Is Latin still the "language of the Church"

Well, there is my question. If so, what does that mean? Official documents are written in Latin?
Why is it that a “dead” language would be the official language? My brother-in-law is a lawyer and he was explaining that Latin is used in law and medicine precisely because it is a “dead” language, meaning that it is not evolving and changing meanings. Latin words mean today exactly what they meant hundreds of years ago.
Additionally, Latin is a more precise language. True? Any examples?

Thanks,

Yes, Latin is still the language of the Church. All of her official documents are written in Latin. Your BIL is correct in saying that a “dead” language does not evolve over time, and is therefore more precise. An example is the Latin word vir. In English, we translate it correctly as “man”. In the translation, however, we do not know if it refers to a singular person or to the whole of mankind. In Latin, vir is very explicit: it refers to a singular man, not the whole of mankind. That is why in the Catechism, if the word man appears and it refers to a singular man, you will see (vir) after “man”.

There are times, however, when Latin may not be as precise, especially if we come to a word that didn’t exist in Latin (contraception, Internet, etc.). I’m not sure what the Church does at that point.

Hope that helps.

Yes.

If so, what does that mean? Official documents are written in Latin?

Well, that and then some. Latin is still the preferred language for liturgies, as well, for example.

Why is it that a “dead” language would be the official language? My brother-in-law is a lawyer and he was explaining that Latin is used in law and medicine precisely because it is a “dead” language, meaning that it is not evolving and changing meanings. Latin words mean today exactly what they meant hundreds of years ago.

Whether a language is “dead” or not has no bearing on whether it can be an official language or not. As you state, as a “dead” language, Latin does not undergo grammatical or idiomatic changes (maybe vocabulary as well). This simply ensures that the documents read the same way they did two hundred years back - imagine how much debate could be solved if the Constitution had been written such that it means the same thing now as it did when it was written. In general, it helps provide continuity in a way that many languages can’t. So perhaps in some ways, a “dead” language is preferable as the official language…

Additionally, Latin is a more precise language. True? Any examples?

Thanks,

I’ve never heard that claim about Latin before, so I’ll leave it to someone else.

Peace.

What a huge help, in just two posts! Thank you both so very much! Of course, I’m happy to have any more responses that anyone might like to give!

Fascinating!

Yes, the official documents of the Church are almost exclusively their Latin texts. That’s not really the case outside of the Holy See, though…

The Roman liturgy is officially written and celebrated in Latin, although it is permitted to celebrate it in the vernacular, but those vernacular translations are supposed to be made from the Latin.

Right. That way, a Church document written in Latin 10 years ago, and one written 100 years ago, and one written 1000 all use essentially the same vocabulary, and with the same meanings.

That’s generally true.
[INDENT]The translation may be weakened and made trite, for example, by the use of a single vernacular term for rendering differing Latin terms such as satiari, sumere, vegetari, and pasci, on the one hand, or the nouns caritas and dilectio on the other, or the words anima, animus, cor, mens, and spiritus, to give some examples. Similarly, a deficiency in translating the varying forms of addressing God, such as Domine, Deus, Omnipotens aeterne Deus, Pater, and so forth, as well as the various words expressing supplication, may render the translation monotonous and obscure the rich and beautiful way in which the relationship between the faithful and God is expressed in the Latin text. (Liturgiam Authenticam 51)

Also, I recommend to anyone who has questions about the value of Latin for the Church to read the 1962 (yes, that’s the same year Vatican II began!) Apostolic Constitution of Bl. Pope John XXIII Veterum Sapientia, on the promotion of the study of Latin. It’s straight from the Pope who opened the Council!

Throw the cow over the fence some hay.

What does that mean? Of course, we all “know” what that means. It means you pick up some hay, throw it over the fence, toward the cow, who is on the other side of the fence. But we know it not because of what the words actually say. We know it because that’s the only way to make sense out of the sentence. Although one could also interpret that to mean pickup the cow and throw her, because that’s what the words themselves mean. Latin doesn’t have that ambiguity. We know what it means now, but someone reading that sentence 3,000 years in the future who only knows that a cow is some kind of animal and hay is some kind of plant, might think that farmers (whatever they were) trew their animals back in 2009.

