Neo-Latin and Craft Latin:
Recent Trends in Rival Latinitates
Fletcher Bowyer Scrugg
Social Columnist for The Philological Weekly
“Classical Latin: First the Romans killed it, then the medievals worshipped its bastard offspring, then the Renaissance robbed its tomb and embalmed it, and finally the 19th century philologists dissected it and shelved the samples in the less healthsome sections of the library.” Raising a glass of unwatered wine, Grumby Kerr Mudgin added, “It is my job to revive the blessed thing whole and hearty,” and drained his glass in one go.
I had met Mr. Mudgin in the course of researching reactions to the publication of the second half of the Lexicon recentis Latinitatis, the dictionary of Latin neologisms compiled by the Vatican’s Latinitas Foundation to ensure an established Latin vocabulary for science and technology in the 21st century. Many observers greeted the publication with a measure of respect, if not loud huzzahs. Mudgin was not one of them. Since banned from several Internet forums and proud of it, Mudgin had proved himself a talented student of J.N. Adams in the give and take of Latinist responses to the Lexicon.
“While I’m heartened that the Church recognizes the need for a fully up-to-date Latin in the modern age,” he stated when I asked him to clarify his position, “I cannot accept the stodgy, garrulous, unadventurous mess of porridge the Foundation ladled out for us. It’s the ghastly sort of thing you’d expect of cow’ring tim’rous seminarians!” Setting to rest my vestigial worries of having stumbled into arrant ludditism, he responded to my query, “We need a vivid Latin, a fully oxygenated beast, if you will, as sleek and glistening as the technology it would describe, if we are to ensure a future for Latin in private industry.”
He expounded on this point at great length at our first face-to-face interview. “The Latin the Foundation would urge upon us is simply bloated and ungainly. This is the language of Catullus? No, this is the language of middle managers insulated from common sense and market forces.” He paused to sip his drink, then said, “In my first two years out of school, I had the misfortune of working for the Foundation’s Anglophone counterparts. ‘Our institution is devoted to diversifying the already multiply articulated components comprising the sum total of the various and varied social, economic, socio-economic, financial, technical, and technological undertakings ramified in and by our organizational structure and substructures, both macro- and micro-, and of ensuring sufficient resources to be allotted to meet the various respective demands necessitated by the requirements entailed by recently enacted and promulgated legislation and prospective legislation in the near future and the long term in the various sectors, fields, and areas that might be impacted potentially or in actuality by the respective provisions of concerned enactments.’ ”
He jabbed a finger into my chest and added, “I might have rubbed off some of the outer reaches of insanity there. It’s been a while.” After a pause he added, “It’s the sort of thing even good Latin couldn’t help, and bad Latin probably couldn’t make it much worse.”
I then asked him what objections he had to the Lexicon. He grimaced, “Why use two syllables when nine will fill so much more space? ‘Modem’ is a perfectly acceptable English word, and it would be perfectly acceptable Latin. The Foundation decided the ultimate source, ‘modulator-demodulator,’ was ever so much more acceptable. I’m not even sure if you’re supposed to decline both parts of that.”
“What would you suggest?” I asked innocently.
“What do you think? Vigor and brevity. Modem, genitive singular modimis, nominative plural modima. Modulatores-demodulatores? Modulator-demodulatores? Hell, give me my old 300-baud modem! I could download the entire Catholic Encyclopedia before I reached the damn hyphen in that clunker.”
After wetting his whistle, he continued, “Or try this on for size: Campus captivis custodiendis. That’s gulag. Hell, add in a properly-declined caninus somewhere and you’ve got a perfect term for the dog pound—and you’d finish reading The Gulag Archipelago before reaching the end of the phrase into the bargain! It’s both bloated and mealy-mouthed.”
He frowned and sighed, “Truth be told, it’s redolent of the many American pseudo-intellectuals who think Latin has only two declensions. It’s almost enough to make one regret the existence of such a fine language as Italian—the plural of tempus, and of course none of those doofuses would think to say ‘nominative plural,’ is clearly tempi, and the same with corpus. O morae, o tempi! Pfui! The Foundation at least makes use of the third declension... just not well.”
