“The dead language has died…”

“Mortus est lingua mortua,” report UCA News and Global Pulse. Two great publications I enjoy reading regularly. But in the report that the “dead language has died,” the headline writer might want to check the Latin grammar in “mortus.” But then again, I suppose it confirms the main point of the story as it is.

The author says of Latin:

It is a sign of the centralization of the Church of Rome in Rome. … Latin symbolizes a model of the church…

If I’m not mistaken, Laudato Si’ will eventually be issued in Latin.







  1. Can a language be considered dead that has never ceased to be spoken by some people? There are, in fact, hundreds in the world who speak Latin fluently, and can communicate in it as easily as in Spanish, English, or any other language. (Yes, this is not a large number — but if a small African or South American tribe of that size spoke their own language, wouldn’t we say it was alive, and not dead?)

    Can a language be considered dead that has never ceased to be used in the worship of Almighty God? (And for sure, it has never ceased being used and will never ceased to be used.)

  2. I’ve read some linguists who differentiate between living (is the first or native language of contemporary speakers), dead (is used, but is not a first or native language of any contemporary speakers), and extinct (may be preserved in some fashion, but is not spoken by any contemporary speakers) languages. By this definition, Latin probably counts as a dead language.

  3. By Alan’s linguistic definition, it does count as a dead language, but I don’t think that’s how it is commonly interpreted. One time a student at the Madeleine Choir School asked me why they had to study Latin if it was a dead language. I asked him, doesn’t he regularly sing and read in Latin, and understand what it means? If that’s so, how could it be dead? He is keeping it alive. I think there may be some benefit in having a centralized universal language of the Church – it’s a unifying force for the worldwide Church. Also, it is presumptuous to make any claims about the encyclical. It begins with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi, a canticle that was originally in Italian. I assume that when it is translated into Latin, that opening portion will remain in the original Italian. So is it really breaking precedent?

  4. There probably should be a different category for something like ecclesial Latin – a language that still gets some use, but isn’t a first/native language for any people, and doesn’t alter substantially to accommodate new vocabulary, syntax, usage, etc.
    Dormant language? Fossilized language? Not sure what would be an accurate descriptor.

  5. I don’t deny that Latin has become a shibboleth of ideology in the church, but I wonder how it came about that way. Is this paralleled with other religious communities and their holy languages? It’s confusing to me because I know lots of very liberal high church episcopalians for example, so it’s hard for me to understand why preferring Latin automatically puts you on one side of the political fence, when otherwise you can support married and women priests, etc.

  6. Latin was once the language of international Protestantism as witnessed by the works of Servetus, Jewel, Calvin as well as many others. I still come across Protestant Bibles rendered in beautiful Classical Latin .

    I do remember meeting a couple in Reggie’s class whose daughter was brought up speaking Latin and English. I suspect that they’re hoping to do for Latin what was done for Hebrew in the last century.

    Latin liturgies are served in San Francisco and even at Stamford by non-Catholics. I also recall seeing a Latin Lutheran site online. Even the Romanian Orthodox are rumored to use a Latin phrase, like Dignus alongside Axios at an episcopal consecration. Oh, yes, the Liberal Catholic ordinary has been rendered into Latin, not once but twice.

    Latin lovers are everywhere, not just amongst Roman Catholics.

  7. The Finnish EU Presidency took care to publish material in Latin.
    Conspectus rerum Latinus 1/2006

    30 Jun 2006, 08:42

    Finnis Unioni Europaeae praesidentibus in morem venit, ut de rebus ad praesidentiam spectantibus Conspectus Latinus divulgaretur. Anno undebismillesimo (1999), cum Finnia praesidentiam teneret, ille conspectus oculos animosque Europaeorum in se convertit atque multis et benignis commentariis apud eos acceptus est. Quae cum ita sint, Conspectus etiam anno bis millesimo sexto (2006) Latine redigitur. Accedit, quod usus linguae Latinae cultui humano Europaeo honorem habet et de radicibus societatis Europaeae usque ad antiquitatem classicam pertinentibus omnes commonefacit.

    Conspectus rerum Latinus a Professore Tuomo Pekkanen et Docente Reijo Pitkäranta scribitur, qui ab anno millesimo nongentesimo undenonagesimo (1989) Radiophoniae Finnicae Generali (YLE) nuntios Latinos redigunt.

