Thoughts on a response to the New York Times article on the resurgence of Latin

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A big Latin dictionary.

Here's another post from a blog called Oz and Ends on the New York Times article about the resurgence of Latin that writes a bit about the subject (and provides an interesting CNN link too) as opposed to just reporting it as most blogs have. It first notes that the Harry Potter phenomenon might not have much to do with the resurgence:
However, participation in the National Latin Exam rose steadily from 1977 to 2006, with no notable bump from the Harry Potter books or movies. Likewise, in 2004 the Deseret News reported, "The number of students taking Advanced Placement Latin nationally is nearly double what it was a decade ago" in 1994. So that test's rate of growth didn't accelerate in the Potter period, either.
Along with that it shows that the rise in the number of students taking Latin isn't equal to the rise of the total number of students:
Furthermore, the number of students taking standardized Latin tests might not actually indicate that the language's popularity is rising at the same rate. Six years ago, CNN noted:
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reports that in 1990, there were 163,923 public high school students--or 1.5 percent--studying Latin. Ten years later, 177,477 public high school students--or 1.3 percent--took the language.

Thus, even though there were more students in Latin classes in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of all high-school students taking those classes had declined slightly. And that decade overlaps with the periods when more and more students took the NLE and AP tests.
With a language like Latin though I'm not sure the overall ratio of students learning the language matters as much to its possible revival considering that outside of the Vatican it's pretty much used in a diaspora all over the world, and has most of its activity on the internet, which is the case with constructed languages as well. That means that for the most part it's a written language, and the amount of written content created in a language is dependent upon the simple total number of users. That is, with an extra 15,000 or so students taking the language and a very small percentage of these going on to fluency, the end result is still that we're going to see more translations of Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, more Wikipedia content, and all the rest. Latin's biggest problem right now according to Olivier Simon is its vocabulary, that it is still lacking a modern vocabulary in certain areas. This hammering out of modern vocabulary is made easier in my opinion by a larger user base. He writes:
In fact, the problem with Latin is neither its conjugation, nor its declensions. Its conjugational system may be simpler than, for example, Spanish. Most Middle and Eastern European languages have declensions and Latin endings are easy to master. The problem lies within the vocabulary: Shall we use old-fashioned words to name modern things?

Read what M.Pigal, one of Von Wahl's followers, wrote:

"li international comprensibilità del parols dev esser direct, i'mmediatmen sensibil por omni educat homes mem sin latin studies preparatori, ne solmen por docti latinistes. Departiente solmen del latin on poss nequande arrivar ad un modern international lingue, quel conten adminim un ters de vocabuls non-latinic. Circa un demi' de omni latin parols es mort por sempre e ne plu poss esser revivificat. Li rot del historie ne torna a retro. Nequande plu li antiqui
signification de copia (stock, multité), charta (paper), lapis (rocc, petre), classis (flotte) etc poss reviver".

You can compare with my own latin translation:

"Internationalis intelligibilitas vocabulorum directa, statim sensibilis omnibus institutis hominibus etiam sine latinis studiis preparatoriis, non solum doctis latinistis esse debet. Solum a latino nunquam ad modernam internationalem linguam veniri potest, quae minimum tertiam partem vocabulorum non latinorum complectitur. Circiter dimidium omnium latinorum vocabulorum in perpetuum mortuum est ac non amplius ad vitam revocari potest. Rota historiae retro non volvitur. Non jam significatio antiqua copiae, chartae, lapidis classisque etc revivere potest".

I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with Pigal's rota historiae retro non volvitur part though, because it was done with Hebrew and was a resounding success. Of course, he wrote the above before the state of Israel was established so perhaps at the time all evidence led to the conclusion that languages couldn't be revived.

Lastly, here are some phrases from the CNN article:

Some basic Latin phrases that beginning students might learn in Mark Keith's class at Chancellor High in Virginia:
  • Quid agitis hodie? "How are you today?"
  • Defessus "Tired"
  • Laetus "Happy"
  • Satis bene "OK"
  • Tibi gratias ago. "Thank you."
  • Est nihil. "It is nothing."
  • Tace, quaeso! "Be quiet, please!"
  • Repete/repetite. "Repeat."
  • Cogita! "Think!"
  • Utere tuo cerebro! "Use your brain!"
  • Studete bene! "Study well!"
  • Scribe tua verba/tuam sententiam in tabula nigra. "Write your words/your sentence on the blackboard."
  • Bene! "Well done!"

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