to classical Latin literature, I find most of it pretty tedious, to tell the truth (although I have an endless supply of Latin reading material... it's just that it's nonclassical). About Roman history, the gaps in my knowledge are greater than the knowledge itself.
At the same time that I would not call myself a Latinist, I am a passionate user of the Latin language because of my other interests: folklore and linguistics. I need Latin, absolutely and fluently, in order to answer the questions I have about folklore and proverb traditions, and also about linguistics. I absolutely cannot do without it.
As a result, my real affinities are with other folklorists and other people who are interested in linguistics. For all that I use Latin and value it highly and have devoted lots of time to it, I find that I don't really have all that much in common with people who call themselves Latinists.
So, the need to re-forge Latin as a language of communication among classicists is not something of tremendous importance to me. I feel more of a need to have at my command the modern languages which allow me to understand and appreciate what folklorists and linguists are doing in other countries; luckily, English is extremely useful for that, but I have also benefited tremendously from the work of folklorists I have been able to read in Italian and Polish and Russian.
So, for example, in terms of writing commentaries in Latin, I'm really ambivalent: I can see that it serves some good pedagogical goals, but there are also major drawbacks, if I would like my commentaries on Aesop to be of use to people who maybe have very limited Latin, or even no Latin at all. Ben Perry, the great scholar of the Aesopica, wrote all the ancillary materials for his book, including the instructions on how to use the indexes, in Latin - and this was a DISASTER. His Aesopica is far more likely to be of use to folklorists studying the history of Aesopic texts in their own languages rather than to Latinists (who aren't much interested in Aesop) - but the immensely valuable information Perry had to share with those folklorists about the history of Aesop has been a closed book, so to speak, because Perry chose to write it all in Latin. Luckily, he covers a lot of the same ground in his Loeb of Phaedrus & Babrius.
Speaking as an "Aesopist" rather than a Latinist, I would have urged Perry to do all the historical and manuscript commentary in the Aesopica in English, not in Latin. If it were a choice between Lithuanian and Latin, though, for sure Latin would have been the strategic choice... but Perry was an American scholar, and his work in that book would have reached a much wider audience of folklorists if the commentary had been in English.
Does that mean that all these efforts to bring back Latin as THE medium for International communication, efforts like Evan's Latinum, the Catholic Church's 'new' Tridentine Mass, or the German's 3Sat, etc. are all for naught? Definitely not. Because even though Latin ceased to be a living thing, as an ARTIFICIAL language it can still do one important task, namely, to unite once again the academic world as it did during the Medieval and Renaissance age. And I'm not speaking of the academic world of Latinists or any other specific branch of knowledge, but of ALL academics from every single branch of knowledge.
Not infrequently am I wishing to read contemporary philosophical papers in Latin and not in English, for English (and, for that matter, German as well), as beautiful a language as it is, lacks a certain clarity, due to its rigidity in syntax. The case is worsened when an English work is translated into another language; then it becomes something hard to swallow. All this could be solved if there were one language for all philosophers, a language that was not particular to any particular nation, a language that forced everyone to change their modes of expression and thinking.
One thing is for sure, however: Latin cannot remain just another (useless) curiosity of the humanities. It can do more, much more.
So, for myself, given the incredibly limited time available, my goal is more to work with people who have some limited Latin, who will probably never have much more than limited Latin... but trying at the same time to introduce them to the HUGE wealth of Latin texts that have been utterly ignored by classicists and, for that reason, not translated into any modern European languages - so, if you want to read those texts, you have to muddle through, somehow or other, in Latin. I am still staggered by the quantity of Latin Aesop (thousands of fables, including many verse fables never translated into any other language) which I found online through my researches this summer, thanks especially to Google Books.
I think these are compatible projects - I value what Evan is doing very much and have been trying to help out in what ways I can, promoting his site whenever possible. Latinum is an amazing resource for someone who has the time to focus to aim for fluency not just in reading but also in speaking and writing Latin.
Meanwhile, I will just keep trying to introduce people to the variety of Latin texts that are lurking right there in the libraries, and becoming increasingly available online, Latin texts which the classicists have done little or nothing to promote, and probably never will ... :-)
As for speaking and writing in Latin, I don't think it's delights are as clear. A Latin book naturally seeks a Latin readership... but when we speak and when we write, seeking a Latin audience is a particular choice, a very limiting choice, practically speaking. I wouldn't call that prejudice or indifference but just a practical concern.
The Renaissance is not a particular ideal or goal for me - any more than ancient Rome is an ideal or goal for me. There are many kinds of people out there using Latin - some idolize ancient Rome, some idolize the Renaissance but then there are other people, like myself, who are not doing Latin because we idolize anything in particular, but simply in order to learn about the cultural history of Europe, an enormous amount of which is documented in the Latin language.
They could do so once again. Certainly, the large body of Latin autodidacts out there (there are thousands of us) would benefit from exposure to these stories.
These tales may have been ignored in academic studies, but when it comes to the history of Latin as a language - whether we call it an artificial one, or a living one - these Aesop texts, and related stories in Latin written for delight and pleasure, played and can play a vital role.
You wrote a blog post on Schola promoting these texts - why not write another some time - explaining their importance, and, for you, they are so important to US, as a community of people interested in Latin.
My interests lie mainly in the Renaissance, like you, I would not regard my interests as 'Purely Classical', in the sense that I have a great interest in the Romans and their civilisation - although I admire and enjoy aspects of what Ancient Rome offers - particularly Lucretius, and other Epicurean texts, such as they are - but I find the Renaissance to be more interesting.
I also like stories and tales. I am sure there are many, many people out there who would love to read more tales and stories in Latin, if only they knew where to find them.
Have you made a webpage linking to the online electronic versions of Aesop - If you made one, selecting a few seminal texts, and arranged them by ease of readability, that could be a really useful resource. Perhaps you could post a copy of it on your blog on Schola - take it to the readers - well, to 500 of them, at any rate.
Schola isn't about 'anything' in particular - its about what the users write about, as it is simply a forum.
Some choose to write about contemporary politics, others about other issues. Your Aesopica wiki would be excellent to post on Schola - if only the descriptions of the texts were in Latin, not English. Schola is growing very quickly - so, it is a good place to do outreach to find new readers for your blogs, etc.
Besides, it is a very good thing we have different agendas, you and I - as we are both quite prolific, if we didn't we'd be constantly treading on each other's toes :)