Performing Latin: A Part for the Ages

“That’s Latin, darling. Evidently Mr. Ringo is an educated man. Now I really hate him.”

Bold words from the 1993 film Tombstone capture just what Latin means to modern ears. Preluding a standoff, the two gun-slinging outlaws Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday converse in the old tongue before bewildered spectators, until Holliday reveals them both to be braggarts of their intellect. They duel in words and arms on a 19th-century Western frontier, ages after Latin has fallen from the grace of common speech, and yet their knowledge shows how Latin, like any ancient relic, finds new life in represented meaning.

1407 Latin Malmesbury Bible (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The 1407 Latin Malmesbury Bible | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those who say Latin is dead simply don’t know its immortality. To many, language development depends on its ability to grow, fluctuate, and diversify according to its needs, all of which hinge on the number of its speakers and writers. Language development, however, is itself a variable process, unique to each language. Such is the case with Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. Rome once encircled the known Western world, and with her power and customs came her method of speech. Across territories so vast, accents were born and dialects thrived, but once the empire fell, these regional differences became the full-blown languages of newly distinct territories. For centuries after, Latin withered as a common tongue. Where it fell in daily conversation, however, it prevailed as the language of knowledge and learning, a trend in development to this day.

Unlikely Survival

The fall of Rome heralded Europe’s notorious dark ages. Education became a rare privilege, written materials a luxury, and literate eyes a hot commodity. The few scribes available were typically cloistered monks who devoted their lives to the preservation of text, exchanging manuscripts across thousands of miles in order to transcribe copies of their own. Though scarcely found, these volumes held one thing in common: they were penned in Latin. Being the life of both Church liturgy and Roman literature, Latin found survival in these scribes’ weathered hands and soon became synonymous with knowledge itself.

Communities grew and put Church life at the centre. With the churches came universities, formed to train young men to think and lead, and at every step of the way, they were taught in Latin, the hallmark of the learned. Leaders needed reasoning. Reasoning needed knowledge. Knowledge needed access. And access meant Latin. The powers of Europe grew, along with the leaders who wielded it, and often they identified their equals by way of the ancient tongue. In 1593, the legendary Irish chieftain Grace O’Malley sailed to England to settle terms with Queen Elizabeth I, a meeting which took place in Latin.

The meeting between Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The meeting of Grace O’Malley (left) and Queen Elizabeth I (right) in an illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some traditions hold that O’Malley’s Irish upbringing taught her no English along the way, and for the sake of understanding, the women conducted their business in the one language they shared. Whether O’Malley spoke English or not, however, seems irrelevant. What seems relevant is that these two women held their meeting in the presence of the royal court, an audience to witness their performance which cued the Latin itself to become a means of posturing. Neither could flinch from what the other had started, each formidable woman brandishing her wits. The ladies’ command of the language put them not only on learned grounds but on ancient grounds, too, handed down to them from the Roman Empire itself, and with that grounding came authority. Like knowledge before, Latin was now binding itself to the performance of power.

[Latin] find authority and wisdom in its age because culture has been taught the value of its performance.

Hail the Conquering Tongue

Performing power became a standard that European conquerors carried across the globe. Colonies the world over sprang up with the customs and culture of their European settlers, including a reverence for the Romans of the past. Latin itself was a pillar of education throughout the British Empire. Colleges in America uniformly sought to instruct their pupils in Classical studies, pupils who later forged a nation built on models from Roman society. Today, myriad Latin witticisms decorate all manner of civic business in the United States, conferring its architecture, laws, and currency with a degree of ancient power. The founding fathers themselves understood the authority that Latin and other symbols of Roman strength would give their fledgling nation, even if only for the sake of appearances. Some pertinent words of wisdom they certainly embodied come from the Roman poet Virgil: “Possunt quia posse videntur,” or, “They can because it seems they can.” In other words, the founders knew that half of power was performing it.

Leaders needed reasoning. Reasoning needed knowledge. Knowledge needed access. And access meant Latin.

In the 21st-century, Latin’s role as the language of authority is not its only use, but it is one of the crucial paths it’s taken to survive. Leaders like Napoleon and Mussolini gave their followers outrageous feelings of power by resurrecting the customs of the Classical world, its fashion, its architecture, and even its very language. Past cases of this Roman-based nationalism show zealots who manipulate tradition to elevate themselves while alienating outsiders, with perhaps the most famous instance hailing from Nazi Germany. Hitler and his regime built their entire enterprise on the idea that the future was theirs because their past was inherited, and they constructed that idea through the artistry, customs, and language of the Roman Empire, a trend called neo-Classicism. Buildings were erected with domineering columns. The Nazi salute mimicked the style of Roman military. Even the golden eagle, once the standard of Jupiter, became the standard of the Third Reich. With the benefit of hindsight, this wielding of an ancient identity was undoubtedly a means to a dire end, one that oversaw devastating division, destruction, and death.

