Ancient tongue, modern twist

SUN JOURNAL

Latin: Don't call it a dead language. In Finland -- and, via shortwave radio, the rest of the world -- it's very much alive and well.

January 14, 1999|By Anne Miller | Anne Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HELSINKI, Finland -- Latin, that most famous of dead languages, is alive and spoken in Finland, where the national radio company broadcasts a five-minute news summary completely in Latin every Friday afternoon.

The show, "Nuntii Latini" ("Latin News"), began in 1989, when Hannu Taanilla, chief cultural redactor of the radio broadcasting company YLE, asked Latin Professor Tuomo Pekkanen and a student if they would do a few Latin spots on a weekly news magazine. Those short segments garnered so much feedback that YLE soon gave Pekkanen and his crew a weekly show.

"We started transmitting just in Finland," says Pekkanen. "After one month we switched to shortwaves. We received an enormous amount of letters from many countries, and I'm still surprised, after nine years doing the same job."

The weekly transcripts of "Nuntii Latini" are available on the Web immediately after they are written. Every two years, YLE publishes those reports in a book, along with a glossary of the new phrases and translations into English and Finnish. Modern phrases often translate almost exactly. For example, "rapid-reaction forces" becomes "cohortes reactionis rapidae."

Listeners can e-mail questions to Pekkanen and his assistants, who field queries ranging from the political to the grammatical. The only catch is that all the messages, and the responses, must be in Latin.

Pekkanen says teachers from Germany to Italy to the United States have used the texts of his broadcasts in their classrooms. According to YLE, this is the only regular broadcast in Latin in the world -- outside the Vatican. While there have been other attempts at radio broadcasts in Latin, mostly in Germany, they have been sporadic at best.

A representative of YLE says the radio station does not make money on the Latin broadcast, but the show brings the company, and Helsinki, enough beneficial publicity to make the effort worthwhile.

The broadcast, books and Web site have helped to make the University of Helsinki and the city itself something of a center for Latin study. Last year, the Conventus Internationalis Academiae Latinitati Fovendae, or International Convention for Promoting Latin in Education, held its ninth annual international conference here.

Many students in Finnish universities, depending on their courses of study, are required to study Latin. Finland is otherwise a surprising place to be leading a renaissance in modern Latin studies. It is on the edge of Europe. It was never ruled by ancient Romans, so Latin was never the lingua franca here, as it was in France, Spain, Romania and elsewhere between England and Mesopotamia.

Finnish is not even a Latin-based language, its roots having been traced to nomadic tribes that migrated west from deep in the Ural Mountains region of present-day Russia.

But Finns tend to be sensitive about the world's indifference to them, beyond an awareness of Finlandia vodka and Nokia telephones. They embrace anything that spreads knowledge of their country beyond the Baltic Sea, even if it is in another language.

Pekkanen has recruited modern musicians to help spread the word. The Finnish jazz group Reine Rimon and Her Hot Papas recorded two albums of Latin jazz -- traditional New Orleans-style jazz and blues with Latin lyrics.

Rimon has sung everything from Horace's love poems to "Cum Sancti Caelum Ineunt," perhaps better known as "When the Saints Go Marching In." A native Finn who studied music in such disparate places as Sweden and the libraries of Louisiana, Rimon and her Papas were persuaded to record the Latin albums after playing their Dixie sound at a party for a professor in the University of Helsinki's Latin department.

Dressed in black, sitting in a dimly lighted jazz club in downtown Helsinki, chain-smoking and chatting with the bartender in the early afternoon, Rimon looks every inch the wise and worldly jazz singer. In fact, she was an airline stewardess for 33 years, flying long-haul flights between the United States and Europe before retiring to concentrate on music.

"It's basically the same things that you hear in all music," Rimon says of the Latin poetry. "It's love, it's passion, it's tears, it's sorrow, it's parting, the same natural elements you hear in all kinds of pop lyrics or blues music. We rock it up a little today, but basically all the same elements are there."

Rimon acknowledges that the Latin jazz albums have a limited audience -- basically, teachers and students of Latin. She and her band consider the effort a success if they sell a few hundred copies. But those in the Latin community, and in Helsinki, have been buying.

"People loved the craziness of the thing," she says, laughing. She and the Hot Papas are working on a third Latin album using the poems of Ovid, due out this year.

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