Here’s a perfect gift for the Latin scholar in your life: a whole summer resurrecting the dead language of the Caesars in the very shadow of the Colosseum. Today in Slate, Ted Scheinman reviews the Padeia Institute’s Living Latin — an eight-week “immersive” program in spoken Latin run out of Rome’s St. John’s University. As might be expected, the program owes its inspiration, ultimately, to a Catholic — an American Carmelite named Fr. Reginald Foster, who served for over 40 years as “the Vatican’s secretary of briefs to princes.” In a word, Foster was the voice — or rather, the vox — of the Church.
Among his other accomplishments, Foster compiled a dictionary of neologic Latin — that is, Latin words for things in heaven and earth that could not possibly have existed in St. Jerome’s philosophy. This isn’t as easy as it sounds — most often, languages simply absorb foreign words wholesale and assign them a gender. For example, one of very few modern Hebrew phrases I can still construct is ani ohev hamburgerim, or “I love hamburgers.” Parikmakher, the Russian word for “hairdresser,” is the same as the German for “wigmaker” — presumably it entered the language during the 18th century, when no lady or gentleman of fashion would have been seen without ten pounds of someone else’s hair on her head.
Foster seems to have addressed the task of updating with a great deal more imagination than that. For example, he translates pornography, which comes from the Greek — and justly so, as anyone who’s seen the illustrations on some of the kylixes in the Metropolitan Museum will agree — as pellicula cinematographica obscena. Popcorn comes out maizae grana tosta. Scheinman notes that his Living Latin cohort had no trouble finding words for the popular fashion accessory known in English as a pimp coat; they called it a tunica lenonis. He adds with some disgust that pizza translates to placenta. This reminds me that another well-known Latin loan word — vagina — originally meant “sheath.” It’s fun to imagine legionaries returning from the slaughter at Masada and griping to the supply sergeant about worn-out vaginas, only to be told, “Stow it, Mac. Them vaginas you got is barely broken in.”
I have no doubt Living Latin works. I spent fourteen weeks studying in an immersive Russian program at Moscow Linguistic University. When I started, I could recite Pushkin; by the end, I could have held a conversation with Pushkin. (“Nu, Sash, chto s tvoei zhenoi?”) But MGLU students enjoyed the advantage of being able to hone our chops simply by roaming around the city and meeting people. I can state with confidence that the classrooms were the least educational places of all. Living Latin students have no one to practice with but fellow students, faculty members and perhaps the odd seminarian — in short, people who are really, really into Latin. That might drive me crazier than Caligula.