Another example:

Eats shoots and leaves.

This is the title of someone’s book about the English language. I recall two drawings.
In one, a panda bear is sitting there and the panda is eating shoots and eating leaves.

In the other drawing, the panda has a maching gun, and is leaving a restaurant.

Is it:
Eats shoots and leaves
Or is it
Eats, shoots, and leaves
???

In English it could be either one (commas are a late invention).

Many people think that wedding vows “should” say " 'till death do we part" because the sentence needs a subject “we” But “we” isn’t the subject; the subject is “death.” The object is "us."
We don’t part at death…
…death parts us.
We are the recipients of the act, not the active “do-ers” of it.
People don’t realize this because the sentence “till death do we part” sounds more natural to our ears. The proper sentence just doesn’t sound right, or it sounds archaic to some.

That’s the best way I can describe to explain how Latin is a precise language; by concrete examples.

I can give examples of how English is less precise, but without actually giving a long lesson in Latin grammar and vocabulary (which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to) it’s hard to actually articulate how Latin is more precise. In Latin, those ambiguities aren’t there.

In English, we usually put the subject of the sentence first, and the object of the sentence at the end. But by no means is this always done. Our words don’t change depending on how they’re used–in Latin they do. That’s why so many people use “whom” incorrectly. They think that because it’s at the end of the sentence, it’s the proper word. Likewise “This is him” rather than the correct “this is he.” Oddly enough it’s the proper form that sounds strange to us because we’re not accustomed to ending a sentence with “he.” Latin, on the other hand, because it is a “declining” language the words change depending upon how they’re used–not just the pronouns as in English but likewise the nouns, so regardless of their location in the sentence, the reader always understands which is the subject, and which is the object.

The priest elevates the host
Means that the priest used his hands to lift up the host.

Yet, we could also say:

The host elevates the priest
(think: “the host [pause] elevates the priest”)

Again, it means that the priest lifts the host, but it could also mean that the host lifts the priest from the floor. We only know the correct interpretation because we understand beforehand what’s being said. Latin doesn’t have that problem. We don’t always have the luxury of understanding the intent before we hear the sentence. In Latin, we don’t need to understand the intent, the words themselves express the intent because the words are more precise.

In English, we often have to look at the sentence, and understand what the speaker intends in order to understand the sentence itself (cow, hay). That means that we need some pre-existing knowlege of the intent before we can understand what’s being said. That’s why Latin is the better language for documents that must be interpreted precisely to convey the exact intent of the original writer. It’s easy to misinterpret English.

Yes, Latin is still the language of the Church. All of her official documents are written in Latin.

Latin might be the official language of the LATIN church, but the Latin church is not the totality of the Catholic Church.

I’d be interested in knowing where your brother-in-law read or heard that. I’m a lawyer but never have come across that proposition before. (Not that that makes it wrong. It’s just surprising to me.)

As far as I’m aware, the only reason that Latin is still used in law (in the U.S., at least) is that a lot of legal maxims and terminology go back to the English Renaissance or earlier, when all learned men read and wrote Latin, and legal culture tends to be slow to change. Nobody uses Latin to refer to any recently formed legal principles.
.

Well, I’m not sure if he meant that is the language* because* it is dead, but that it continues to be the language of law because it is “static” (his word).
:shrug:
It certainly made sense to me, but hey, what do I know?

This probably isn’t a reason, but it is an advantage: If the whole (Latin rite of the) church has at least part of her liturgy in Latin, and if all (Latin rite) Catholics know some prayers in Latin, it provides a continuity across national borders and across centuries. And using a “dead” language for that purpose manages this without making anyone learn someone else’s language. Of course, nobody’s going to deny that it is a lot easier for an Italian to learn Latin than a Chinese person, but still. You don’t have to worry about political difficulties.

