Latin, the ‘undead’ language

16 min readSep 6, 2022

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Hub & Spoke, audio collective.

Patrick Cox: It’s a warm Saturday evening in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m sitting at a restaurant table with a half dozen other people. We’re outside, sipping drinks and chatting. Well, everyone else is chatting.

Sound of people talking in Latin

Patrick Cox: It’s a meetup for Latin speakers. There are teachers here. Students too. And former students: people who studied the language years ago. Everyone here just loves speaking Latin. Speaking Latin, you may ask? Isn’t the thing about Latin that people don’t speak it any more? Well, these people do. They talk about books and TV shows. They exchange jokes. But mainly they talk in Latin about Latin.

Abbi Holt: I’m Abbi Holt, I teach at the Middle School up in Arlington, and I teach Latin.

Patrick Cox: I ask Abbi to explain how this group of people — how any group of people — can agree on a way to pronounce the words. Abbi tells me there isn’t really a single standard. Latin was widely spoken for more than 1,200 years and then not so widely spoken for another 800 years.

Abbi Holt: The pronunciation changes over time. But yeah, we’re doing what we think is the closest to like Caesar and Virgil. And that’s based on things like spellings and the way poetry is written to sort of reflect pronunciation.

Patrick Cox: Poetry is revealing that way. Once you figure out which syllables in a poem are stressed and which words are supposed to rhyme, you’re part of the way there. But there are other complications. Accents and dialects came and went over time, so today’s Latin speakers are sometimes reduced to guesswork. And of course today in 2022, there’s, you know, modern life.

Abbi Holt and Diane Warne Anderson in conversation (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Abbi Holt: I mean you have to invent some new words for new things, but you try really hard to adhere to as much of the ancient language as possible, so that when you talk about a shower, you’re talking about a rain bath, balneum pluviale. Those are both ancient words. So it’s a way of trying to practice all the ancient words, but yeah, you got to invent new stuff. So here’s the great thing about Latin: it’s both dead in the sense that nobody is born — very few people are born and raised to speak Latin. There are a few out there. But it is changing a little bit, like we’ve had to invent gender-neutral language. And so it’s not totally dead. So I tend to call it “undead.” My students like it. The whole point is to read the ancient texts. You don’t want to zoom too far off.

Patrick Cox: So how much zooming off from ancient Rome should you do? How far is too far? People don’t agree but the conversationalists here, they’re pretty relaxed about talking about anything — ancient or modern — and occasionally throwing in an English word, like the title of a TV show. The point is to talk says Diane Warne Anderson. She teaches Latin at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She says her life was — and I’m quoting here — “transformed” after she went to a weeklong Latin-only immersion workshop.

Diane Warne Anderson: You come home and pick up a Latin text, and it’s like you gained ten years of experience in that one week, just because you were immersed in the language. All of a sudden it’s come alive inside your own head instead of being something separate from you on the page. Most of the people who are opposed to it have not given it a fair try.

Abbi Holt and Diane Warne Anderson in conversation (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Patrick Cox: From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle: stories about languages and the people who speak them. In this episode, why Latin? Why today? And how about tomorrow? Does Latin have a future?

Patrick Cox: Hi, Cristina!

Cristina Quinn: Hi, Patrick!

Patrick Cox: This is Cristina Quinn. Journalist, podcaster, former Latin student.

Cristina Quinn: I loved Latin straight out of the gate, like from Day One. I don’t know, it just really struck a chord with me. I started studying it in 7th grade, and I loved it. But the really big thing for me was realizing how it’s like the key to the English language. Suddenly this whole world of where English came from opened up to me. It’s like the key to the world.

Patrick Cox: Not that it felt that way at the start. Cristina went to Boston Latin Academy, where — surprise surprise — studying Latin was mandatory. In their first semester the students didn’t get into too much grammar. They just learned words, which Cristina got a huge kick out of.

Cristina Quinn: I just thought it was fun. Like, agricola (farmer), puer (boy), puella (girl). I think my friends and I, when we would nerd out, we would essentially just replace English words with Latin words. But we weren’t doing it correctly, like we weren’t using correct grammar, I was just peak nerd, peak Cristina, the nerd — straight out of six years of parochial school where we had to wear uniforms, I just had no sense of what was and wasn’t cool, so to speak. I mean, now I know I’m really cool. Clearly I’m so cool.

Patrick Cox: That’s Cristina, nerdy-cool, a high school category that didn’t exist in her time. But it very much does now. And without getting scientific about this, but I’ll venture to say that love of Latin gives you an automatic pass to join the nerdy-cool set.

