Thursday, November 13, 2014

Paene mortua

My father called me this morning in search of an answer to a question about the Latin language, an object of our common enthusiasm. His query concerned the pronunciation of a verb form known as the first person singular perfect active indicative of the verb moneo, I warn: namely, monui. (It is pronounced, by the way, with the accent on the first syllable because the u in the second-to-last syllable, or penult, is short.) I was only too glad to help, but it struck me as unfortunate that such a question had to be asked.
            Some say that Latin is a dead language; I would prefer to borrow a phrase from the cult classic film The Princess Bride and argue that it is mostly dead. It survives largely in the context of the Catholic Church, but even there when it does see use, its users view it for the most part as a largely technical system, both in how it works and how they employ it. The word “technical” means slightly different things in these two contexts. To learn Latin, people have to master a complicated mass of rules, distinctions, and exceptions. To make it work in the sphere of liturgy, priests (for the most part) have at the bare minimum to read certain texts aloud or quietly from designated books; it sometimes does not seem to matter much to what extent they understand what they are saying or how well a putative native Latin speaker could understand them. The first strikes me as exemplary of a technique, the second as rather more of a technicality.
            Now clearly this understanding of the Latin tongue shows marked contrast with the way in which the general population views and learns languages. Often a certain degree of immersion takes place, with apparently a fairly direct relation to the resulting fluency of the learners. While some study of the language as system takes place (a fact that I do find laudable), the teachers and students generally seem to view it as subordinate to learning that takes place by doing.
            In fact, however, a not too recent era witnessed a comparable situation in the Church, but one which is likely better suited to Latin as it exists in our time. Men who studied in seminaries, especially in the higher echelons of ecclesiastical learning such as, for example, the pontifical universities of Rome, were expected to learn to know Latin, more or less in the sense intended by the German phrase kennen lernen, namely to get to know or to become acquainted with someone as a person. In this sense, knowing a language was almost a personal relationship. Not only did these men learn to know the language, but they also cultivated, through theology and philosophy lectures conducted in Latin, their relationship with it. This relationship I would like to call, perhaps somewhat eccentrically, the techne of language.         
Moreover, this techne led to the establishment and edification of other personal relationships. Men who really knew Latin could converse with each other no matter what their respective origins. In fact in some ways, the Latin language was admirably suited to such use. For one thing, it lacked the specific cultural – one might almost say colonial – overtones of one today’s major linguae francae such as English, but retained the supracultural dimensions present in the Church.

I am informed that programs exist, at such places at Wyoming Catholic College, in which immersion forms a large portion of the pedagogy. However, it seems to me that this method still tends toward the technique side of the language. I do not get the sense that students in such programs really get to know the language holistically, or in such a way that it enables them to form and enrich relationships with others. Let me relate an anecdote to illustrate a point that will then lead to what I believe is a true – though at this point admitted rather vague – alternative.      
I recall once, while working at a seminary library, stumbling upon a book – published (I believe) in the Sixties – that contained an interview of a major twentieth-century theologian: I think it was Fr. Karl Rahner. The book’s editor noted that the interview had taken place in Latin. This discovery made quite an impression on me; it seemed to me to represent an ideal worth striving for. This ideal would combine the technique and the techne of Latin in such a way that people would be able both to understand how Latin works, and to be comfortable with using it in a wide variety of contexts, analogously to the situations pursuant upon one’s meeting an old friend at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden or at a cafĂ© in Paris that could only be described as charmant, at a chilly bus stop somewhere in West Milwaukee or in a hospitable hut somewhere in East Africa.
            I do not go quite so far as to wish for a return to full life for the Latin language, such as would ensue if, for example, we succeeded in procreating a generation of native speakers, for whom the very attractive surname of Grammaticus would undoubtedly not be amiss. Rather I would like to see it go from mostly dead to mostly living, preserving all the best things that have accrued to it throughout its long and storied career, in the realms of technique and of techne, so that people could really know it, and use that knowledge-rapport to interact with and augment their other relationships, with a view to building up the common of the Church and the world. 


  1. Do you think it'll work? It'll take a miracle!