Latin is all around us

Alternate Title: Latin Actually

When I assert that Latin is all around us, I can’t really take my desk as an example, what with it having Leo in Latin in various forms as well as Lewis & Short’s A Latin Dictionary, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, and Conte’s Latin Literature: A History on the main level, let alone the assortment of Loebs, Oxford Classical Texts, Roman history books, Latin grammars, and translations of the ancients you’ll find in the vicinity of this space.

Nevertheless, I contend that this statement is true not only for me but for you as well.  I first coined this phrase, unconsciously snatched from a popular film, whilst talking with a Hare Krishna, of all times and of all places. He asked me where I was going, and I said that I was off to mark some Latin assignments. He was a bit stunned.

‘Where do people study Latin?’ he queried.

‘At the University of Edinburgh.’

‘Oh, cool. I didn’t think anybody studied that anymore. Why?’

I explained to the Hare Krishna that if he knew Sanskrit, he could come that much closer to the texts he was giving away on the street for donations. So also with Latin — a knowledge of Latin brings the reader closer to the great works of poetry and philosophy composed in this language from Virgil and Ovid even to early modern philosophers.

‘Not only this,’ I said, ‘Latin is very useful, because it’s all around us. I like living in places like Britain and Canada, because I can show you very easily.’

Then, using a trick shown by Richard Burgess in Introduction to Roman Civilization in my first year of undergrad, I pulled out a coin. On any piece of British or Canadian money, you will find on the reverse around the image of HM Elizabeth ‘D G REGINA,’ and on larger British coins, ‘D G F D REGINA.’ This is coin-speak for ‘Dei gratia Regina,’ and, ‘Dei gratia fidei defensor Regina‘ — ‘Queen by the grace of God,’ and ‘Queen and Defender of the Faith by the grace of God.’

Coins are not the only Latin lurking around the corner, however. At the University of Ottawa, we were also directed to the podium with the university arms on it. The motto, ‘Deus Scientiarum Dominus Est’ — God is the Lord of Knowledge(s). Here in Edinburgh, many mottoes abound on the stone buildings. Admittedly, many of them — such as the Central Lending Library’s ‘Let There Be Light’ — are English (or perhaps ‘Inglis'[?] as the old St Cuthbert’s Co-operative building on Fountainbridge: Hae God hae all.). But many others are Latin.

Latin mottoes and inscriptions are scattered, for example, throughout Edinburgh Castle. As well, there is a motto in the old building that now houses Hank’s Sandwich Shop on Fountainbridge St. On Dalry Rd, a building built in the year 2000 has a coat of arms with the motto: Discimus. The Usher Hall’s ceiling has the City of Edinburgh arms, complete with the motto: Nisi Dominus Frustra; a paraphrase from ‘Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain who build it,’ (Psalm 127:1).

Latin is to be found in many abbreviations: i.e. = id est; e.g. = exempli gratia; am = ante-meridiem; pm = post-meridiem; AD = Anno Domini; RIP = requiescat in pace.

Whole, intact Latin words have made their way into English speech as well. Some words are almost wholly naturalised, such as mores. Others, such as status quo or et cetera are more clearly Latin. While they cannot be cited ad infinitum, I won’t go on ad nauseum to make my case almost ad absurdum.

Then we have the many words that infiltrated English from Latin early on or via French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and have been completely transformed. These are often scientific or judicial terms (like scientific and judicial). Homicide is from Latin. Cardiovascular is likewise Latin-based. However, many normal words are also Latin-based, such as … well … normal. And move, dictionary, empire, month, annual, chapter, universe, pork, and so on and on and on.

These Latin words, however, do not make English a Romance tongue. You who know the roots of words can agree that the last sentence shows it. Our basic syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are Germanic, even if the words syntax, grammar, and vocabulary are not.*

In sum, Latin is all around us. This, as well as access to some of the world’s greatest literature, philosophy, and theology should alone make you want to learn it. 😉

*A French Canadian (engineer!) tried maintaining once that English is a Romance language. Also, an Iraqi and Egyptian I met in Paris think that Coptic is related to Greek because of the alphabet and loan words. Coptic is Afro-Asiatic like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic!


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