This was my introduction to the little-heralded but pugnacious movement of what its practitioners call “craft Latin.” Like small-scale producers of craft beers, men and women like Grumby Kerr Mudgin seek to spread a richer form of Latin than what they decry as the “Milwaukee pilsner Latin” purveyed by the Catholic Church. “The American beer industry had pretty well cut its product to water even before Prohibition,” wrote Æmilia Clotilda Furr, staff historian of the Kansas Institute for an American Latinity of Manhattan, Kansas. “Prohibition simply ratified the aqueous humor, if you will, of the American beer tradition when it was continued after 1933. The irony here is that the Church itself instituted Prohibition with Vatican II, and has yet to recover from the utter bastardization of the liturgy and the destruction of the only possible advantage the Church could offer to adherents of the one true Christian doctrine, which is something approximating an acceptable Latinity,” she explained to me. When I asked how a Latinist could condemn the consequences of Vatican II while hanging a portrait of Richard Hooker on her wall, she smiled sadly and said, “Yes, he was too much a latitudinarian in some respects. It was a brilliant strategy writing theology in the vulgar tongue, but a poor tactic for English Latinity, alas.”
The man most likely to be pegged as the intellectual leader of the craft Latin movement is Prentice Blanshard van der Bloemencorso-Vollenhovendaal. “Classical Latin displayed a profusion of glorious declensions that elided over time to the dull consistency of medieval Greco-Latinity.” After a fit of yawning, he continued, “This has only accelerated to the present day. Ask any student the proper plural of rhinoceros. Bless the stalwart few who dare to say it’s an English word with plural rhinoceroses, and if you’re truly lucky you’ll hit one of the Talented Tenth of a Percent and elicit rhinocerates. Alas, 98% of the time you’ll get rhinoceri—louts don’t even know medieval Greco-Latinity worth a farthing.” After glaring angrily at a corner of the room for a minute, he continued, “But then neither do their teachers.”
In his most influential work, Therapeutic Philology for Latinists, van der Bloemencorso-Vollenhovendaal gave a full résumé of attested Latin nominal declensions and made a number of suggestions for Latinizing recent vocabulary that caused great controversy among the three or four scholars who saw fit to discuss it publicly. While his suggestions are respected in craft Latin circles for their imaginative daring, relatively few have been universally adopted by craft Latinists, and his prickly personality has even alienated the few craft Latinists he has not scourged in his monthly newsletter, Delubrum Latinitatis pro Saeclo Adulterato, the editorial of whose first issue (to the extent one can distinguish the strictly editorial pages from the rest) was devoted to attacking the use of the first u in saeculum. Several of the names he named replied vociferously in rival newsletters, and his opening shots in the “Lexus debacle,” which constituted the entirety of the second issue, alienated the few craft Latinists he had not attacked in the first.
The basic matter under dispute was whether the car name Lexus should be treated as a third-declension neuter s-stem with nominative plural Lexora (van der Bloemencorso-Vollenhovendaal’s suggestion) or as a fourth-declension noun—and in the latter case whether it is feminine with nominative plural Lexūs or neuter with nominative plural Lexua. (It hardly needs saying that treating it as a second-declension noun was right out from the start for everyone involved.) However, the debate quickly spread to include such matters as the sexism inherent in making a car name feminine (with a mind-bogglingly abstruse detour into the Russian convention of making all non-Slavic women’s family names indeclinable), the merits of rival reconstructions of laryngeals in certain roots, and the details of the manuscript tradition in the Provence, and continues to rage to this day.
However, few craft Latinists see this as a problem. While van der Bloemencorso-Vollenhovendaal has been quoted as saying, “Whatever—let’s have fewer Latinists but better,” others like Mudgin take a longer, more sanguine if less sanguinary view. “We need debate. Latin belongs to anyone who learns it. Eventually the esthetically most pleasing philological renovations will win out, and eventually even the Latinitas Foundation will be forced to accept them. Sociolinguistic variation is a sign of health in a language; I welcome it, even when it’s put forward by a brain-dead braggart of unsanctified parentage like [van der Bloemencorso-Vollenhovendaal].” He ended with a parable for the age. “What is the proper declension of syllabus? It’s hardly a classical Latin word; it’s a medieval coinage based on a misreading of Cicero’s borrowing of the Greek σίττυβα, a parchment label. Some scholars say syllabus should follow the first declension; others, assuming it was a Greek loanword and originally a deverbal of συλλαμβάνω, said it should be the fourth declension. The content of the variation is less important than the fact of its existence. In short, Latin is a much more curious beast than the Church or the American pseudo-intellectuals realize, and our syllabus of reform is based on that fact.”