–Jen

Why is a dead language the official language? It was the official language de facto since Peter and Paul went to Rome. When the two apostles got to Rome, everyone spoke Latin there. It’s been retained through the centuries as it progressed from living language to dying language (there was a point in time when the Romance languages were merely dialects of Latin spoken by the uneducated) to a scholarly language preserved by universities and churches to an effectively dead language that is only used for official documents and some liturgies. Prior to 1965, though, it was used for almost all liturgies within Roman Catholicism (even before the council, there were indults for vernacular masses, particularly for the purposes of evangelisation). The truth is, nothing officially changed, other than Vatican II said the vernacular was allowed to be used when it was beneficial. After that, though, most of the bishops and priests decided that it would always be beneficial to do everything in the vernacular. That doesn’t actually follow well with the documents from the council (which were all written in Latin), but it does seem to have been what happened.

I don’t buy it. I agree with Langdell, the reason Latin is used in the law is basically inertia. A phrase has always been used in a given way, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, even if the shiny new wheel would be simpler to understand for the common man. But there is nothing unique about Latin in that regard - consider the phrase “right to bear arms.” In today’s English, we would probably render that idea as the “right to carry a gun.” However, we continue to use the slightly archaic phrase because that’s been the name for the concept since at least the American Revolution.

[quote=Cluny]Yes, Latin is still the language of the Church. All of her official documents are written in Latin.
[/quote]

This is not true. First off, depending on what you mean by “written in Latin”… Few official documents are composed in Latin; they are generally composed in the working language of the dicastery or committee involved, and then translated into Latin. Secondly, official documents are occasionally promulgated in a vernacular language - either because they are targeted to a particular audience in some country, or because the translation into Latin is a slow process.

Ah! That would explain something I’ve wondered about – when you go to the Vatican website, the vernacular versions of a new document usually are made available before the Latin version. (E.g., Caritas in Veritate is not yet available in Latin.) That confused me, because I thought all the documents were composed in Latin.

This raises another question: Once a document has been translated into Latin, does the Latin version then become the “official” version, i.e., is that the version that people go to to determine what the Church really meant?
.

[quote="Langdell]Ah! That would explain something I’ve wondered about – when you go to the Vatican website, the vernacular versions of a new document usually are made available before the Latin version. (E.g., Caritas in Veritate is not yet available in Latin.) That confused me, because I thought all the documents were composed in Latin.
[/quote]

Yes, even at the Vatican few people are fluent enough that they can think and compose long-winded and complex thoughts in Latin.

I think that is often the case - for instance, the Catechism was originally promulgated in French, about 4 years before the Latin translation came out. But when the Latin was published, it was designated as the editio typica. On some other documents, such as Benedict’s Letter to the Chinese Church, although it is available in Latin, the supporting documents are not - I think it is a little tougher to argue that the Latin translation is the single definitive copy in that case.

Additionally, Latin is a more precise language. True? Any examples?

All languages express precisely what the native speakers need to say.

Some native Alaskan languages have over a dozen words for different kinds of snow.

Yet there is only ONE word in Latin for it.

And some Polynesian languages don’t even have a word for “snow”, which makes it difficult to translate a certain passage in Isaiah 1 (“Thought your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow”).

Semi on-topic…

outside of a college (I’m thinking home study) anyone have any recommendations for learning Latin on one’s own?

I have two books on learning ecclesiastical Latin: Primer in Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins, and Latin Grammar: Reading the Missal and Breviary by Cora and Charles Scanlon. I haven’t spent as much time with them as I should, but when I’m looked at them, they’re good. I favor the second.

There’s also this web site.

Thanks :slight_smile:

All languages express imprecisely what the native speakers are accustomed to saying.

Haven’t you ever been larning a language and learned a turn of phrase or a word that you wished existed in your own language, because it expressess something you would say? I have.

And as has been noted before, living languages change, meaning that frequently the same word (e.g. “gay”) will have multiple meanings at the same time depending on the age of the speaker. This can cause a fair bit of confusion even between contemporary speakers, and considerably more if you are trying to understand a work written a couple of hundred years previously.

BTW, the story about Alaskan languages having a lot of words for snow is generally considered by linguistic scholars not to be true. Not that it really matters, but as Catholics we’re interested in Truth. :wink:

–Jen

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.