Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ego Linguam Latinam Amo

I am reading Michael Erard's Mezzofanti's Gift, which is about hyperpolyglots like the eponymous Cardinal Mezzofanti. Like many anglophones, Erard bewails being locked in by English--having the world's current business language as your native tongue is as much a curse as a gift--and I was silently agreeing when I suddenly realized I functioned in four languages today: English, Polish, Latin and--if only a snippet--Greek.

As it's Traddy Tuesday, I will emphasize Latin and the snippet of Greek, which I heard at Mass this morning.*

Whenever I extol in print Latin as the language of the Western Church, some armchair linguist always writes in to say that the first language of Christian worship was Greek, so why don't I suggest we all pray in Greek? Or how about Aramaic? I don't doubt he thinks this a terribly clever put-down, but I do doubt he knows much Greek or more than five words of Aramaic, i.e. Talitha, kum, Eli (or Eloi), lamach and sabbithani.

Christian Latin is the first western language used only by Christians. St. Augustine, who did not enjoy Greek studies at school but absolutely excelled as a Latin orator, defended Christian Latin from fellow Classicists who sniggered at its borrowed Greekisms. "Ecclesia" was one such word, as is "presbyter" (from presubos).

It is true that the earliest Christian communities were Hellenic and that Greek was the business language of the day. However, in the West Greek was soon supplanted by Latin as the universal language. From Latin come several Western European languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian. English is a strange hybrid of Germanic and Old French, and therefore Latin at secondhand, but a lot of Latin was added to English over the centuries in the realms of religion, law, governance, philosophy and science. 

Latin, shared more or less intimately by all Christian Europeans, therefore became a language that anyone who went to school in a western European country had to learn. Sure, you could learn French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and on top of that German, Dutch, Norwegian, etc., but no doubt it was simpler for the average schoolboy (and girl whose parents thought she ought) to learn Latin. (I haven't the foggiest how many languages your average 11th-19th century European merchant's son was likely to know, but if he was going to know one, it was Latin.) A thousand years (or more, come to think of it) of pedagogical insight have gone into the teaching of Latin, which was taught universally to schoolchildren in the West until my mother graduated from high school. Après Mom, le Deluge

I am painting in broad strokes, as is my wont. As you may object, Latin did hang on in some schools and in fact I was taught Latin in Grade 9 and then in summer school, where I spent a blazing hot July. Whether or not I yet knew that the Roman Rite used always to be said in Latin is an interesting question. I strongly remember getting up the courage in Grade 13 to ask my history teacher how the Church was different before Vatican II, and he had to admit that he didn't know. (When the Toronto Catholic School Board was granted full government funding, it had to hire non-Catholic teachers.) 

I had been interested in Latin since age 12 upon reading Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth, which my father had brought back as a present from a business trip to Britain. Goodness, how I loved that book. Anyway, I had a look at the first chapter of Wheelock's Latin Grammar, and my father explained to me how the Nominative and Accusative worked (Nauta Dorotheam amat; Dorothea nautam amat ), and I even had a (very) brief stint in a university night school Latin course.  Thus, it was a no-brainer that I would sign onto Sister X's Grade 9 Latin course.

Sister X was a tartar, well-hated by most (if not all) of the 800-900 girls in the school. I got the shock of my life when I discovered Catholic girls of my mother's generation had loved her. What on earth happened? Surely Vatican II cannot be to blame for that although nobody with eyes in her head could have supposed Sister X dressed better in 1985 than she did in 1963. To get a sense of what Sister X looked like in my day, conjure up Dana Carvey as Church Lady. 

I disliked Sister X along with everyone else, loathing her sneering sarcasm and her habit of giving you a mark of  0 if you did your homework in pencil. In fact, come to think of it, I wrote a story in which she featured as the villain, and it was published in a city-wide paper. However, Sister X did do one thing that stuck with me forever, and it was that she taught us how to sing Salve Regina in Latin. Rarely do I sing Salve Regina after Mass without remembering poor old Sister X, who (if she is still alive) has slipped into the twilight world of dementia. In fact, I went to see her some years ago, and although she didn't remember me, she certainly remembered how unhappy she was just before she quit teaching. Poor old soul. 

Sister X might have given me something else although the circumstances are not clear in my mind. I think it may have been a reward for writing a Cambridge Latin Exam; it may have included a sweetie, but maybe not. For sure it included a button (the pin-to-your-jacket sort) that read "Ego Linguam Latinam Amo." I absolutely adored that button. 

