Latin, the Academy, and Other Things Related To Death

Inside of Rome,

Within the tiny country of Vatican City, sits this dude you might have heard of called the Pope.  As the head religious leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope is the highest authority in what is called the Holy See, or the central government of the Catholic Church, and here’s the interesting part: the official language of the Holy See is dead.  It’s Latin, and by linguistic definitions, Latin is deader than disco.  So why this zombie language?  And what does that mean?


To understand why Latin has gone the way of the dodo, I’ve got more linguistic principles for ya.  These two are the second batch (only one more after this!), and they’ll provide the foundation for a lot of our future discussion.  Once again, I am drawing most of my source material from O’Grady et al’s Contemporary Linguistics.  Since I’m not a student anymore, I don’t have to cite that any more thoroughly.  Being an adult is awesome.  So, first:

Universality: All languages are alike in certain ways

When you’re a native English speaker trying to learn Icelandic or Mandarin Chinese in a short period of time, it might sound outlandish to say that languages are more alike than they are different.  We are much more likely to see the differences, because what is foreign is much more noticeable, but honestly, most languages are incredibly similar in a lot of ways.  All languages have nouns and verbs.  All languages (that are spoken – we love you too, sign language!) have consonants and vowels, and all spoken languages have more consonants than vowels.  These are absolute similarities, but there are tendencies as well, like that most languages contain a nasal consonant ([n], [m], and [ŋ] in English), and if a language has a [f] sound, it probably has a [s] sound too.

Again, this doesn’t seem that incredible until you think about how different language COULD be.  I once read a SciFi book where humans encountered a species that communicated by changing their own genetic code.  Or what about the concept of telepathy, where ideas simply appear in the mind of another, instead of being filtered through a language?  When you consider that most human language is centered around auditory, tactile, and visual stimulation, it’s no surprise that human language is SO similar.

Mutability: Languages Change Over Time

Here’s where it gets interesting: one of the way that linguistics define whether a language is dead or not is by whether it has native speakers, or people that speak that language as their primary language.  That’s the thing with native language, though – if there are native speakers, those native speakers are going to change language in so, so  many ways.  In fact, language change is a sign of a healthy language.  One of the things that makes English such a prominent (and fucking difficult to learn) language is its tendency to change all the goddamn time.  But not all languages communities embrace this.

In France, there’s this thing called The Academy.  The Academy, in a nutshell, is in charge of deciding what changes are allowed to be made to the official language, in an attempt to maintain the integrity of French.  This has been particularly, well, political in relation to loanwords from English (iPod, Google, and other shit like that).  So what happens when you have a language that, in an attempt to “preserve its integrity,” made completely static?  That’s where you get Latin.

Latin is considered a dead language because there are no native speakers.  And native speakers require a language to change with them.  So, perfect preservation of a language is kind of like poisoning it and keeping it in a glass tube of formaldehyde in your basement to show your creepy-ass friends.

Most of this shit seems pretty irrelevant to our daily life, so let’s take a step back and look at the practical.  Did you know that the Oxford Dictionary added duckface to the dictionary this year?  Now, how many of your obnoxious Facebook friends would see this and complain about somebody “ruining” English?  Ahem.  Formaldehyde.

Language changes.  Language change is healthy.  It shows that the speakers are creative, developing, adapting, and thriving.  I bet you never thought you’d hear the argument that the word “bling” was justification of humanity’s evolution.  But it is!  This is where people who care about language have a responsibility to defend language change.  Obviously, there are times and places for language change.  When clarity of communication is important, it might not be the best time to bust out your new subject-object inversion.  But to think that language change should stop, because the language is fine now it is?  Noooooope.

The Principle of Mutability is really good to know as a non-linguist.  Defending against language change is something people have been doing for thousands of years, and it can really lead to stigmatizing and marginalization – we’ll talk more about dialectology later, but slang gets it the worst.  Be aware.  Language is supposed to change, and anyone who thinks it shouldn’t be changing doesn’t know better.

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