Cristina Quinn and Patrick Cox (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Patrick Cox: when you were doing all of the nerding out, working Latin into conversations, did you have in your textbook sample conversations? Like with languages that are still spoken, there’s all of these dialogs that you go through and painstakingly try to figure out. Does that happen with Latin? Do you have like, a centurion chats with a Christian who’s about to be thrown to the lions or something?

Cristina Quinn: Would we time travel in our Latin-speak? No! It was far more pedestrian than that. We would try to have contemporary conversations using Latin. I remember being on the school bus and it was a field trip. And I remember the ambulance drive by, it has “ambulance” written on it. And I remember thinking to myself, “ambulance” comes from ambulo. Just little things like that, loving that I knew where that word came from. I just felt like everything clicked into place. I think knowing where the English language comes from and the majority of English comes from — from Latin and Greek — and just knowing that is really cool. And I think it’s really important. I think you’ve noticed that I have not described it as a dead language once during our entire call because it’s not dead to me. I think that’s insulting. It is not dead. It is very much alive in the English we speak today.

Patrick Cox: And also in the English the next generation speaks. Well, maybe.

Cristina Quinn: I have two daughters. And my oldest, who’s eight, if she asks me what a word means, I find myself telling her what it means, and then I’ll explain where that word came from if it has a connection to Latin. And so I actually have found myself more recently, in the last couple of years, really valuing that education, because it’s fun to pass that wisdom onto her. And even though she may not retain it because she’s eight and she’s like, “OK, yeah, whatever, Mom,” But I hope she has the opportunity to study it. The town that we live in doesn’t offer Latin, which bums me out.

Patrick Cox: Are schools in the US and elsewhere still teaching Latin? Do enough people still value it? Cristina wants to know. So she sets me some homework.

Latin conjugation song: “Amo amas amat”

Patrick Cox: Not that kind of homework. But I do find answers for her. That’s coming up.

Patrick Cox: It’s podcast recommendation time! Every other week, Our Opinions Are Correct takes on a topic that’s related to what we know — science — and to what we imagine — science fiction. That’s fertile territory for great discussion. Everything from the fate of the universe to how to write a good fight scene. The hosts of Our Opinions are Correct are Charlie Jane Anders, an award winning author of several science fiction novels, and Annalee Newitz, a science journalist who writes for The New York Times and The Atlantic. I especially like the episodes where they focus on something commonplace — like food, or crime, or money — and then they look at those things through the prism of science and sci-fi, which often changes how we think about them. The podcast is Our Opinions Are Correct. You know where to subscribe: Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else.

Patrick Cox: Hi again, Cristina!

Cristina Quinn: Hi, Patrick!

Patrick Cox: Long time no speak.

Cristina Quinn: I know, it’s been a while.

Patrick Cox: Well, guess what? I have some answers to your questions.

Cristina Quinn: I’m dying to hear them.

Patrick Cox: OK, so here was Cristina’s first question.

Cristina Quinn: So with curricula — that’s plural for curriculum — I am curious to know if Latin is in danger? Or if it’s on the flip side, maybe it’s thriving? Is it having a comeback? What are school districts doing to decide whether they should keep it or not?

Patrick Cox: Well, the answer to that is it’s yes and no. So for many years, for decades, in fact — basically the second half of the last century — Latin programs were in decline pretty much the whole time, and at times in pretty sharp decline. But more recently that has stabilized. The numbers are no longer going down. Maybe you can help me here, but it may be that what is left are the truly committed?

Cristina Quinn: Yeah, the holdouts, the guards of the ancient language. Perhaps they’re like the last holdouts.

Patrick Cox: Well, I have to tell you, I met some pretty committed people — deeply, deeply committed to Latin. I was impressed that, even though you can’t visit a country where Latin is the official language, it does not matter to these people.

More chat from the Boston-area Latin meetup group

Patrick Cox: So this is a group of people who meet every month in a public place and they speak, quite loudly, in Latin. They have these conversations in Latin.

Cristina Quinn: Really? Colloquial Latin!

Patrick Cox: Yeah, yeah! In case you’re wondering what they talk about, it’s not just, you know, chariots or gods or volcano eruptions, or something like that.

Cristina Quinn: “Vesuvius is at it again!”

Patrick Cox: No, the conversations don’t shy away from modern life. The thing that I really liked more than anything else was that they talked about a movie — I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie — called Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Cristina Quinn: Oh, my goodness. It’s my number one movie to watch, but I need to see this movie.

Patrick Cox: You do. But I have to tell you, I would struggle to explain what it is about in English, let alone in Latin. And then they were talking about it in Latin.

