With media outlets taking notice of the unexpected success of the Pope's tweets in Latin, a scholar conversant in the language finds it remarkable that so many are interacting in the “dead” tongue.
With 123,000 followers, @Pontifex_ln is actually seen by more Twitter users than are the Pope's tweets in Polish, German and Arabic. Not only are the tweets being read in Latin, some users are responding in kind.
“It's quite remarkable that the Latin Twitter account is so lively,” Dr. Timothy Noone, a philosophy professor at Catholic University of America, told CNA June 26.
“Insofar as you consider Twitter as just a new way to communicate, I'm not too surprised. What's more surprising is how many people still feel comfortable writing the Latin language.”
“That's a bit of a surprise, and very pleasing, actually,” added the scholar, who specializes in medieval metaphysics and epistemology, and in particular the thought of Blessed John Duns Scotus.
Twitter is used to send short messages, restricted to 140 characters. Noone said this length requirement means that tweets can be either “pretty mundane” and “everyday communication,” or “extremely profound.”
“You can say something extremely profound, but in a way that's cryptic, like an aphorism.”
Pope Francis' latest Latin tweet – or as Father John Zuhlsdorf has suggested, “pipatum” – reads “Domine, largire nobis gratiam plorandi indifferentem animum nostrum necnon immanitatem quae in mundo et in nobis insaeviunt.”
It is a translation of the same day's English language tweet, “Lord, grant us the grace to weep over our indifference, over the cruelty that is in the world and in ourselves.”
The rather high level of interaction with the “pipati” counters the claim that Latin is “dead,” Noone said. He noted that he and several of his colleagues can speak the language, and that other languages which had fallen into the disuse typical of Latin have actually been revived.
He noted Irish Gaelic, which was spoken by less than three percent of Irishmen in 1922, but by nearly 40 percent today; and Hebrew, which was used only by rabbis and particularly devout Orthodox Jews, but is now the national language of Israel.
“It's not true, what people tend to assume: namely that when a language has gotten below a certain threshold that it is impossible to revive,” Noone said. “The counter examples are pretty clear. If there is a concerted effort with will and resources it can be revived to being read, written and spoken. This can be true of Latin today.”
He said this, noting that “it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the Latin language for understanding Western culture.” Any important work of medicine, literature, poetry, philosophy, or theology written in the West from 400 to about 1450, “will have been written in Latin.”
“The real problem is literature: if you cut yourself off from Latin, you cut yourself off from a huge piece of the collective experience.”
Noone urged that aurality, the 'heard' quality of a language, is important, and should be promoted for Latin. “Reading a language is one thing, but reading writing and speaking a language requires a certain aurality.”
He suggested that the Church could help to “forward that process,” and wondered if the Pontifical Academy for Latin, set up by Benedict XVI in November, will help to aid in this process.
Indeed, the academy's aims include promoting “the use of Latin in various contexts, both as a written and as a spoken language.”
Noone said, “we have to change how people teach Latin,” emphasizing its aurality. Current methods treat it solely as a written language, and so teachers “in effect get only people who are visual learners to learn it well.”
He said the trend of classical education, from institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College to secondary and even primary schools, to include Latin in their curricula, is a boon to the language.
Latin instruction is correlated with higher performance on college entrance exams he noted, in a way that cannot be said of other languages, such as “Spanish or German, or even Greek.”
This is because Latin is inflected, meaning the ending of words changes depending upon their function in a sentence; “as a result, your mind becomes extremely active grammatically and that means in turn that you become much more cognitive of such correlations in other languages,” Noone explained.
“The Latin language helps to form your mind in a certain way … If you take a great writer of the English language, such as Cardinal Newman and you read his style, it's quite periodic. His sentences tend to get pretty long once he gets rolling.”
“And you look at the structure of the English and you realize: yes, this man knows Latin and Greek cold, because he wouldn't be able to do what he does with the word order if he wasn't telling us every second the grammatical relations within the clause. So there can be no doubt that it makes you a better user of your own native tongue.”
As the Pontifical Academy for Latin gets underway encouraging the “knowledge and study of Latin” particularly among priests and future priests, Noone said that introducing Latin into the Mass again, carefully and slowly, can help further familiarity and comfort with the language at the base of Western culture.
“I would say a good goal for people to shoot for in parishes is to have one Mass in Latin in each parish once a week. That way, people who are starting to revive the Latin language can go to that.”
Together with the establishment of the Vatican's Latin academy and the rise in Masses said in Latin, the more than 100,000 people reading Latin tweets will serve to help revive the Latin language.
Benedict XVI began tweeting in December in eight languages, the most popular of which are by far Spanish and English, at 2.8 and 2.7 million followers, respectively. Papal tweets are also sent in Italian, Portuguese, and French.
Latin was added as the ninth language for Papal tweets in January, after the Vatican received letters and tweets requesting the addition.