Lingua Franca, January/February 1994, Field Notes


Fifteen hundred years after the Vandals sacked Rome, classical Latin is back in fashion. Two Finnish classics professors have started an all-Latin weekly news program, Nuntii Latini on Radio Finland. Iaser Arafat et Jizhak Rabin epistulas alter alteri miserunt, began a recent segment on the pax Middle East. Quibus Organizatio Palestinae Liberandae et Istrael se invicem agnoverunt. The show is transmitted internationally by shortwave, and it is the only Radio Finland program that gets regular fan mail from all over the world. It even got a complimentary letter from that Latinist of Latinists, the pope.

The professors who started -- Tuomo Pekkanen of Jyväskylä University and Reijo Pitkäranta of Helsinki University -- are in the vanguard of a mostly European movement to restore Latin to daily speech. Pekkanen teaches in Latin, writes letters in Latin, and speaks to his colleagues in Latin. "I think my Latin is better than my Finnish," he says. He would like to see Latin revived as a pan-European language, the way Hebrew was revived in Israel, but realizes that, "of course, it would take considerable political will."

Iaser Arafat et Jizhak Rabin epistulas alter alteri miserunt, began a segment on the pax Middle East. 

The show traces its origins back four years to the time Hannu Tannila, a producer for the Finnish state radio station, YLE, decided to deliver part of a broadcast in Latin as a joke. ("We don't think of it as a joke," says Pekkanen when reminded of this. "Latin is a serious business.") Tannila hired Pitkäranta to translate the broadcast for him; Pitkäranta confided to Tannila that European Latin scholars had been speaking Latin among themselves for years. Charmed by this notion, Tannila asked Pitkäranta to write an experimental news segment in Latin, which would be inserted in a popular-science program. After the broadcast, YLE was deluged with enthusiastic phone calls from closet Finnish Latinists. Pitkäranta recruited Pekkanen, his colleague and former professor, to co-write more segments, and by June 1990 they had their own show.

"The grammar of our broadcasts is perfectly classical," says Pekkanen, "and all the words appear in classical texts. Everything, even today, can be expressed in Latin." Of course, for some concepts, words must be combined in ways their original users could not have foreseen: the Academy Awards, for example (praemia Angariana), and the greenhouse effect (phaenomenum tepidarii hortensis). Pekkanen and Pitkäranta take turns writing the shows, which are read by Pitkäranta and Pekkanen's wife, Virpi-Leena Seppälä-Pekkanen. "We wanted a young woman's voice," Pekkanen explains. "Latin has suffered from its association with older men and clerics." The professors sometimes share writing and anchoring work with their students, ensuring a supply of trained Latin newswriters for the future.

A mass-market Latin radio show is a dream fulfillable perhaps only in Finland, where half the population has studied Latin in school. Still, Pekkanen reckons that 15 million other Europeans are capable of understanding the program. Even America may have an untapped market for Nuntii Latini: Ed Murphy, for instance, an earnest literature major who graduated from the University of South Florida last year, tapes the show off his shortwave radio and translates it for fun. "To see Latin used is something we don't get enough exposure to," he says. --Diana ben-Aaron