    Conspectus rerum Latinus in paginis interretiariis Praesidentiae Unionis Europaeae divulgatur et fieri potest, ut illum etiam in tuum cursum electronicum mittendum mandes. Mense Iulio bis, a mense Septembri usque ad Decembrem mensem semel singulis septimanis redigetur. Mense Augusto pausa erit aestiva. Dies, quo exit, est Mercurii.

  8. The section of the piece that precedes what is quoted above puts the question not in terms of how many people do or don’t speak Latin well, but in terms of how Latin is used and what it symbolizes.

    In past encyclicals, popes quoted Scripture, Church fathers, other popes and Church documents. John Paul II had a penchant for quoting himself. In all those cases, the sources were available in Latin.

    However, Francis has quoted bishops’ conferences from around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Japan, the Philippines and the United States. They do not write in Latin.

    The pope also quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church, a sign that Francis looks beyond the Catholic community to the larger Church for inspiration, and expects the rest of us to do so too.

    As Pope Francis tries to wean the Catholic Church from the top-down, centralized way of life and thought that has characterized it for the past few centuries and bring us back to a more traditional form of Church life, he is looking to the voices of communities throughout the world. That is symbolized in his not using the Vatican’s official language, Latin.

    Yes, there may be a Latin translation of Laudato Si’ coming, but the fact that it is coming, rather than already finished when the encyclical was released, is telling.

  9. Context trumps the details of “translation” (sic).

    In the context of poor Benedict’s unseemly groveling to the Vichyites, it was all too easy to see Vox Clara’s word salad as one more effort — alongside the silly hats and other impedimenta exhumed from the Vatican crypts — to roll back the clock to the good old days of Ottaviani and Ruffini and Msgr. Fenton and the other ultrissimo-montanists who tried — and FAILED — to submarine the Council.

    In the context of Francis’s ministry, this ninth-grader’s mediocre parody of Shakespearean rhetoric merely fades into the wallpaper — one more inconsequential bit of mindless antiquarianism, like Michelangelo’s uniforms for the Swiss Guard.

    My guess is that many presiders quietly — how shall one put it — “elide” some of the sillier and more gibberish-sounding elements and very few in the congregations notice or care. Indeed, I have a suspicion that most of the people who get upset about this nonsense are some of my contemporaries who — 50 and 60 years on — still are obsessed with getting even with Sister Mary Elephant or Msgr. Shiesskopff for this or that sick little bit of petty sadism all those years ago.

    Other than them, no one gives a hoot.

  10. If Latin disappears from the Roman Church, isn’t it likely that the predominant language of Rome will be Italian? Do we really want that? I thought part of the problem was that the Italians have had influence for so long. The beauty of Latin is that it is nobody’s language equally, and thus everybody’s language equally. Esperanto notwithstanding, it’s the egalitarian language the worldwide church should have, and one connected with our history. So what if it’s a fluke of history that it is no longer commonly spoken, and a remnant of Roman imperialism? That’s not what it is now. Perceptions change.

  11. Latin may be the language of Church unity, but I wonder how many Catholics know that — or care. I know it, but I don’t particularly care.

    One solution I have heard proposed follows the example of the United Nations, and have a number of “official” languages. I Have no idea how they would decide, since all the Europeans would want their own language included, plus I’m guessing the Vatican would want some non European, non Western languages, The UN I think uses primarily colonial languages, but the Church should not.

  12. It seems to me clear that Latin, like Sanskrit and classical Arabic, has a special status: it is a religious language that *could* be used for non-religious purposes but generally isn’t. Ancient Hebrew would have been the same had it not been revived as a daily language in Israel. Hence, the categories “living/dead” simply don’t apply to these special linguistic cases. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      Sanskrit and Latin may have few living speakers, but classical Arabic is very much alive in the modern world. It lives little changed as modern standard Arabic, being the language of modern Arabic media from BBC Arabic to Al Jazeera, books and newspapers, academia and business and other more formal contexts across the Arab world with its varied dialects. Many from surrounding countries in Asia or northern Africa use modern Arabic as a lingua franca even when their own languages are not mainly semitic.

