When Pope Benedict resigned, in Latin, one Italian journalist scooped the world. Having paid attention in class at school, she realised what he was saying; the rest of the press had to wait for translations. Judging from their blank faces, the cardinals present did not know what was going on either. This little episode might be enough for you to question the place of Latin in modern life.
Well, the language of the papal resignation doesn’t tell us much in itself. It does remind us of a former function of Latin, as the international language. Today we need an international language more than ever (air traffic control can be conducted in only one tongue), and — for better or worse — the world has settled on English. That is not going to change. The pope resigned in Latin because neither of the two natural alternatives, Italian or English, was appropriate for the occasion.
But a fairly steady trickle of requests for Latin comes to the Classics Office in Oxford. My own theory is that they should be passed on to the Professor of Latin, but the office insists that the Public Orator — yours truly — is the man for the job. So I have provided Latin for the Australian navy, for the Great Exhibition monument outside the Albert Hall, for a golf club in Surrey, for a grave in Cumberland, for a self-help book, for the Diamond Jubilee coinage, for the praise of benefactors engraved on windows in Harris Manchester College, and plenty more besides.
As it happens, because Latin is inflected and has no articles, it can do without many of the little auxiliary words that we use in English, achieving the terseness suitable for inscriptions. It is, as we say (borrowing a Latin word), lapidary. For the Jubilee coin I was asked for a sentence, supposed to be spoken by the Queen herself, expressing the idea that she relies on the consent and support of her people. That could be done in two words: ‘Dilecta regno’, literally ‘I reign beloved.’ The English is stilted; the Latin (I hope) is not.
Those who have graduated from Oxford in the last fifteen years will have heard the Vice-Chancellor explaining why the ceremony is in Latin: on the grounds of continuity, and our fellowship with the generations who went before us. Trinity College Dublin, Cambridge and ourselves are the three universities in the British Isles which still present honorary degrees with Latin orations.
Another is Moscow University, as I learnt when I met its orator – ‘Because of the Latin, you see.’ (I was reminded of Peter Cook’s tramp, who was going to be a judge, but was prevented, ‘because of the Latin’.) I asked whether they had always done it in Latin. “Of course,” came his response. What, through the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin, the purges – someone still wittering on in Ciceronian prose? Yes, as it turns out.
What this may suggest is the desire of a country at the edge of Europe to claim its connection to the centre. The classical tradition that used to be so strong in Scotland is a similar case. It’s another claim to continuity and fellowship.
And perhaps Latin appeals to the child in us. Children love codes and special languages; we like to dress up for ceremonies, and just as we wear gowns and hoods at academic events, so we clothe ourselves in a special language. When Mr Blavatnik recently received the Sheldon Medal, I was asked to turn his curriculum vitae into Latin: it was felt that this would be a further expression of honour.
All these things are of course decorations on the margins of life. In another sense Latin is much more central. It has been claimed that 600,000,000 people speak Latin today, in one of its later derivatives, and although ours is a Germanic language, most of the nouns and adjectives that I have been using here come from a Latin source. But that is another, and much larger, story.