Demand for "dead" language still alive

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

Latin, as everyone knows, is a dead language.

Or is it?

The language of Julius Caesar, Ovid and Virgil spread far and wide during the Roman Empire, and later thrived as a lingua franca for international scholarship, diplomacy and commerce in medieval Europe.

But reports of its demise in the modern world are greatly exaggerated, says Anthony Barrett, head of the Dept. of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, who points out that Latin still survives in pockets all over the world.

For example, a short-wave radio station in Finland broadcasts the news in Latin, and the Internet has a Latin-speakers' group where any topic can be discussed, as long as it is in Latin.

Recently, protesting students in Belgrade sent a worldwide appeal in Latin over the Internet, seeking moral support for their cause.

In the central African country of Malawi, former president Hastings Banda was so keen on the classics he started special Latin classes in his nation's schools.

And, of course, Latin is taught in universities around the world, including UBC.

"It is a subject which encourages an almost fanatical following," Barrett says.

First-year Latin is so popular that his department, which also offers courses in Greek, Hebrew and classical Arabic, had to restrict enrolment to a quota of 100 students.

Barrett notes that not all Latin students are, as some might suspect, of European background. In fact, the classes are very diverse. Of the five students in Barrett's senior class, three are of Asian heritage.

Another sign of the continued relevance of the language is the number of calls the department receives from members of the public seeking translation, both to and from Latin.

"We must get a call every other day on average," says Barrett. Faculty members provide the translation as a public service, although they will ask for a small donation to a student scholarship fund if it requires more time.

The requests range from translations of old British legal documents to how to say Happy Christmas in Latin. Others want Latin inscriptions for tombstones.

The department does a brisk trade in Latin mottoes. It seems that when a new club or society is formed one of the first orders of business is acquiring a Latin motto. Barrett did one for a group of plane crash survivors who founded a society.

"Usually, they want a snappy motto, but request that it say a great deal. A school in Fort Nelson told us they wanted a motto that said: `We believe in education and have faith in the North.' But they wanted it said in three words!"

Of course, UBC has its own Latin motto, "Tuum Est," meaning "It is yours." It is a quote from the poet Horace who was thanking the Muse for his gift of verse.

Some Latin speakers foresee a day when Latin is more widely spoken, much as Hebrew, which was used only for religious purposes for 1,700 years, was revived as the official language of modern Israel. But Barrett is sceptical.

"I don't see it myself. Hebrew has a political, spiritual and religious motivation that doesn't exist in Latin. We see our mission as more limited but still important. We're committed to ensuring that future generations of students retain this vital part of our intellectual heritage."