Lapsing into Latin

Have you noticed how many people, churchy-types mostly, are lapsing into Latin these days? I use the word ‘lapsing’ advisedly, because the Latin used is often incorrect, as though guessed at rather than completely understood. You might think that a Benedictine like me, for whom Latin is the language of prayer and poetry, Western patristics and much else, would applaud any effort to use Latin; but I don’t. I have too much respect for the language to enjoy its misuse. Never use Latin when English will convey what you mean, that’s my motto; and I wish I could persuade others to adopt it, too.

It won’t add dignity to your prose or punch to your prayer to write Veni Sanctus Spiritus (non-Latinists: the vocative is Sancte, thus, Veni Sancte Spiritus). Muddling declensions, confusing conjugations or disregarding elementary rules of grammar is understandable in a child but unacceptable in an adult. I give a little inward shudder when anyone, with bright smile and well-meaning glint in the eye, bears down on me and says, Pax vobis! I silently correct to pax tecum or pax vobiscum if I think the greeting is meant for more than one. I can’t help myself. It is even more of a problem if less usual phrases are invoked. I remember once wriggling in my chair as an undergraduate (they used to exist; no longer, alas) read me an essay about papal plenitudo potestas. After the fifth reminder that a genitive was required, plenitudo potestatis, plenitudo potestatis, I was ready to scream. I rather think the essay-writer was also. And as for sequence of tenses, let’s not go there just now.

What is behind this phenomenon? After all, if one wants to show off, Greek would be so much better, being more of a marker of an elitist education and inherently more flexible and expressive. Is it a reflection of a certain kind of insecurity? God — and the devil — understand every language there is, to say nothing of the unspoken desires of the heart, so could this lapsing into Latin have something to do with a longing to hark back to a golden age of faith when Latin was a universal language and all was well with the world? Of course, it was never like that, but how we wish it had been! Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion, tricky, too. Perhaps we should think about it a little more than we do. I take heart from the fact that, as he lay dying, that great Latinist, St Bede the Venerable, chose to pray in English. Our mother tongue is called ‘mother’ for a reason; but it may take us a lifetime to discover why.

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9 thoughts on “Lapsing into Latin”

  1. My grandfather was a Latin teacher and I remember him cringing a lot and muttering dark things (to my great amusement as I sat next to him in the pew as a child) when that language was misused during mass. I love Latin and enjoy it when it is used in the liturgy. As to why I enjoy it so much, I’m guilty as charged: it is at least partially a “longing to hark back to a golden age (i.e., my childhood) when Latin was a universal language (read: the most important subject in my school and a subject I loved) and all was well with the world”- quite. I admit it is partially that. But why not? Isn’t one of the reasons for corporate prayer some seeking of a “feel good factor”, where bells, smells, and singing all help create an atmosphere conducive to some sort of “good” feeling? When praying alone, in private, when the words must be mine, I use my mother tongue, I could not do it in any other language. But for the rest, there’s nothing like singing the “Salve Regina” at the end of Complines…

  2. Thank you Sister. As a teenager, we were given the option of learning German or Latin. My highly intelligent mother told me that she had come top in every subject bar Latin, and that German would be MUCH more useful. As I went through theological training to ordination, I regretted that decision many times! The only Latin I know is that which I have sung in choirs over the years … So I am pleased when people use their mother tongue, even if I have to scurry to a dictionary sometimes to understand your Ginger Fiend!!!

  3. I love Latin. I’m just not very good at it. I adhere to the ‘do it well or don’t do it at all’ rule. I used to be a good language learner in school, but it has been over twenty years.
    So I stick to praying in my mother tongue, German, or I pray the Breviary in English together with friends. Isn’t English the new Latin of this day and age after all?

    I noticed how young people start using ‘Latin’ as a sign of ‘orthodoxy’ in a reaction to some very bad liturgical translations being done in the past. But since that has been mostly fixed, do it well or don’t it at all.

    • Well, I’m not sure I’d entirely agree about having fixed the bad translations of the past — some were excellent, some definitely weren’t, and some of the ‘improvements’ are no improvement at all, I’d say — but I do agree with your general argument.

      • There’s always room for improvement where it concerns liturgical translations. Another pet peeve is when people insist on reciting in Latin and then butcher the pronunciation, or, insist that the ‘proper’ pronunciation is the classical reconstructed pronunciation that’s being taught in schools. Sigh.

  4. I remember being taught Latin in the crypt of Holy Innocents Church in Orpington, along with another 12 or 13 Altar Boys.

    It was designed to help us when responding to the Priest at Mass, without having a missal open (given that we were always kneeling – it would have been difficult to use one).

    I can’t say that I had much use for it, however when I joined the Army and went to Mass in Belgium and Germany, where Mass was in Latin (in those days Pre-Vatican 2) I was able to understand the liturgy just as I had at home.

    I know that there is a Latin Mass Society, I’m not sure how many services they hold, but if they were local, I might go for nostalgia if nothing else. A bit like the Prayer Book Society in the CofE, where the BCP is held in high regard.

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