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.