Tag Archives: latin

Gaudeamus igitur linguam latinam dum loquimur

28 Dec

(Let us rejoice, therefore, because we speak Latin.) Christmas is one of the few times that speaking, or at least singing Latin is commonplace. You may well have belted out the words “gloria in excelsis”, “in dulce jubilo” or (if you’re hardcore) “adeste fideles” yourself this festive season. While teaching the Sunday school about Christmas I noticed how ubiquitous it is at this time of year. “What does ‘advent’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘arrive’.” “What does’ nativity’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘born’.” And so on. It’s not just in church that you find Latin though. There are bestsellers other than the Bible that benefit from a little Latin magic – literally, in the case of Harry Potter. Most of the spells taught at Hogwarts are just instructions in slightly mangled Latin, and there are secret wee clues on the books for Latin speakers, too. I was kicking myself when I discovered the secret about Remus Lupin because it was there in his name all the time. J K Rowling isn’t the only author putting her classical education to use. The author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, uses a lot of Greek and especially Roman references, particularly in the names of Capitoline characters. When I found out that the name of Panem, her fictional land, was from panem et circenses, bread and circuses – the only things the Emperor Tiberius said Romans cared about – it gave me a lovely satisfied feeling all day, it was so right. The moral, clearly, is if you want to write a best-selling book for younger readers, speak Latin. In all seriousness, though, Latin is amazingly useful. I often say that it was the most useful subject I ever studied (barring reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the sine qua non of any education) and that’s no exaggeration. In Latin classes I learnt not only how to read Latin (although that’s sometimes handy) but also European history and geography (which weren’t really covered in History and Geography classes at that time, due to the vagaries of educational fashion). I picked up the bones of all Latin languages, so that I have an advantage when it comes to understanding Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Romanian. What’s more, by studying a dead language I learnt how to take a language apart, understand its components, and put it back together again. That has made it so much quicker and easier for me to pick up any language, as well as making my English grammar pretty much impeccable – no bad thing for a writer. Latin classes were also my first introduction to another culture, one that still fascinates me now. It was because I enjoyed GCSE Latin that I went on to study Classical Civilisation at A Level, and then Ancient History at university. If I hadn’t learnt Latin I might never have met my darling Alexander, and would almost certainly not have written my new book Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s no exaggeration to say that the course my life (my curriculum vitae, if you like) would have been quite different if I had never studied Latin. For centuries, Latin was the international language, spoken by all educated people (although admittedly the proportion of people who were educated was a lot lower than it is now). All those old documents and inscriptions in Latin were written not so that people couldn’t read them, but so that they could. With a knowledge of Latin you could study at any university in Europe in the Middle Ages, because that was the language they all taught in. Even today, the University of St Andrews (my alma mater) uses Latin in its graduation ceremony, so that I became a Master of Arts by the use of the secret magic words “et super te”, or Super Ted, as we liked to call it. These days, Latin is a bit of an elite pursuit, usually available as a subject only at private schools. I think that’s a terrible shame. Such a useful subject (and an enjoyable one, if you do the Cambridge Latin Course) should be available to everyone. So if you ever do get the chance to study Latin, seize it! Or to put it another way, carpe diem! For those of you who already speak Latin (or rather, read it, since conversational Latin isn’t very useful), here’s a wee Christmas treat to make you smile: image


Scots, Scottish English and Scottishness

11 Aug

I really ought to be studying Latin just now (I’m trying to get my Latin A-level. It’s a long story.) but instead I find myself thinking about Scots. Scots is what we in Scotland call our language. It sometimes gets called “the Scottish dialect”, since it is a branch of English, but it’s actually (if you want to get technical) a national language variant rather than a dialect. Anyway, what it’s called is not really the point, the important thing is what it contains, in terms of language, and who uses it.

What set me off thinking in this vein was the Pollok Park Family Day last Saturday. There were lots of animals in a big muddy field (it was a lot better than that makes it sound), and commentating on the various animals and activities was a Scottish man. That’s hardly surprising, as Pollok Park is in Glasgow. (It is a very impressive country park, incidentally, and home to the Burrell Collection amongst other things.)

This Scottish man used lots of Scottish words – muckle, clatty, that sort of thing. The problem was that they didn’t sound natural. He sounded as if he had a list of “Authentic Scottish Words for Speakers at Scottish Events” and he was determined to squeeze in as many as he could. It left me feeling a bit ambivalent. I don’t want these words to die out, and they will if the younger generation doesn’t hear them, but then what’s the point in having them if they’re only party pieces, words that you have to go out of your way to use, and pat yourself on the back when you do?

A lot of people still do use Scots words, including those who don’t realise they do. People in the rougher parts of Glasgow could never be mistaken for speakers of the Queen’s English, but at the upper end of the Scots spectrum is something sometimes known as Scottish English, which is what they speak in the Holyrood (the Parliament) and what you find in business letters here. Most Scottish people would think it was just English with a Scottish accent, except that there’s the odd wee difference that you would only notice if you weren’t Scottish, such as the word “outwith”: Perfectly acceptable and rather formal within Scotland, but unfamiliar outwith it.

A better example of how Scots can work as a modern language is found, rather surprisingly, in the Disney film Brave. It’s set in some unspecified medieval period, but the people speak more or less modern Scots. Not the full-on, Rabbie Burns version, but it features plenty of vocabulary, and even grammar, that isn’t found in standard English. (I did enjoy the line “[A princess] disnae stuff her gob!”) It doesn’t all ring true, but the vast majority of it does, probably because the actors are actually Scottish. And there’s a wee gem in the film for Scottish language enthusiasts – a lad who speaks Doric (the dialect of the North East) and is completely unintelligible to the rest of the folks speaking ‘standard’ Scots.

Of course, the reason I take such an interest in the subject is that I don’t really speak Scots myself. I lived in England for many formative years, and although I can understand Scots (except Doric – no-one understands that), speaking it comes about as naturally to me as the pointedly Scottish words did to the MC at Pollok Park. I, therefore, will not be much use in preserving the language except as a semi-external observer. But then, as Rabbie said, isn’t one of the greatest gifts “tae see oursels as ithers see us”?