Cristina Quinn: I’m really curious as to how they were able to do that.

Patrick Cox: They did explain to me, as did other people, that there is a lively debate over conversational Latin, firstly, whether or not it’s useful. There are some people who think it’s a waste of time. These people obviously didn’t. But even among those who do embrace conversational Latin, there are various levels of comfort with how you come up with words for modern stuff, and whether you want to be grammatically correct, whether you flip to English just for the purposes of keeping conversation going. There’s just many different choices that could be made.

Cristina Quinn: I love it. So they — it’s almost like a bilingual conversation in many ways.

Patrick Cox: Yeah. although it’s 95 to 100% Latin, based on the time I spent with these folks.

Patrick Cox: Cristina and I also talked in our earlier conversation about a massive project called the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. Despite that word “thesaurus,” this is actually a dictionary, and people have been working on it for more than a century. And the idea is to list every word that we know exists in Ancient Latin — and to include every single citation of that word.

Cristina Quinn: That is quite the undertaking. And clearly none of these folks has ever heard of a deadline. I want to know how big is it. It’s got to be a tome. Obviously, it’s been digitized at this point, I would hope. I’m curious to know where they’re sourcing all of the words. I mean, you know, because there are. There is definitely a class system in ancient Rome, there are people who were far more educated than others. Are they including the words of the peasants? Oh, I have so many questions, this is a very exciting project, right?

Patrick Cox: There was only one place to get the answers. The headquarters of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, in Munich.

Adam Gitner: So, Adam Gitner is how I say my name. My title here in German is Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter. It’s hard to find an English equivalent, something like “scientific collaborator.” But you can call me a lexicographer if you prefer.

Patrick Cox: Adam told me a bunch of fascinating things about the dictionary and how it works, much of which I don’t have the time to list here. I get the feeling we’ll be putting out another Latin-themed episode sometime in the future. But here, at least, are Adam’s answers to Cristina’s questions.

Adam Gitner: So the first volume was printed in 1900. So they really started to print in alphabetical order very quickly. And we’re still moving in alphabetical order. So we’re working on “R” and “N” right now. We write articles now using Microsoft Word. The biggest change, though, has been the availability of databases that we can search. So we have a physical database with all of the occurrences of the words still on it written out, which we add to too, when new texts are found from our time period. But now we have databases that we can use to check the reliability of that information.

Cristina Quinn: Oh my goodness. It sounds forensic in a way. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but to me, it’s just so granular, you know?

Patrick Cox: And I love the fact that they’re still adding to it as they find this new original material.

Cristina Quinn: How do they keep unearthing new material? Like, where are they finding this new material?

Patrick Cox: Well, I don’t think they are finding it. I think they’re talking about new material, say at Pompeii or, you know, some other place that was covered in volcanic ash that, you hear about like occasionally, they got to the end of the street in one of these small towns that they hadn’t previously got to. So, you know, they got a couple more villas and then there were some inscriptions. And they have a whole new set of — that’s another two years added to the thesaurus’ end time.

Cristina Quinn: Amazing.

Patrick Cox: You also asked about the source material, whether the dictionary reflects the language of all people in society, not just the higher-ups.

Cristina Quinn: The patricians.

Patrick Cox: Adam had a very interesting answer.

Adam Gitner: Yeah, where to start with this, it’s a fantastic question.

Patrick Cox: Check, check Cristina.

Adam Gitner: One of the things that’s really revolutionary about the thesaurus as a dictionary is it gives equal weight to all of the evidence for Latin that exists. So someone who’s a really elite fancy speaker like Cicero or Virgil has the same space in the dictionary as a graffito that survives in a latrine in Pompeii. And these very different kinds of language users are coexisting. And the reason why a lot of 19th century dictionaries and even modern dictionaries — I mean, there have been other dictionaries in the 20th century of Latin — are inadequate is because they really fail to give attention to non-literary uses of Latin. And for us the non-literary uses of Latin are often more interesting than the literary uses because we have dozens of literary texts that use the word in a certain way. But sometimes a graffito in Pompeii preserves a meaning that otherwise we wouldn’t know about, and that sort of unique individual kind of occurrence is more interesting and more relevant to us.

Patrick Cox: Can you give me an example of a graffito in Pompeii? I’m interested to hear what holes it fills in our knowledge.