The Nazi salute on the left; "The Oath of the Horatii" by Jacques Louis-David (Source: Various/Wikimedia Commons)

Left to right: The Nazi salute; the 1784-85 neo-classical oil painting The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis-David | Source: Various/Wikimedia Commons

Latin Takes a Bow

Like Queen Elizabeth and Grace O’Malley, Nazi-era Germans used relics of an older world to garner their eminence. Though they far exceeded the posturing of the English queen and her Irish opponent, they used the same principle to ground themselves on an identity long-since established, claiming descendancy from a power that encompassed all of Europe. This power they performed to the world, their audience.

Language is nothing if not a communal identity.

Expecto Patronum (Source: Harry Potter Wikia)

The infamous Patronus charm or Expecto Patronum, (a spell to bring a wizard’s spirit guardian to life), derived from the Latin ‘patronus’ (from which we get the word ‘patron’), which means “an influential person who has undertaken the protection of another” | Source: © Harry Potter Wikia

The survival of Latin shows just how much it thrives on performance. To call it dead because it’s no longer a native tongue doesn’t quite capture its current state of being — one of symbolic communication; one that commands the authority of the past to build a present identity. Like all performances, though, Latin requires an audience, one that understands its meaning, and to that end, Western education has served two purposes: training its performers while instructing its audience. Without world leaders to recognize their intent, the American Founding Fathers wouldn’t have fitted their Republic with Latin symbolism. Nor would Mussolini or Hitler have given their followers an identity to relish. Without widespread recognition, the performance falls flat, and the common thread that has ensured this recognition for centuries is a common model of education. From the days of the monastic scribes, Latin has perpetually won its place as a tenet of higher learning. Institutions both religious and secular have welcomed its part in the training of young minds, and throughout history, masters of the subject have been lauded for what’s seen as a flexible intellect. The notorious playwright Oscar Wilde mastered Latin and Greek before beginning his career. Jesuit priests for centuries have schooled their pupils in all things Classical. Even J.K. Rowling’s cherished Harry Potter books are coloured with the Latin she studied in college. Though once a sign of pure privilege and power, Latin now reflects an expansive model of education.

As modern culture performs Latin, the closeness and distance illuminate both past and present.

Plot Twist: The Growth of Learning

"De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" by Copernicus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cover page for De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Copernicus’ landmark text that argued for a heliocentric model of our solar system | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Worldwide movement toward globalist thinking has paved the way for wider access to education, especially in the 21st-century. With Western learning reaching more minds, exposure to Latin has grown and accelerated, and even students who don’t study the language master its terms and phrases amid other subjects, like math, law, philosophy, and medicine. For centuries, Latin was the only permissible language to record any and all scientific studies, like Newton’s observations on gravity and motion, and for much of history, the trend looks like an engineered device to keep learning in privileged circles. The language of power fell to the powerful, after all. Recently, though, access to learning has moved beyond the wealthy, white, and male, and an ever-growing acquaintanceship with Latin is no longer just a sign of dominance but of democratized education. Modern students glean basic Latin words in topdown fashion from their studies. They can formally learn the language or gain informal knowledge through other paths, but whether they do or not, they join the worldwide audience to how it’s performed.

The survival of Latin shows just how much it thrives on performance.

A small example of this interaction comes in the form of a common English grammar lesson: never split an infinitive. English infinitives like ‘to be’ or ‘to go’ are always formed by the conjunction of two words. Latin infinitives, however, use one word to express these verb forms; being one word, they cannot be split. When 19th-century British imperialism revitalized its passion for Classical education, one effect was a strong discouragement of splitting infinitives in English, the idea being that the language would sound more like Latin. Mimicking Latin, the old language of power, could only give English more power in turn. Without a knowledgeable audience, however, this performance would mean nothing; it hinges on the expansion of educational access.

Robin Williams' famous line from "Dead Poets' Society" (Source: QuotesPics)

The famous quote uttered by the late Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society | Source:

The Story of a Global Community

Language is nothing if not a communal identity. In the height of its life as a common tongue, it swelled, dissipated, and chiseled itself into a finely tuned reflection of a people and their place in the world. One of the most fascinating aspects of studying Latin is seeing how it developed with the expansion of Rome, how new territories brought new flavours to the tongue, and how archaic Latin itself became aligned with the sophisticated and elite. Now as modern culture performs Latin, the closeness and distance illuminate both past and present. Formal insignia, legislation, and even tattoos don’t revert to Latin by coincidence. They find authority and wisdom in its age because culture has been taught the value of its performance. Like a totem or relic that offers a prudent reminder, people grasp Latin and feel the power of time and their place in it. They navigate their presence by knowing the story of their past. And a big part of that story is Latin.


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