Where am I going with this? Oh yes. Let's jump forward twenty years (or, ahem, more) to St. Peter's Square, where Benedict XVI, still the pope gloriously reigning, was having a Wednesday audience. Father O, whom I knew when he was a 17 year old schoolboy, was on the balcony with His Holiness, introducing the English-language pilgrims. There were two or three other such useful factotums, introducing Italian-language pilgrims, Spanish-language pilgrims, et alia. And every time a group was introduced they cheered and waved their national flags like mad.  After a while of this, I started feeling a bit ill. There's a time for proud nationalism, no doubt, but during a Roman audience with the Vicar of Christ is surely not it. Benedict being Benedict, bless his red shoes, led the whole gathering in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer----in Latin, naturally, which meant that all the Canadians, Poles, Mexicans, Slovaks, et alia, prayed together, not as a sort of Junior UN conference, but as Roman Catholic Christians. 

Now skip ahead to today when I sat on the train in Waverley Station and contemplated the anglophone prison. There are people (although probably only Americans) who honestly think English should supplant Latin and (let's face it) Italian as the Official Language of the Church. I think this is a horrible idea, and it stinks of Anglo-American imperialism. English is (ha ha ha) the official language of the Asian Bishops Conference which gives Indian and Filipino heretics the edge over orthodox Koreans and Chinese. 

But that is a whole other can of worms.  Suffice it to say that I am delighted that when I go to Mass, I escape the limits of being a native English speaker and of having been born after 1970. Not only am I sharing in the experience of all other living Christians who attend the Latin Mass, I am sharing in the experience of countless generations before mine. This linguistic unity especially beautiful when there are altar servers of various nations on the altar, all saying the Confiteor together, not one having a national-linguistic advantage over another. 

*Lest I appear holier than I deserve, I should explain I don't usually go to Daily Mass, but I'm in training for the Chartres Pilgrimage. Quote from Latin-praying priest: "You walk too much!"


  1. Yep, it is a trade off between Latin giving the ability for all Catholics to participate fully in the sacraments anywhere in the world, vs the burden of all Catholics who want to do so having to learn another language (Latin).

    I was quite relieved to find an American priest saying Mass in English when visiting Prague some years back. My Czech was limited to asking for a train ticket :)

    Southern Bloke.
    P.S. Interesting comment on the Asian Bishops Conference. Didn't realise it had significant fractures on orthodoxy on nationalist lines; could you elaborate in a post sometime?

    1. By the way, learning a language is not a burden, especially not when it is Latin, from which perhaps 60%-90% of the English language is derived. Language learning probably helps to prevent dementia in later life, so at the very least, it is good for your health!

  2. Well....who knows. Maybe I have just come across dodgy Filipino and Indian theologians and theology and not met orthodox ones. And perhaps there are dodgy Chinese and Korean theologians, though really all the Catholic Koreans I have met were as sound as bells. Inspiring, in fact.

    1. Yep, the Korean Catholics are inspiring, tho so too are the Philipino and Indian priests and laity I've met here (and they make up a rapidly growing proportion of our diocese). We don't hear much about the Asian church, despite being neighbours with huge cultural links, so if you do get a chance to write on it, that would be much appreciated.

      Language learning is fun for some, but I meant as a global trade off, where we would have global church unity if all learnt Latin as the church language, but that involves all Catholics having to learn it, which would be hard for those with limited natural ability or resources. For those that can tho, enjoy... :)


  3. Just now, I feel like I am living in an anglophone prison, too. English is the only foreign language I speak (and my native language German is not very useful outside Western Europe). I started French classes because I live in Switzerland, where my job requires me to speak at least two of the official languages. Being more or less fluent in English, I thought that would be easy, as I thought I was good with foreign languages. Ha! A big mistake. It is really hard to start learning a completely new language. I did not remember this, having learned English from the age of eleven. So the term “language prison” describes my feelings rather accurately at the moment.

    I did have Latin classes at school though (5 years!). I preferred Latin to French (we could select one of those two), because I had read so many children’s and teenagers’ books set in ancient Rome including The Eagle of the Ninth. :-) I did not learn much Latin though; too complicated and too much of a dead language for a teenager, perhaps. And right now I would prefer to have learned French instead…

    Re EF mass and Latin: I go to our local EF parish sometimes. I like it very much, and I have no problem at all with the Mass being in Latin. My problem is: Everybody is in the same boat, not because Latin has the same degree of “foreignness” for everyone, but because nobody is able to understand anything at all. Even those bits that are not silent are read in a very low voice, and so rapidly and mumbling, that nobody has any chance to follow the priest as he reads the prayers. I mean, why do they bother reading things loud when they do it in a way that nobody understands them anyway? It might be sacrilegious, but… could they not even perhaps use a microphone for those parts? Or does all that belong to the concept of creating a bigger feeling of mystery (by being incomprehensible)? Of course I can read along in the missal, but still…