He told me that when Rome fell in June 1944, his father cried Veni, vidi, vici in a crowd of revelers.
“Your father had a speech impediment?” I asked.
“Veni, vidi, vici is Latin for I came, I saw, I conquered,” he replied. “My father helped liberate Rome in World War II.”
He noted that after winning the Battle of Zela, Julius Caesar wrote Veni, vidi, vici in a letter to the Roman Senate.
“I consider my father a war hero,” he said. “If you come into the den and see his medals and citations, I’m sure you’ll concur.”
He was right. I came, I saw, I concurred. My admiration for his father was unqualified. Not because of his daring in battle, but in quotation. By the 1940s, Latin had fallen into such disuse, that if you cried Veni, vidi, vici in a crowd, many within earshot would think you’d been jabbed in the ribs with a boney elbow.
He told me that long after the Roman Empire disintegrated, Latin survived in the West as the language of scholars.
“Greek and Latin,” he said, “preserved the works of classic writers like Homer and Virgil.”
As the only Homer and Virgil I knew had been hired hands on my neighbour’s farm, I wasn’t impressed. They didn’t go to war because food production was considered an essential service. Besides, I suspect they would have had difficulty writing hasty notes, let alone classic literature.
“Ancient Latin,” he went on, “makes accessible some of the most remarkable authors of antiquity.”
“Maybe so,” I replied, “but modern English makes accessible some of the most remarkable authors of iniquity.”
“However, in recent centuries,” he said, “the use of Latin as the language of scholarship has declined enormously.”
“Along with some of the scholarship,” I replied.
“They say that Latin is a dead language,” he said. “But it’s not. It lives in scientific, legal, and ecclesiastic terminology and in mottos like Canada’s A Mari Usque ad Mare, from sea to sea. It is also the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.”
“From sea to Holy See” I noted. “That’s quite a stretch.”
“Latin may seem dead,” he said, “as it is no longer native to any group and doesn’t evolve through use …“
“Or abuse,” I interrupted.
“But it could spring to life by being spoken,” he continued “as Sleeping Beauty did by being kissed. In the meantime, if that is what we are in, it is considered a standard repository that protects the meaning of words from change.”
“Innocent or otherwise,” I added.
“Besides,” he continued, “there are signs of a revival. In some schools, Latin programs are growing and students appear to enjoy them.”
“Enjoy or endure?”
“As you study Latin,” he said, “the mechanics and structure of language become clearer. So a grounding in Latin makes other languages easier to acquire. What’s more, students who learn it begin reading Latin classics, which contributed immensely to our own literature.”
“You forgot to mention that they also find out what Veni, vidi, vici means.
“Because of its presumed precision and lack of ambiguity,” he said, “I expected Latin to be the official language at the 2014 Synod on the Family, as it was at earlier synods. Surprisingly, Pope Francis chose Italian.”
“Pope Francis is full of surprises,” I acknowledged.
“Beware of cognates,” he said.
“Are they on the prowl?”
“Cognates are words with the same root but not necessarily the same meaning.”
“Like cog and cognate?”
“Like valutando and valuing.”
“I’m not familiar with valutando.”
“It’s Italian for evaluating,” he said. “But in the Synod’s midterm report it was mistranslated as valuing, in a context that suggested a change in attitude toward homosexual orientation.”
“Something is on the prowl.”
“When they don’t have the same meaning,” he said, “we call cognates like valutando and valuing false friends.”
“Or true enemies.”
“Mistranslation is one thing,” he said. “Missed translation is another. In the final Synod report, the Italian version spoke of discerning how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family, founded on the marriage between man and woman.”
“Seems like sound teaching to me,” I said.
“Except that when it first appeared the English translation omitted the last eight words.”
“Are you suggesting that the translators might have avoided their missteps if the official language of the Synod had been Latin?”
“In your prayers for the dead,” he replied, “remember the dead language.”