Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Latin today: an update

Mary Beard asks Do we need Wikipedia in Latin? Because there is, surprisingly, just such a thing being built. From another link in her article, there are ways to get news in Classical Latin in Finland. (Or on the Internet, I guess. I can't read Latin, or speak or understand it, for that matter, so I'm not quite sure what to do with the website.)

What I find almost funny is that she chronicles these and other instances of Latin being used - for instance:

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 lingua franca argument.
- but at the same time concludes:

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”.

So sorry if I’m being a killjoy, but I’m hoping that Vici dies a death.

Uhm. I'm not sure killjoy is the right word. Snob, maybe?

What in the world is wrong with more and more people learning Latin, and finding ways to keep practiced in it? Or keeping it up to date? Of making it another world language, even if on a smallish scale? English can handle the competition, at a guess. (And this is not to mention that studying Latin seems to help people become better at using English.)

For that matter, what would be wrong with just a handful of devotees using it, without it catching on in any big way?

Or with enough people using it that some more of it sloshes over into English, adding a bit of precision or color here and there? Not to mention fun?

I guess that if people keep using Latin, it will probably evolve the way other living languages do, and that might make it harder to get a handle on classical works? But how would that be different from any other language? Not a whole lot of people can read untranslated ancient English without training and/or good footnotes, either. So?

She reminds me a bit of those sad, distressed official wannabe protectors of the French language, who are forever shouting "Stop!" (more specifically, the French equivalent deemed most proper by the current panel of language police) when they find nearly everyone else around them delightedly shoving French both higher and lower as they pick up new ways of saying things from each other and from the rest of the world.

I'm not saying that all the language changes that get invented are good. Uhm, no. I have several word origin books, and several history of English books, and it has not escaped my attention that words tend to degrade and dissolve in meaning as time goes on. It's not all that uncommon for them to take on contrary meanings, for that matter. I sometimes take a stab at protecting a word or phrase from being misused into uselessness or confusion. (Sometimes I find it impossible, however. Not all that long ago, I found myself diving out of the crossfire when one group started demanding that the word tragedy be used only under certain circumstances, and another group was stoutly defending another, utterly incompatible, exclusive definition of the word. Harboring respect for the leaders of both camps, I picked up my marbles and went home, as the saying goes, vowing only that I would try to remember to think twice before calling anything a tragedy.) But to declare a language not only dead, but rightfully and properly dead, in the face of an enthusiastic and growing fan base for it? It seems a bit too much like standing on the seashore telling the tide what to do, doesn't it?

For what it's worth, I also find Beard's statement "After all, anyone wanting to consult a Latin inscription is, by definition, bound to know the language" questionable. Don't rookies who are in way over their heads ever make a brave or comical or deluded go at it? What is this attitude that there are modern classical scholars and then there is the rest of the world? Do scholars in her world spring fully formed from the womb? Or are her 'Latin inscriptions' (I'm not sure precisely what she means by that) something that is zealously guarded by some equivalent of an ever-vigilant three-headed monster, and only friends of the beastie's master get access to them? What?

Is she serious? Or joking? I guess I might have asked that earlier. Perhaps she thinks that looking down her nose at anyone who uses Latin without belonging to her little circle, or without their reluctant but gracious consent, is a variety of sophisticated jest?

For that matter, I'd like to clarify that I'm not angry with Beard, or offended. Mostly I'm perplexed. Tinged with amusement.

Perhaps I should have some pity. It must be rather difficult, being an academic sort in a day and age when academia can no longer control the flow of information and ideas to the extent it used to, even a generation ago. I can see where it might make anybody inclined to be defensive and dismissive. I'm not saying it should. I'm saying I can see where a person could get that way, if she wasn't careful.

hat tip: Frank Wilson

1 comment:

Pinon Coffee said...

Personally, I'm one of those Latinists whose affection for the language is much deeper than my knowledge of it. :-) "Winnie Ille Pu" is one of the best birthday presents I've ever received, but I sure don't understand it all. I adore Latin websites.

As for those who say I can't treat it like a living language, I say, "Watch me!"