The Pope’s Big News Came in…Latin

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign has taken many people by surprise—and not just because of what he said. How he said it also raised eyebrows.

He delivered the speech in Latin. Now, Latin is far from being a dead language on the page, but spoken Latin is barely living.

“I find it extremely moving and exciting,” said Harry Mount, author of ‘Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life.’ “He clearly can speak Latin in a way that very few people can. Lots of people study it but they can’t actually speak it.”

Mount says that at the cardinals’ conference at which the pope announced his resignation, “quite a lot of the cardinals didn’t understand” what he was saying.

That’s quite a moment to miss out on, the first papal resignation in almost 600 years. It flew over the heads of most reporters there too. They tend to wait for the Vatican press office to translate the pontiff’s words.

But one reporter did understand what the pope was saying—Giovanna Chirri of the Italian news agency, ANSA.

“I understood but I didn’t want to believe,” said Chirri, a fan of Pope Benedict. But despite not wanting to believe the words, Giovanna Chirri did her job: she broke the news, and in so doing became part of the story.

Giovanna Chirri is no spring chicken. She’s often described as a veteran Vaticanista. She said the pope’s Latin is easy to understand. But her high school Latin must have stayed with her. “Boy, she knew her stuff,” said Harry Mount.

The pope appears to know his stuff too. As well as his speeches in Latin, he has re-introduced the Latin mass, and he even now tweets in Latin (or someone at the Vatican does).

Younger people are also helping revive the language. Several countries report that more school kids are studying Latin.

But you may still wonder what the point is of studying a language that perhaps just a few hundred people speak fluently.

“In English, two-thirds of English words are Latinate,” said Mount. “If you know that, you can swop between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon registers and you just understand the language, like someone who knows the rules of football or golf. You can play around with the language more because you know how it was constructed.”

There’s now an additional reason to study Latin: you may wind up breaking some big news.

Want more Latin? Here’s a previous podcast on the origins of everyone’s favorite dummy text, Lorem Ipsum.



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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Pope’s Big News Came in…Latin

  1. Pingback: E-words, e-terms and e-lexemes | My Mind Bursts

  2. Reblogged this on The Memeticist and commented:
    Some very interesting rumblings are coming from Rome these days. And Latin rumblings at that.

  3. Hello i am kavin, itss my first time to commenting anyplace,
    when i read this article i thought i could also make cimment
    due to this brilliant paragraph.

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