Latin a Dead Language? Not Really

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By making his historic announcement in Latin, Pope Benedict XVI breathed new life into the so-called dead language. In fact, a knowledge of the ancient tongue and the ability to understand Benedict’s XVI whispered farewell speech, allowed Italian journalist Giovanna Chirri to get the world scoop.

Chirri, a veteran Vatican journalist for Italy’s ANSA news agency, was the first to pick up the news of the Pope’s resignation.

“I understood it right away. It wasn’t hard to understand after so many years covering the Vatican,” Chirri said in an interview.

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“My legs were shaking, but I knew that I had understood it correctly,” she said.

Well aware that Benedict XVI’s announcement was something unprecedented in modern times, Chirri rushed to call Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi to confirm, but got no reply.

Confident in her Latin knowledge, Chirri decided to go ahead. ANSA broadcast the news at 11:46 a.m.: “Papa lascia pontificato dal 28/2″ (the Pope will leave the papacy on Feb 28).

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Later, Chirri, who in her Twitter profile calls herself an “unfashionable Vatican reporter,” played down her scoop by tweeting: “Benedict XVI’s Latin is very easy to understand.”

The official language of the Roman empire, Latin was the tongue of learning and science in Europe throughout the Renaissance and remained the language of the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Vatican II (1962 -1965). At that time permission was given to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular, or local people’s language.

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Latin gave rise to Romance languages, which include Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian. It is also central to the vocabularies of medicine, law and the sciences.

One of the last fluent Latin-speakers, Benedict promoted a partial return of the Latin mass. Last November he established the Pontifical Academy for Latin to support the study and spread knowledge of the ancient tongue, including ecclesiastic Latin.

“In a world dominated by social media, he chose Latin for his farewell. That’s so powerful,” the Italian daily Sole 24 wrote.

Ave atque vale, Benedictus XVI.

Image: Pope Benedict XVI performing a blessing in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Italy, on Sunday October 12, 2008. Credit: Jüppsche/Wikimedia Commons

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