Another Perspective

Latin Lovers in America

A long dead language is showing new life, and not only thanks to papal directives.

By 11.5.07

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And is it true? Are the long-held dreams of a thousand bachelor teachers, their shoulders sprinkled with dandruff and chalk-dust, coming to life? Is the great Latin revival happening? After half a century of decline, when the teaching of Latin retreated to a few small brave frontier outposts -- American prep schools, British public schools and the Vatican -- is it back?

The answer is -- yes...a bit. The dead language is showing some small signs of recovery; mere glimmers, perhaps, but significant all the same. Chief of the Latin Revival Club is Pope Benedict XVI, who on September 14 made it easier for Catholics to attend the Tridentine Mass, celebrated almost entirely in Latin, and set out by Pope Pius V in 1570. With this masterstroke, the Pope has single-handedly ended a battle fought by modernists for 40 years to end the Latin Mass.

The old Latin rite is a splendid sight -- the priest celebrates High Mass with his back to the congregation, intoning the Latin liturgy amid puffs of incense, throwing in gobbets of Greek and Hebrew too. Prayers are said at the foot of the altar, matched to a complicated series of genuflections, bows and crossings of the chest.

Although Pope Benedict has quite rightly been celebrated as the driving force behind the Latin revival, his predecessor did his bit, too. Pope John Paul II was the first to remove major restrictions on the Latin Mass in the early 1980s. In 2001, he hurried the Vatican's return to Latin when he signed off the directive, Liturgiam Authenticam, demanding translations of the liturgy that are closer to Latin.

The Old Testament may have been written in Hebrew, the New in Greek, but it was in Latin that the medieval priest principally read and in Latin that he spoke in church.

It is in the translation from the Latin, too, that worshippers were used to hearing the liturgy. Confusingly, the Latin Church used a Greek liturgy for several hundred years before adopting Latin, but it was the Latin version that stuck until Vatican II.

In America, Australia, Scotland, England and Wales, bishops have now voted to accept these new Vatican-backed translations closer to the original Latin.

So, in America for example, the prayer before communion, which had gone "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you," now goes "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof." That's much closer to the original -- "Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum."

Likewise, in the Nicene Creed, "born of the Virgin Mary" will revert to "incarnate of the Virgin Mary" ("incarnatus...ex Maria Virgine"). And, in the exchange between priest and congregation: Priest: "The Lord be with you." Congregation: "And also with you." will become: Priest: "The Lord be with you." Congregation: "And with your spirit."

Again, this is much closer to the original Latin: Priest: "Dominus Vobiscum." Congregation: "Et cum spiritu tuo."

Still, under Pope John Paul II, it was up to individual bishops whether they allowed the Latin Mass in their diocese. Pope Benedict XVI has removed that prerogative from the bishops. As a result of his apostolic letter in July, called Summorum Pontificum ("Of the Leading Popes"), issued Motu Proprio ("by his own motion"), individual priests can themselves choose to say the Latin Mass. And, what's more, individual congregations can demand that their priest says the Mass.

Hundreds of American churches are expected to demand the Latin Mass. Even before Pope Benedict XVI announced his plans to ease the restrictions, you could find five churches in New York alone that celebrate the Tridentine Mass.

ALL GOOD NEWS, THEN, for Latin fans. But even before this wonderful news, Latin was already on the up in America. The country suffered a great classics slump in the late 20th century; now the subject's booming again.

In 1905, 56 percent of American high school students studied Latin. By 1977, a mere 6,000 pupils took the National Latin Exam. That went up to 134,873 last year.

Still, let's hope that the Latin revival won't just be confined to classrooms and chancels, that the language will be used for pleasure, as well as for instruction and ritual.

Of course this new generation of Latin students will know their English grammar better by learning their actives from their passives. And priests and congregations who understand the Tridentine Mass will tend to have better written English than those without Latin.

But let's hope those students, those priests, and their congregations will enjoy some Latin literature as well as Latin grammar and Latin masses. The real point of Latin and Latin teachers is not their gift for improving your English but for improving your Latin; and so allowing you to appreciate some of the finest prose and poetry ever written.

To say you need to understand Latin to understand English, as some people do say, is as crazy as suggesting that you need to understand Anglo-Saxon, German, and Norman French to understand English. All these languages went into the pot to form English but no one suggests learning them to improve your grammar.

English is not nearly as close a relative of Latin as, say, French, and even French is a descendant through many generations. Once the Romans left Britain to the Angles and the Saxons, our native language went through several incarnations.

The language the Angles and Saxons brought with them -- Anglo-Saxon -- imported large chunks of non-Latinate words, as well as some pretty garbled bits of Latin, often borrowed via French.

And then, when the Normans came, their new brand of French imported even more Latinate words. But it was much-mutilated and diluted Latin that poured into the mix that became modern English.

THE IDEA THAT THE PURE strain of original, ancient Latin, as spoken in the Tridentine Mass and taught to increasing numbers in American schools, forms the spine of modern English is ludicrous.

In fact, the main reason you will know English better as a result of reading Latin is that it is so different from Latin, not because of any similarities. It is in computing the changes from one language to another that you are forced to think about the structure of each of them. Latin is particularly useful for this computing exercise, thanks to the very quality that it is usually attacked for -- its deadness.

Because living languages are in a constant state of flux, there's a great deal of wriggle room when translating from one to another. Precisely because Latin is dead, there's none of that flexibility. You are much more likely to be definitely wrong in a translation from Latin to English than from, say, French to English, if you haven't understood exactly what a particular word means or how a grammatical rule works.

Still, it's pretty grim to think of Latin like this, as a sort of mental gymnastics, a grim, utilitarian exercise for strengthening the mind. Yes, if the new Latin students, and the priests and congregations celebrating the Tridentine Mass, really get to know their Latin, they'll incidentally improve their English.

But -- much more wonderful than that -- they will then know world literature from the third century BC, when writers got going in Rome, through to the Golden Age of Latin -- Lucretius, Catullus, Sallust, Cicero and Caesar. They will know the Augustan Age -- Ovid, Horace, Virgil and Livy -- down to the end of the Silver Age in 120 AD: Martial, Juvenal, Lucan, Seneca, Pliny and Tacitus.

It's a pretty inspiring reading list. If they happen to pick up some grammar along the way, well, all the better, but I hope they don't forget to look out of the window and take in the beauty spots too.

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About the Author

Harry Mount's : How to Become a Latin Lover is published by Hyperion.