Tempus fugit, but latter-day Latinists are semper fi Vatican lexicon has words for it all, such as 'cursus pedester' for jogging

February 20, 1993|By William D. Montalbano | William D. Montalbano,Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY -- Latin, the ancient tongue of the Caesars and the popes, of empire, piety and scholarship, is fighting a graceful last stand here along the Tiber where it was born.

Sic transit gloria.

Even at the Vatican, where it remains the official language of a giant global church, Latin is in free fall. A generation ago, Roman Catholics everywhere heard Mass in Latin. Today, polyglot Pope John Paul II can still decline his Latin nouns, but most of his priests wouldn't know an ablative absolute from a passive periphrastic.

Now, more to salute a fading old friend than with any realistic hopes of staying the tide, Vatican experts have produced a new dictionary that vaults Virgil's tongue into the Space Age. It describes sights Seneca seldom saw: cursus pedester (jogging), pharus adversus nebulam (fog lights), bracae linteae caeruleae (blue jeans), graphum act theatrum (movie theater) and fluxus interclusio (traffic jam).

The dictionary marks the first systematic effort, 18,000 entries, 450 pages, to match Latin vocabulary to modern realities. But not everybody is satisfied with this well-meaning promenade through linguistic meadows where Cicero once strolled.

"A dictionary of clever stuff and electronic hairpins is not a solution. People don't realize how much has been lost in the last 25 years," scowls the Rev. Reginald Foster, a Carmelite priest from Milwaukee who is one of the pope's Latin translators.

Better read than dead, rejoins the small band of priests and international Latin enthusiasts who have assembled the new dictionary for a Vatican foundation called Latinitas. Pope Paul VI created Latinitas in 1976 precisely to defend the church's language of choice.

The authors of "Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis," Volume One, A-L, (with M-Z to follow next year) look to the future. They are thinking of new generations of scholars who will learn Latin as a basis for further classical research. Their dictionary, around $70, is clever, intricate, puckish.

It boldly goes where no Latinist has gone before: jet (aeronavis celerrima) to jukebox (phonographum Americanum), kamikaze (voluntarius sui interemptor) to karate (oppugnatio inermis Iaponica.)

The Vatican's "New Look Latin" is a boon for translators and teachers seeking to render modern concepts into words that broaden and enliven a language at once long-dead and long-lived:

Look, Augustus, there's an exterioris paginae puella (cover girl) in brevissimae bracae femineae (hot pants) and her friend the armentarius (cowboy), eating a pastillum botello fartum (hot dog) while watching pilamalleus super glaciem (ice hockey).

Later, they might try their luck with the sphaeriludium electricum nomismate actum, literally, the electric game with a ball put into motion by a coin. Pinball to you, gringo. Afterward, there could even occur a lascivia brevis, which might be translated (but never at the Vatican) as a one-night stand.

On its more serious level, the new work is a tribute to the small corps of Latin scholars who gamely grapple with the lessons of a language that is one of mankind's great cultural legacies.

The authors of the dictionary, a bit like musicians improvising jazz, employ known Latin and extend it, as logically as possible, to things and ideas that evolved after the language was overshadowed by its Romance heirs.

For almost 2,000 years, century after century, Europe's elite wrote in Latin. A medieval professor of medicine could deliver the same Latin lecture in Bologna, Salamanca, Paris and Oxford with the assurance of being understood equally well.

Latin survived as the language of science, medicine and scholarship through the 17th century, notes says Ambrogio Piazzoni, a curator of Latin manuscripts at the Vatican Library, long after spoken Latin had transmuted into vernacular tongues such as Italian, Spanish and French.

But times change. When Charles Darwin originated a new species of scientific thought in 1859, he did it in English.

Lately, these have been tough centuries for Latin in the church, too. The death knell sounded in the mid-1960s when the reforming Second Vatican Council opted for Mass in the vernacular, undercutting the 1964 decision to reaffirm Latin as the official church language.

Few prelates at church synods nowadays show any inclination to wrestle with rusty Latin. When Pope John Paul chided bishops about it recently, he had to do it in Italian to be widely understood. Papal speeches and church documents are still issued officially only in Latin, but few people read them, Father Foster laments.

French became the working language of the international committee that wrote the Vatican's new catechism because Latin, the obvious first choice, proved too hard for too many. Italian has replaced Latin as the working language at the Vatican, and English is pressing French as the diplomatic language.

The Gregorian's Faculty of Canon Law, the last Vatican bastion with Latin as the language of instruction, switched to Italian a year ago after a revolt led by a tongue-tied U.S. Jesuit professor. Father Navone did not mourn.

"What's the big deal about Latin? Who laments Chaucer's English or troubadour French?" he asks. "Latin's had a healthy organic development, and it's alive and well -- as modern Italian."

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