      The relation of Arabic to Muslims is of a different kind from that of Latin to Catholics. The Qur’an is completely central to Islam, and foundational for the language. The Qur’an is not seen as authentic for Muslims in translation, whereas for Christianity there were many languages from the outset. It is a concern for modern Muslims how to handle the essential linguistic aspect of the religion in regions with unrelated languages where Islam has spread widely.

  13. It’s interesting that the author characterizes an abandonment of Latin as a means of strengthening decentralized voices, when it strikes me that to lose our lingua franca (albeit, admittedly, one we’ve already stigmatized into near universal desuetude) only stands to marginalize the peripheries even further. In the age of vernaculars, how easy do we expect it will be for those who speak a ‘minority language’ (i.e., with relatively few native speakers compared to [Mandarin or] colonial languages) to find a voice within the broader world. All the loss of Latin will do is force us to find some other language(s) to bridge the communication barrier (last year’s synod used one ‘working language’ – the unrepresentative vernacular of Italian – and then splintered into other-language-based working groups), so we’ll still wind up conversing within the Church by means of – for most – a non-native second or third language, but without the benefit of retaining the ability directly to access our theological tradition by means of the replacement(s).

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      I’d like to hear whether people at the peripheries themselves experience vernacularization as marginalizing them, and whether they would find more use of Latin more helpful. I suspect more of them would say that they wish that the Vatican used English and Spanish for everything because most of them know one of those languages much better than Latin. But I can’t speak for them, and I’d be very curious what they themselves say.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        I suppose I’d like to accept part of that response and push back against another part.

        Accept: Yes, English and Spanish have such widespread currency that they would be much more useful to many people from what are currently peripheral nations. And even if this is their second (or subsequent) language, they will have greater facility in it than they do in Latin. I further accept that the most marginal will always be accessing things through dependence upon translators, so their situation can’t really get much worse in that respect. And they are the only ones who can really speak to the effects.

        Push back: Outside of Latin America, we’re still looking at one of those two languages (most likely English) being used as a lingua franca, especially if we’re talking about Vatican dicasteries performing their work in those languages. So, again, this does not represent vernacularization, just a new international language with the potential to slightly shift the “center.” Furthermore, if we look at individual “peripheral” communities, I believe we’ll find that English (or any other colonial language we might think both Catholic and international enough to make the grade) is indeed commonly spoken . . . among the middle and upper classes, which represent a privileged minority of the population. So the truest peripheries will remain marginalized in the global conversation, except instead of continuing to be concerned about it we’ll be congratulating ourselves for having eliminated that silly dead language barrier. Are poor Turks, Tamils, Georgians, or Latvians really going to be relating to the broader Church in those very languages, or will they not just be substituting the imperial languages of modern states for that of old Rome?

  14. Latin being a “dead” language, has the advantage that it’s words won’t change meaning, and it’s harder for a priest to change the prayers of Mass on his own initiative if they are in Latin.
    I think part of respecting legitimate diversity in the Church is respecting the place of Latin. I can’t imagine anyone begrudging groups that use Old Church Slavonic their liturgical language, so why some in the Latin-rite Church are so anti-Latin is baffling. It’s a part of our heritage and patrimony we should hold in esteem, as we encourage others to do their heritage.

  15. Regarding the peripheries – I remember reading an article some years back which mentioned the devastating effect of the French ‘vernacularisation’ on Breton language. As I recall the article, one of the ways Breton had been kept alive (with official France against the language) was that during Mass the repetition of readings and more importantly the sermon was always given in Breton. But when a french translation was enforced with no Breton version made the Breton sermon suddenly was out of place and died out. So in that case the Latin liturgy had been a source of regional language and cultural reinforcement. Sorry I can’t cite the source it was a while ago – I wonder if the Mass is now also in Breton? I wonder if this was also true of Irish and Welsh.

  16. Timothy O’Brien : I wonder if the Mass is now also in Breton? I wonder if this was also true of Irish and Welsh.

    LLyfr Offeren y Sul [Diocese of Menevia] 1988, is a Welsh Missal with the Order of Mass, and the Propers (including Readings) for Sundays, Solemnities and Feasts of the Lord. Hand-missal size, well bound, giltpages and sewn-in marker ribbons. I suspect it may now be out of print.

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