When most of us think of Latin, what springs to mind is a long-since-dead language that perhaps is no longer useful to us in our everyday life. But Pope Benedict XVI disagrees and wants to change our attitude towards the language. He’s decided to launch a new Latin Academy to encourage more people to learn Latin. On 10 November, the Pope published a document establishing the Pontifical Academy for Latin, in the hope of not only encouraging more people to learn Latin, but also developing more than just a superficial knowledge of Latin, a growing problem amongst his own Catholic priests. And he’s set his sights further than the Catholic Church, hoping to inspire young people of all faiths to take up the language. In order to attract younger students to Latin classes, Pope Benedict XVI has decided that the academy will be open to new media, even stating that it will have an online presence. The idea is to make the academy more accessible and appealing to people all over the world in addition to rejuvenating and modernising the language. He’s also hoping to attract people with an interest in classical culture, offering them the means to read classical works in Latin without using a translation.
Latin has faced many difficulties over the years, none more challenging than its unpopular image. It’s fair to say that perhaps not all of us think fondly of our time spent in a classroom reciting Latin verbs, but at one time knowledge of Latin was the sign of a well-educated person. During the 18th century, only those from a higher social class would learn Latin. However, by the 1960s Latin had fallen from favour and suffered a huge blow when the Catholic Church decreed that Mass no longer had to be said in Latin. To this day Mass may only be said in Latin if it is what the congregation want. One of the biggest challenges facing Latin in recent years has been modernising its vocabulary. As a dead language, Latin hasn’t been able to keep up with younger languages that have been busy inventing and developing new words day by day, leaving the Pope feeling a bit lost in translation. However, he has encouraged the invention of Latin translations of more modern terminology to bring the language up to date, and his scholars have come up with translations for words such as parachute (umbrella descensoria), photocopy (exemplar luce expressum) and even hot pants (brevissimae bracae femineae). By providing learners with this more modern vocabulary, the Pope is hoping to encourage more extensive use of the language on platforms such as social media, where the language would not only be accessible to a large number of learners but also visible to other potential learners.
The Pope has faced some criticism over his vision of widespread Latin learning. Some believe that his idea of giving people an insight into classical culture by allowing them to read classical texts in their original language is naive, as most people will not reach a level of Latin high enough to read and really appreciate these texts. They argue that people would glean a lot more from the texts if they were provided with a very good translation. Others state that there simply isn’t a call for a Latin Academy outside the Catholic Church. At a time when the number of pupils studying languages is falling, the teenagers that the Pope is hoping to attract with his online learning material are much more interested in learning languages that will help them communicate with other people or make them more employable, if they’re interested in studying languages at all. But is it really fair to say that people just aren’t interested in Latin? It could be said that Latin has recently been going through a mini-revival. A weekly Latin news show on Finnish radio has become popular worldwide with learners and speakers of Latin. In Germany, Latin is the third most popular language exam choice for students after English and French. Even in the UK, Latin has become more popular. According to recent figures, there has been a 7.5 percent increase in the number of students choosing to study Latin, whereas Mandarin, a language that many would say is more useful than Latin, has been struggling to attract students. Some have suggested that the recent popularity of Latin is down to the phenomenon of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling used a spattering of Latin throughout her books for casting spells and even for the Hogwarts motto Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus (‘Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon’, in case you were wondering!), which were then transferred to the films. This inspired Potter fans to take up the language and proves that opening the language to a new audience through new media can increase the number of Latin learners. So perhaps the Pope’s vision of making Latin visible to a wider audience isn’t so naive after all!
Pope Benedict XVI certainly hopes that by promoting a more widespread knowledge of Latin the language may make a comeback. It remains to be seen whether the Pontifical Academy for Latin and its online version will take off outside the Vatican, but if the academy does succeed in modernising the language and encouraging people to use it in everyday life, in future we could all be using Facebook, tweeting or even reading blogs in Latin. Perhaps lesson number one in the Latin Academy will be ipsa scientia potestas est, or ‘knowledge is power’.