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Pope's Resignation Shock Helps Latin Raise Its Ancient Voice

The most alive of the dead languages is also getting a boost in some surprising corners outside the Vatican walls.

Latin is one of the languages for the ATM in the Vatican
Latin is one of the languages for the ATM in the Vatican
Alberto Mattioli

PARIS - The latest sponsor of Latin also happens to be the most illustrious. Announcing his abdication in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI has given an extra shot of life to the most living of the dead languages.

Joseph Ratzinger is the Pontifex Maximus of a Church that has taken everything from Rome: location, universality, territorial organization and, yes, its language. Remember what Dante said? “Rome, where Christ is Roman”.

Ah, Latin. The more we try to get rid of it, the more it clings on. It has survived scholastic purges and ecumenical councils. Somehow, it always finds loyal testimonies. As French singer George Brassens, who was certainly no traditionalist Catholic, sang in the 1970’s: “They don't know what they're missing / Those damn priests and chaplains / Without Latin, without Latin / Masses got so boring.”

Is it just nostalgia? No. Here in Paris, Le Figaro noted that Latin isn’t just alive and kicking, but it also encourages modern commerce. According to Marcel Botton of Nomen International, a company that helps name and brand companies, Greek-Latin still dominate in the world of globalized trade. An exaggeration? Not at all, see for yourself: Volvo, Audi and Fiat are all Latin verbs. Huge global brands such as Actimel, Nivea, Acer and Michelin are Latin words. Alongside Greek merchandising gods Hermès and Nike, there are also Roman deities selling Mars candy and Venus razors.

From France to Finland

It’s not just that Latin teaches us reason, organizing our thoughts in a logical order - subject, verb then complement- as was drilled into us in school. It’s that Latin is the treasurer of words: no fancy extras that require synthesis. There’s nothing better for a slogan. Or even a tweet for that matter.

Good news for Latin always seems to come from France. “Petit Nicolas” (no, not Sarkozy), the protagonist of a national comic strip, together with Asterix, has sold 13 million copies worldwide and has now, for the first time, been translated into Latin for the use of the 9,500 French teachers of Classics and their 500,000 students. Superb! “Pullus Nicolellus” is selling well and has been issued with three reprints since its release in November. Awesome! Or should I say “Mirificum!”?

Then, there are the Finns. They speak a language unlike any other, but are truly affectionate of languages that have spurred on new ones. Because of the passionate Latinisti in Finland, the state radio has a Latin program for the 75,000 loyal listeners. When Finland have their turn of the EU Presidency, it has become a tradition that they publish their news-in-briefs in the language of Cicero.

The Italian writer and European Parliament member Mario Capanna once gave a memorable speech in the EU Parliament, in latina, explaining why it is the most European of all the languages. It was applauded by Otto von Hapsburg, a keen linguist, who believed that Europe could be “divided by politics but united by language.” In that case, Europeans may have to start by dreaming in Latin.

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