On Latin as a Language


On Latin as a Language

Elsewhere in the blogworld I have seen the claim that "Ecclesial Latin is an objectively more beautiful language. . ." I assume the comparison was to English.

Now, this comes as news. I did not realize standards had been established and instruments developed to quantify beauty in any existing thing, much less language. Such objective standards had somehow eluded me in the course of my studies.

Beauty is difficult to describe, much less measure. Is Latin a beautiful language? I don't know--I can say that I haven't been particularly impressed with the spoken version of the language that I have had opportunity to hear, and I have been profoundly moved by the sung version. The same might be said of many languages--German, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, all of which is meaninglessly subjective. To my ears one of the loveliest of languages is Hawaiian, but I cannot quantify its beauty, nor can I suggest an objective measure for the beauty of language.

Latin may be many things--it is certainly a "fixed" language offering limited opportunity for enhancement or change, it is a language with tradition within the church, it is a "universal" language in that it does not change. It presents some difficulties. Being a fixed language, I would suspect that there are a number of modern concepts that are difficult to convey in Latin, thus it must be the work of a large committee sometimes to find the proper words for those documents promulgated in Latin. It is a language that must be translated to all others and the translations of which often involves the interpolation of numerous other words. An example from Lauds this morning: the Latin reads "radii ex manibus eius," which means, literally "rays out of his hand." The English translation "rays flashed from his hand." There is no verb in the phrase, we must provide one. Context gives us a suggested word, but we could put just about anything there and still be erroneous in our translation--rays trickled out of his hand, rays jumped from his hand, rays bounced from his hand, rays radiated from his hand--doesn't matter, there is no verb, so we must supply one.

At any rate, I belabor the point. The use of Latin in the Church is merely and entirely a preference with strong traditional backing. One cannot argue beauty or accuracy (unless one is completely fluent in Latin and understands every syllable) or any other criterion for its preference other than a personal experience. And that is enough. We need provide no more justification for Latin than the fact that we like it. I like the sound of a sung high Mass. I've never been present in a Church during one, but I suspect that it might also be very beautiful. However, there is a part of me that says as wonderful and as lovely as it might be, I suspect that the Lord values more my plain, stumbling English words in which I offer him my love and my life with a full understanding of what I do.

I guess I veiw the whole vernacular/Latin thing as largely a Mac/PC thing. In the Mac/PC debate you have partisans on either side who have remarkably good arguments for their support of a given platform. But the reality tends to be, whatever it was that you did your first major work on tends to remain your platform of preference. So, too, with Latin and Vernacular. Those raised on the Latin Mass are right to treasure that wonderful heritage. Those of us who have not been may admire the beauty from afar, but (particularly those of us with Protestant backgrounds) might have some reservations about praying in a language we do not completely understand. How can I offer God my understanding if I have none, how can I participate in Mass if I don't really know what I'm saying, and if what I'm saying is merely the recitation of words and not something that has rooted meaning for me? I can mumble the Latin with the rest of the congregation--but as with liturgical Slavonic in the Byzantine Church, I may just be saying words.

So, I enthusiastically support those who love Latin, but I refuse to be seduced by arguments that invoke "objective beauty" of a language, or which posit some sort of superiority of expression and reflection due to the fact that the language has been, for all intents and purposes dead for centuries. English is still one of the finest languages for nuances of expression and for conveying ideas and notions than almost any other. It has its shortcomings and its difficulties, but it can be a language of remarkable beauty (see the KJV psalms, or Dylan's Favorite the BCP of the early 18th Century--sorry can't remember the exact date.)

So, I'm not arguing against Latin. I would very much like for the Latin Mass to be more universally available, even though I would likely not go to it often. But I do not like to see weak arguments used in support of a notion that should not need defense. His Holiness has encouraged us in attendance at the Latin Mass and has encouraged the use of the Indult given for the Tridentine--that should be sufficient for anyone. Latin needs no defense, and it certainly deserves better than a false appeal to some form of objective beauty that cannot be measured.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 10, 2003 8:15 AM.

Rahner Again [warning: syntactical maelströms was the previous entry in this blog.

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