Adam Gitner: So you have, for example, someone writing about his girlfriend on the wall and he calls her regina, a queen. And he doesn’t mean that she’s literally part of a royal family. He means that she is a very precious part of a very precious person to him. This affectionate use of this word survives because someone happened to write it down, a kind of informal use of the word. There are all sorts of other non-literary texts that survive. So lots of army documents that give us the titles of Roman soldiers and that tell us about what they eat and the deliveries they make in Egypt and North Africa. So that gives us a different kind of access to everyday life. Of course, it’s always really hard to get at the lowest classes because these people aren’t usually literate. And when their language survives, it survives only indirectly through other people writing it down.

Patrick Cox: The last thing Cristina and I talked about in our first chat was the completion date of this dictionary, 2050, a cool 150 years after the publication of the first volume.

Patrick Cox: A dictionary that is so all-inclusive like that, the moment you hit the last word — I mean, if ever there was a time when you could say a language was dead, it would be when you finish the dictionary that is the never-ending dictionary. I have fears around that. I mean, you can’t ever say with English, currently spoken by billions of people around the world, you could never end the dictionary. You could only end it if people stopped speaking it.

Cristina Quinn: Yeah, like Merriam-Webster adds new words every year. I think there’s some words that I’m like, “Well, if I worked over there, I don’t know if I’d sign off on that one.” But yeah, that’s the end, Caesar’s not coming back with a rebuttal.

Patrick Cox: Mel Brooks may come back and add a word or two.

Cristina Quinn: Right. It kind of bums me out, too. But you know what? Because they’ve been working on it for so long, I don’t know if we’ll have to worry about that. Like, will they finish this in our lifetime? I don’t know.

Adam Gitner: Well, the thing is, when we finish — and we’re all really focused on getting to the end as fast as we can — there will be a need to go back and add things because there are new words in ancient Latin that have been discovered, beginning with “A” that were not included when the “A” volume was published. And hopefully there will be some way of including that information or processing that information. Maybe it would be another project. But the ambition, I think, will never fully be realized. So maybe that’s reassuring for you, because then the Latin language would never really be dead in that sense.

Cristina Quinn: Well, that gives me hope. That means that it’s still very much alive.

Patrick Cox: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I went into this episode kind of like I don’t really believe there is such a thing as a dead language, but I certainly had my questions about Latin. And I’ve kind of come out of it, no, I don’t think it’s a dead language at all. It’s clearly not. People are speaking it, the dictionary is still a dynamic thing. It very much has a place in the world.

Cristina Quinn: Yeah, as it should. I mean, just the idea of having to add to this dictionary makes it just like any other dictionary. I think that’s the coolest part. I love that. I want to get a copy of it in 2050 when it’s done. I’m going to go to my local bookstore, place an order.

Patrick Cox: Well, Cristina, thank you so much for telling me about why you care so much about Latin.

Cristina Quinn: And thank you for doing such a deep dive in and getting these really great answers that — I don’t know, they really sort of just give me all these positive feelings about Latin. And I love the idea that if anything, this is further incentive to study it because now there’s going to be this tome to refer to, should anybody want to pick it up someday if they didn’t get a chance to do it in school.

Patrick Cox: Many thanks to Cristina Quinn. Listen on to the end of this episode, and you’ll hear about her adventures in Italy. Also to Abbi Holt, Diane Warne Anderson and everyone else with the Latin conversation group. Thanks also to Adam Gitner, and to Charis Jo, aka Guenevera, whose ideas about Latin — how to think about it and how to teach it — well, they deserve their very own episode. Maybe next year.

Tina Tobey is our sound designer. Allison Shao manages our social media and newsletter. If you haven’t subscribed yet, the newsletter comes out every two weeks. It’s fun. It’s newsy. It can even be gossipy.

Subtitle is a member of the Hub & Spoke audio collective. It’s worth checking out all of the Hub & Spoke podcasts, but here’s one of them: Rumble Strip which tells extraordinary stories about ordinary people. If you haven’t heard the recent episode, “Finn and the Bell,” you need to right now. I haven’t heard a heartbreaking story told so movingly and respectfully.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Patrick Cox: Have you been to Rome? Have you been to Italy?

Cristina Quinn: I have not been to Rome. I have been to Italy. I was in Florence senior year in college, backpacking.

Patrick Cox: Was that exciting? Did you see any Latin graffiti?

Cristina Quinn: No. I mean, that’s the thing. There is nothing about that trip that I remember where I’m thinking, “Hey, look at all the Latin stuff.” Like, just no. But I’d like to provide the disclaimer that prior to going to Florence, we’d spent a week in Amsterdam. And it was my senior year in college.

Patrick Cox: I think I hear you.

Cristina Quinn: So, you know, maybe there’s just a lot I don’t remember.

Subtitle is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.




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