December 6, 2000 12:00 PM PST
Net helps resuscitate a "dead" language
That's Latin for "I want a word with you"--a phrase that's becoming increasingly common on Internet message boards and in chat rooms.
Considered a "dead" language for at least a century, Latin is experiencing its most stunning renaissance since the Enlightenment--compliments of the Internet. A slew of newsgroups, chat rooms and Web sites dedicated to the ancient tongue is giving Ovid aficionados and assorted academics a new reason to brush up on their conjugations and declensions, uniting faraway folks with a common passion and reviving a language that scientists say is in danger of becoming extinct.
"It really helps to keep all those words in my memory," said Martin Klinkhardt, a student of Latin and English in Munich. "For my studies, my Latin texts have to conform to a narrow set of rules. When someone posts a message like, 'Is the following translation OK?' I try to answer that question, and so repeat grammar."
Originating near Rome and extending throughout central Italy, Latin flourished during the Middle Ages as the language of scholars and writers. It remained the dominant language of European diplomats as late as the 17th century, and it was still widely used in scholarly writing in the 19th century.
But as the world's balance of economic power shifted in the 20th century, Latin began disappearing from school curricula. It is now the official language of Vatican City and of the Roman Catholic Church. In the United States, it is seldom heard outside of Roman Catholic High Masses in ethnic urban enclaves.
Technology to the rescue
It's not surprising that modern technology has rejuvenated Latin; in many ways, the language is ideally suited to the Web. Hyperlinks enable students to click through complicated verb patterns more easily than flipping through chapters of a dusty tome. Enthusiasts use the Web to rehash commonly used phrases, consult tables of numbers, and read original or translated versions of the colloquies of Erasmus--even if they don't live in a university town or have easy access to a library.
But the growth of Latin online is somewhat ironic, given that more than 80 percent of all online text is in English. American-style English has been the de facto dominating tongue of the Internet since its inception. Those who decry American cultural hegemony say the Web promotes a homogenized world where everyone must learn rudimentary English.
But Internet experts point to the proliferation of chat groups for Latin as proof that the Web is a diverse, socially enriching place--a cultural fertilizer so potent it can revive a dead language and give it modern nuances: The Latin word for surfboard as it has evolved in newsgroups is veli-tabula.
"There's no question that English dominates the Internet, but at the same time, the Web has an aspect that facilitates the preservation of languages and cultures," said Don Heath, CEO of the Reston, Va.-based Internet Society. "It allows people of very diverse geographies to interact in virtual communities. There's no way you could get a critical mass of Latin speakers any other way."
In fact, many scientists hail the Internet for its potential to become a language library. A group of scientists recently concluded that of the 6,700-odd languages spoken throughout the world, as many as 90 percent will disappear within 100 years as younger generations communicate in only a handful of dominant languages.
The scientists are meeting this month at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss the conversion of as many of the disappearing languages as possible into digital format--including sound files and phonetic glossaries--and the archiving of the languages on a searchable Web site.
Although reliable estimates on the number of fluent Latin speakers are hard to find, it's clearly one of the languages in jeopardy of becoming extinct. Even on the Internet, it's possible to monitor Latin chat rooms for hours without hearing the familiar how-do-you-do--quid agis?--from other gabbers.
Many Latin message boards are vibrant but underpopulated places with a small but hard-core following--repeat visitors with screen names such as Henricus, Caesar, Ernestus, Caligula, Carusus and Aliosius Italicus. Many regulars make fun of their rabid fascination with Latin, happy to finally have found a community of Latinphones.
The participants tend to be academics or highly educated people looking to keep their translation skills from getting rusty. The vast majority are from outside of the United States--mainly from England, France and Germany.
Ernest Bennett, for example, is a retired university lecturer in biochemistry and molecular biology living in Buderim, Australia. He's been studying Latin on and off for more than 40 years and stumbled into online chat after someone informed him of the phenomenon at a dinner party.
One of Bennett's most interesting chats involved a point of translation of a Martial epigram. But he thinks the Internet has much broader potential for saving Latin from the linguistic graveyard.
"I believe it helps greatly," he wrote via email. "There are weekly audio current-affair broadcasts in Latin from Helsinki on the Net as well as many excellent sites."
Although it's made up of a small group of participants, the online Latin world seems to have almost as many rules as the complicated tongue has.
Following the rules
"The criterion for judging 'good Latin' in this context is, 'Would a Roman have understood it?'" said David Crowe, an international civil servant at the Council of Europe living in Strasbourg, France. "So neologisms and coinages are seen as novelties to be treated with caution."
One of the basic rules of online Latin, it seems, is that participants must strive for oratio pura--pure, correct language. Although they are popular with people who cannot speak Latin but are looking for translation help, chat rooms and newsgroups are no place for novices who merely hope to goof around with bad renditions of "I came, I saw, I conquered."
Most participants crave linguistic perfection and spend days poring over minutiae: hexameter, accusatives, nominatives, singular participles, and the meaning of phrases such as Gaza frequens Libycos duxit Karthago triumphos. (Some say it's "Carthage, crowded with treasure, celebrated Libyan triumphs," while others prefer "O Carthage, crowded treasure celebrated your Libyan triumphs," while a third group likes "Crowded Carthage led treasures in Libyan triumphs.")
Another rule: No respectable Latin chatter uses emoticons--glib bundles of punctuation meant to reflect a wink, smile, laugh or other expression of emotion. Instead, a joker might say, per jocum dixi (I said it in jest). When the clown wants to end his arcessitum dictum (joke) and return to a more serious tenor, he might interject, remotum joco (roughly: "joking aside").
To be sure, it's tough to command fluency in a language that hasn't been spoken much in 500 years. Most participants in online chats quickly admit to having inconditum dicendi genus (a rough, unpolished style).
In fact, although real-time conversations take place on a number of sites, most Latin sites are message boards specializing in Latin-to-English and English-to-Latin translation.
Hartmut Gastens, a teacher of Latin and theology at the Werner-Heisenberg Gymnasium Neuweid in Urmitz, Germany, said the best thing about the Internet is its ability to foster worldwide collaboration among a relatively esoteric group of people.
"It's more the thing to think problems with other eyes," Gastens said, equating Latin to a process or journey that can take multiple forms--to which participants may reply:
Vale and bene ambula et redambula.
Goodbye, and a safe journey to you.
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