“I saved Latin!” Max Fischer, the protagonist of Wes Anderson’s marvelous movie Rushmore boasted. It turns out he’s not the only one who can say that!
While there are about 7,000 spoken languages in the world, only around 5% are significantly represented online. Languages that have no written form, or that have few or no living native speakers, are at a serious disadvantage. Luckily, though, there are some exceptions….
In early 2013, then-Pope Benedict XVI (or, well, his staff) started a Twitter account in Latin. The idea was more than just a novelty; after all, the language is spoken in Vatican City. But instead of merely representing one of the many languages the Pope uses to communicate, the Twitter account has unexpectedly met with huge popularity among Latin speakers and scholars the world over. Since Pope Francis has taken the papal reins, the number of followers has only increased – reaching 223,000 as of today.
I imagine that it must be exciting for people who are fans of this “dead language” to see it being used in a contemporary context. And surprisingly, although it might seem anachronous, Latin actually fits right in! According to Latin scholar David Butterfield, the language’s brevity makes it perfect for things like Twitter: “Five [Latin] words can often say more than ten English ones”.
Okay, so Latin has that going for it, but how does a dead language deal with modern vocabulary? There are different strategies. Elsewhere on the web, Google Translate uses information gleaned from ancient texts, which means that there will be untranslatable parts of contemporary documents. On the other hand, some Latin-language radio programs, which have been around for decades, tend to combine existing terms to create new ones. A third solution, used by the Pope’s Twitter account, as well as Wikipedia’s Latin pages(!), is to refer to the Vatican’s Latin dictionary. You can see some translations in the grey box in this article.
It turns out Latin isn’t the only language like this that’s benefitting from the Internet. Some endangered tongues that have experienced a real-world revival over the past few decades, like Catalan, also have a web presence. And others are getting on the bandwagon as well: In a recent article, linguist Ross Perlin explains how Yiddish, a language whose speakers were decimated by the Holocaust, and that is mostly spoken by older generations today, is making a comeback, partially due to the web.
The question you may be asking yourself, though, is, why? What’s the point of keeping dead or dying languages alive? While there can be practical implications (for example, in addition to allowing us to read ancient texts, Latin is still used for medical terms, and can help vocabulary–building and comprehension among speakers of a number of modern languages), some may argue that it’s more practical to put your time and effort into learning languages that have a major influence in areas like modern-day commerce or tourism. But as I’ve often remarked on this blog, language learning is about more than logic – it’s about love.
For those still holding out for the practical, though, here’s something to keep in mind: you never know when the language you’ve learned might come in handy. As this Economist article points out, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, he did it in Latin, a language that only one reporter present understood. Thanks to her knowledge of this “dead language”, she got the scoop about one of the most surprising news stories in recent years.