News of Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement has brought the Latin language to the front and center of minds worldwide. For one thing, the Pope announced his retirement in Latin. Giovanna Chirri, an Italian journalist assigned to the Vatican beat, was able to break the story before her peers thanks to her knowledge of the dead language.
What exactly is a “dead language” anyway? Most experts agree that a dead language is a language that no people speak as their primary or native language. While some speakers may become fluent in a dead language, the linguistic environment is such that it is unlikely to become the native language of future generations. Father Reginald Foster recently told the BBC that he estimates there to be currently fewer than 100 fluent Latin speakers today. Of course that doesn’t take into account all the scholars and current and past school children able to read—and not speak—Latin at various levels of understanding. While Latin might be technically “dead,” it has greatly influenced many living languages spoken throughout the world, including English. (Click here to learn more about everyday Latin phrases used in English.)
Latin was the official language of Roman Catholic liturgy (i.e., the text of all church services and masses) until the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, gave worshipers permission to pray in their individual vernaculars. (Latin still remains the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.) Pope Benedict himself, going by his given name Joseph Ratzinger at the time, was an attendee of Vatican II as a theological consultant. In 2011, under the direction of Pope Benedict, the Catholic mass received some debated updates in language to bring the respective vernacular translations closer to the original Latin. Read more about it here.
Troubled by the sometimes “superficial” proficiency in Latin exhibited by theological academics, Pope Benedict established a new Papal Latin Academy in November 2011 to promote the use of Latin worldwide with both a religious and a scholarly agenda. Vatican scholars also hope to champion Latin through the “Lexicon recentis Latinitatis,” a growing list of modern words’ Latin equivalents. This continuing project began in 1992 and includes the Latin translations for words including “taxi” (autocinetum meritorium), “basketball” (follis canistraque ludus), and “blue jeans” (bracae linteae caeruleae). In a modern application of Latin, the Vatican’s ATM allows users to withdraw funds in Latin.
Do you think that Pope Benedict’s efforts to revitalize Latin will live on long after he has left his holy office? Is there a future for this dead language?