Et nunc verbum de sponsore nostro

By Matthew Leigh Embleton, UK, Kent 

Every language has its own unique tones, shades, and rhythms, which have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. In middle school at the age of 9, French was the only lesson where I was ever ‘top of the class’. Being able to speak another language seemed to offer my imagination a chance to step out of myself and into another persona, with a completely different palette of expression at my fingertips. It gave me an outside view of English. I liked to write lists, both on paper and in my head, of related words, interpreting their patterns… ‘Three, trio, third, triple, triplet, triad, triceps, tricycle, tertiary’, etc. which to everyone else seemed utterly ridiculous and worthy of scorn. I was undeterred however, and I stubbornly carried on regardless. What fascinated me were the similarities between English words, and French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. My French teacher kindly gave me an overview of Latin numbers, and the seeds were sown. Latin mottos caught my attention, and I enjoyed taking them apart and working out which words meant what. I constructed my first Latin dictionary of sorts by deconstructing pages of Latin mottos into a spreadsheet.


Latin has something magical about it, a kind of overarching majesty, as if one who experiences it is looking at something spectacularly grand, beautifully ancient, and full of eloquent wisdom. Etymologically, every other word seems to lead back to Latin, like so many branches leading back to the root of a giant tree. Brief periods of sporadic interest and enquiry gathered in frequency and depth until I admitted my obsession to myself and collected all the books, software, and texts that I could. I printed out pages of short Medieval Latin texts to read on the daily commute. On a good day in the office, a term or phrase would come up in conversation, and someone would ask me something like: “What’s an ‘interlocutor’? What does it mean?” (inter = among + locutor = one who speaks’, a go-between), or “Why do people write ‘stet’ when marking documents?” (stet = ‘let it stand’, i.e. ‘leave this bit as it is’).


Acknowledging the debt I owe to those who tolerated me, I began to speak Latin, to sound it out, to everyone whose ear I could borrow and to those people I knew who spoke Romance languages, just to see how much of it they could understand. I often heard the phrase “Latin is a dead language” said in a very pragmatic and matter-of-fact kind of way, as if it were the comment-to-end-all-comments on the subject. It does sound like a convenient factoid, but the truth is actually more interesting. The period we call ‘Classical Latin’ came to an end around 200 CE, but Latin continued to live on. Much of the education of Latin is based around works of this period, which are elevated in their formality, construction, and art of rhetoric. There was also the informal, the sermo vulgaris (common speech) otherwise known as ‘Vulgar Latin’. This was not a separate language, but rather the informal part of it… What interests me is when this language is brought to life.


The 2004 film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was a significant groundbreaking moment in film history. Translated into Latin and reconstructed Aramaic by professor William Fulco, the Ecclesiastical pronunciation of the Latin was favoured over the Classical, so that it would seem more familiar to the majority of Catholic film goers with an experience of Latin Mass. In contrast, there is also the rough-around-the-edges ‘street Latin’ of the soldiers who torment Jesus (‘aspicite illum!’ = ‘look at him!’). Some of the more crude comments in the torture scene are not subtitled, so as not to offend those same Catholic film goers, but their meaning can be guessed.


Another choice made was to incorporate deliberate mistakes in pronunciation and grammar when characters would have been speaking a language unfamiliar to them. After all, this is the far eastern Roman province of Judaea, governed by Romans who would have come from all different places across the empire, all speaking slightly differently, and with differing accents.


In one scene Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov) interrogates Jesus (Jim Caviezel) using his working knowledge of Aramaic, but Jesus replies in Latin, which surprises him and his right hand man Abenader (Fabio Sartor). Jesus’s Latin was either perfect (the divine power of speech in all tongues divinely given), or it was pretty darn good, certainly enough to surprise them, even if he did drop some of his vowels or have a bit of an Aramaic accent.


In another scene Pontius Pilate and his wife Claudia (Claudia Gerini) discuss the concept of truth. Maybe Pilate does have one or two velarised and un-geminated ‘L’s, glottal stops between vowels, and a slightly different vowel spectrum, something that only the most hardcore Latinists would notice, but all of this pales into insignificance when tuning in to the passion of his performance, his frustration is very real. In the midst of the tension and violence in the region that he has been ordered to manage, Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus has warned him that next time the blood will be his… The sequel, The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection is expected in cinemas in 2024!


The 2011 TV Mini-Series ‘The Destiny of Rome’ directed by Fabrice Hourlier dramatises the events around the assassination of Julius Ceasar, interspersed with commentary by experts. Mark Antony (Pavel Delong) gives several speeches while reconciling the senate majority, appeasing Ceasar’s veterans, and dealing with Ceasar’s assassins, the Liberatores.


The rhythm and emphasis in his speech is compelling, as one might expect from a Roman politician trained in the art of rhetoric. This actor is definitely not shy in diving in and getting his teeth into it, and he fluently fires out the words, pointedly placing every single one where he wants it to go, sounding punchy, clear, and sharp, and his rhotic rolling ‘R’s are excellent. When he pronounces the suffix ‘-que’ (an old form of ‘and’), he appears to have opted for the Germanic sounding /Kve/ rather than /Kwe/, which points to a phenomenon that occurred later on.


After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, Latin was still used as an official language in Western Europe. Vocabulary expanded as it absorbed words from local languages. But there were differences in each country between how they heard and interpreted these sounds in relation to their own, how they transcribed them, and how they read and reproduced them. This led to variations in sounds, spellings, and the role of letters in the Latin alphabet. The use of ‘U’ ‘V’ and ‘W’ did not become settled until around the 15th century. I imagine the plot of a novel where a German spy has perfected the language of a foreign country, right down to a pitch perfect accent, but is then asked to read a short passage in Latin, and inadvertently gives themselves away with ‘*kvid est veritas?’ (*quid).


The 2020 TV series ‘Barbarians’ shows the conflict between the Roman Empire and the tribes of Germania leading up to the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE. In episode 1 the Roman centurion Metellus (Valerio Morigi) announces to a village that every tribe must pay the value of 20 cows, or 50 local weights of grain, in three days. Morigi does a great job of bringing this centurion to life. As an Italian actor, he is well-placed to project the rich vowels and cadences of Italian into the Latinity of the character in a way that is convincing and compelling. Even if some of the vowels might be either slightly shorter or longer than expected to some ears, this is something only a seasoned Latinist would pick up on, and the power of the performance in the drama wins the moment.


Latinists have commented on some of the Latin spoken by actors, describing in fascinating detail how their approach to Latin and their pronunciation inadvertently reveals something of the actor’s own nationality and native language, such as the shape and placement of their vowels in some words. This variety of pronunciation and accent is perhaps similar to what we might have expected to hear around the Roman Empire too.


While a language consultant works on a script, the dialect coach helps the actor find their own voice in the script they are given, to make the language their own, to make it sound natural and believable. It’s a balancing act, if one is too showy or ostentatious it can lose its authenticity, also if one is not confident enough, ‘natural sounding’ becomes ‘hidden and mumbled’ and the meaning is lost.


There is a degree to which the context of a situation can guide the interpretation of a sentence, but don’t forget to pronounce your ‘R’s, otherwise you might accidentally tell someone ‘I am reading a cake’ (libum), rather than ‘I am reading a book’ (librum).



A Brief History of Latin and Romance Languages: With Texts, Translations, and Word Lists

By Matthew Leigh Embleton

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